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TRANSMISSION by Hari Kunzru. Dutton/Penguin Group (USA) Inc., New York. 384 pages. $24.95. www.penguin.com. www.harikunzru.com
Technology has not merely come of age; it rules the world. The completion of code. The click of a mouse. The blink of an eye. The world can now change that quickly. In the follow-up novel to his critically-acclaimed debut, The Impressionist, British author Hari Kunzru seduces his readers and takes them around the world via a cute and perky computer virus in Transmission.
Virginal and starry-eyed Arjun Mehta is about to see one of his dreams come true while making his father proud with a guaranteed, cushy IT job in the United States. Armed with an unimpressive but competent enough set of completion credentials, Arjun, an easily-distracted computer graduate, means to set the world on fire with his expected success. His first mistake, however, is not checking out the agency sending him to the United States or the American agency expecting him. Result? A cramped “corporate” apartment with a handful of other computer geniuses “sitting on the bench” while they wait for a company to interview and hire them.
As he waits for his dream job to materialize, the real world of California assaults Arjun—from SUVs to bisexuality to convenience stores to middle class (read: white) living. He finds that his cotton-candy fantasies of America—once as real to him as those fantasies he holds dear about his favorite Hindi film heroine, Leela Zahir—translate to down-and-truly-dirty fiction. Eventually, Arjun is rescued from a life of impoverished waiting by Virugenix, a computer industry company in Washington state. There, he moves off of the bench to Assistant Virus Tester, falls hopelessly into an overblown love-crush on Christine, a co-worker whose freewheeling lifestyle teaches him more about life than about style, and is handed a pink slip without warning when downsizing puts the new kid on the corporate chopping block. How can this be? He’s so valuable to the company, he believes, but his logic is skewed and immature.
His head felt as if it was clamped in a vise. They couldn’t force him to leave, not like this. What if he could make them see how efficient he was? Then they would have to change their minds and fire someone else … Even after months of working, he had no savings. He wouldn’t be able to last more than a few weeks on the bench. After that he would have to go back to India. Then everyone would know the truth.
In a desperate attempt to maintain his fiction of success, to hold onto his job, and to prove his unparalleled worth, Arjun develops and unleashes a virus that will require him to step up to the keyboard and become the hero. The subject of said virus is a dancing, bewitching image of the lovely Leela Zahir, his personal heroine. But alas, his fixing the virus is credited to a supervisor, who smiles brightly as he threatens the even more confused Arjun. Downsizing supersedes value, and Arjun finds himself out on the street on the desperate edge of his work status in a foreign country. Revenge, in this case, is thoughtful, yet maniacal, as more Leela variants are unleashed, affecting our unsuspecting global network. While Leela dances, destruction goes on quietly behind the scenes. Perhaps it is fair to say this is Arjun’s second, more irrevocable, mistake, and since he cannot go home with his head hung in shame for losing his job, he realizes he must do something even more desperate.
While all of this is churning on the West Coast of the United States, a subplot taking us to picturesque spots in Europe meanders almost too aimlessly before it meaningfully links up with the Arjun story of fantasy, fiction, and fallability. Nevertheless, once the clamps engage the stories, all of the characters (a young, self-made, cocky millionaire; his bored lover who finds herself working PR for a Hindi film shooting in Scotland; and, of course, the real Leela Zahir) are propelled into abysses from which extraction both humbles and liberates. Arjun does manage to set the world on techno-fire, including this humbling and liberating conflagration of souls.
An intimate knowledge of our networked world is not a reader prerequisite, but in all fairness to the content of the story, the more one knows, the more one might appreciate the finer details of the environment presented. On the other hand, the range of characters and their common, basic needs are so identifiable that the book can be enjoyed on different levels. Arjun Mehta is constructed to be the likeable (in a geeky sort of way), innocent (of course), dreamer whose character can only climb up or fall down. Through Arjun, Kunzru wickedly creates a present-day scenario so amusingly frightening that fiction and fantasy slide headlong into a gasping reality that is by no means impossible. Transmission is an extreme story about our human need to make an impact, to feel validated. Too, it cries for those who beg to be allowed to make their own choices to succeed or even to fail without judgment. It is also a story about our increasing dependency on technology, its hardware and software, and the associated networks that run our schools, towns, cities, utilities, states, provinces, countries, and even continents.Transmission is a tale of techno-abilities that go beyond the average person’s thoughts and fears, and it is an infectious read.
|Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.|