Mixed Signals

TransmissionImagine this for a moment: You are Hari Kunzru. Don’t want to? Remember you get to hang out with Zadie Smith a lot. Good, so now imagine this for a moment: You are Hari Kunzru. Now read on.

You pitch a plot to your publishers – a satirical plot spanning multiple continents about a computer virus bringing together three otherwise unconnected people – and they buy into it. Then you sit down to write the book, and realize you have no idea about the people to populate your plot with.

Hmm… you think. Hmm. Umm. Still can’t seem to come up with anything. Meanwhile, a couple of lunches with Zadie.

After a few days, you come up with three carica.., I mean, characters: a desi engineer, a Bollywood actress and an American marketing genius. You are very pleased with yourself, but when you go back to write the book, you realize something else: the plot has no room for the marketing genius. Reluctant to waste days of thought, you swiftly decide to add the guy to the book as an irrelevant subplot. And in a stroke of genius, you decide to pay homage to your thought process by naming the guy Guy Swift.

One more lunch.

Things start falling in place now and once you know who the characters are, it is easy to provide them with traits. Thus, the engineer is a nerdy self-made genius, drinks a lot of coffee, lacks social skills, is paralyzed around women and wears shirts with brand names printed on them. He also happens to be Indian so he has to have a doting mom, a tough-loving dad and in a nod to the new reality, a sister who works at a call center. Oh, and he is also a virgin and his house smells of curry. This is satire, after all.

Guy Swift is a marketing genius: so he has to

1. Talk mostly in meaningless marketing lingo,
2. Be glib and full of himself.
3. Have other traits you are aware of about anyone remotely connected with marketing.

The Bollywood actress? C’mon, you know by now. No? Ok, she is pretty and exotic, young and sensitive, has bitchy mom who forces her to hang out with seedy old producers.

This is fertile territory. You are on a roll. Thus Guy’s wife is pretty, and a little confused about things in general. The Bollywood actresses current co-star is also full of himself, and in a brilliant take on contemporary Bollywood, he used to have a girlfriend who used to be Miss World. When she decided to break up with him, he got into trouble by making threatening phone calls to her. To avoid litigation however, you insert a line about this guy (not Guy) losing one of his roles to Salman Khan. So Cool.

And so on and so forth. I am sure you are tired of being Kunzru. Plus he lives in London, where the food is rumored to suck.

Now for the real review, which you can read without imagining anything.

So yes, the characters are a bit hackneyed. And also yes, I do know it is supposed to be a satirical take on the connected world and a commentary on our dependence on computers, but some of this stuff is so overused it is not really funny anymore. (The desi engineer and marketing exec caricatures: Heard of Dilbert? Or the ABCD vs FOB fights at every single Indian diaspora website that has comments enabled?)

In spite of this, the book was an entertaining read. Honest. Kunzru has an eye for satirical detail and writes beautifully – even the most mundane of passages has an interesting turn of phrase or an unexpected insight; and if written this well, the menu from a British restaurant will make a good read. It also helps that Transmission is a short book, well paced and tautly narrated.

Here’s a fairly long excerpt…

As the bus trundled over the Yamuna Bridge, past the huge shoreline slum seeping its refuse into the river, he ran several variations of this basic fantasy, tweaking details of dress and location, identity of companion and soundtrack. The roar of public carriers receded into the background. Lost in his inner retail space, he stared blankly out the window, his eyes barely registering the low roofs of patchworked thatch and blue polyethylene by the roadside, the ragged children standing under the tangle of illegally strung powerlines. High in the sky overhead was the vapor trail of a jet, a commercial flight crossing Indian airspace en route to Singapore. In its first-class compartment sat another traveler, rather more comfortably than Arjun, who was squashed against the damp shoulder of a man in a polyester shirt. Did Guy Swift sense some occult connection with the boy on the bus thirty thousand feet below? Did he perhaps feel a tug, a premonition, the kind of unexplained phenomenon that has as its correlative a shiver or a raising of the hairs on the neck or arms? No. Nothing. He was playing Tetris on the armrest games console.

He had just beaten his high score.

Guy Swift, thirty-three years old, UK citizen, paper millionaire and proud holder of platinum status on three different frequent-flyer programs. Guy Swift, twice Young British Market Visionary of the Year and holder of several Eurobrand achievement awards. Guy Swift, charter member of a Soho club, a man genetically gifted with height, regular features, sandy blond hair which tousled attractively, relatively inactive sweat glands, clear skin and a cast-iron credit rating. For two years he had lived with the reputedly unattainable Gabriella Caro, voted the most popular girl in her class every year of her studies at the International School of Fine Art and Cuisine in Lausanne. He had the number of the door-picker at the Chang Bar on his speed dial. You would have thought he was untouchable.

Guy’s seat had eight different parameters, all of which could be adjusted for his comfort and well-being. The airline had provided a pouch of toiletries, a sleeping mask and a pair of disposable slippers embroidered with their new logo. He riffled through the pouch, ignoring everything but the slippers, which he turned over and over in his hands. A recent trend report had hinted that the airline was about to break the taboo on yellow-accented greens in the cabin. But the slippers and accompanying items were still presented in a conservative blue colorway. Was this, he wondered, a failure of nerve?

“More champagne, sir? A drink of water?”

He took a glass from the smiling female attendant, unself-consciously bathing in the soft-porn ambience of the moment. Mentally he noted the experience as a credit on the airline’s emotional balance sheet. He enjoyed the attendant’s android charm, the way this disciplined female body reminded him it was just a tool, the uniformed probe-head of the large corporate machine in which he was enmeshed. He (or rather his company) was paying this machine to administer a calculated series of pleasures and sensations. Respectful of its efforts, he had for the last four hours been sitting as immobile as a hospital patient, relishing them one by one. The heft of china and glass, the frogspawn dampness of a miniature pot of eyegel.

The flight was well into its nocturnal phase. The cabin lights had been dimmed. His fellow passengers had put aside their complimentary copies of The Wall Street Journal and settled into various states of trance. They fell within the standard demographic, these first-class people, balding business pates anesthetized by meetings and conference-center hospitality, glossy retirees occupying the stewards with long lists of requests. He settled a pair of headphones into his ears and pressed play on his current favorite personal soundtrack, a mix by DJ Zizi, the resident at Ibiza superclub Ataxia. Zizi, who bestrode the Uplifting Ambient scene like a tight-T-shirted colossus, had chosen to call his mix “Darker Shade of Chill.” It was, Guy thought, a good name, because although dark, the music was still chill. Breaking surf, feminine moaning and fragmented strings were countered by foghorns and echoing piano. DJ Zizi was comfortingly committed to the center ground.

The music trickled into Guy’s brain, slowly clearing his mental space like an elderly janitor stacking up chairs. He had a sense of angelic contentment. Here he was, existent, airborne, bringing the message of himself from one point on the earth’s surface to another. Switching his laptop on, he tried in a halfhearted way to compose an e-mail to Gabriella, but confronted by the blank white screen he could think of nothing to say.

3 thoughts on “Mixed Signals”

  1. Agree with you partly. Kunzru can write well, but only on rare occassions. The part where he talks of Gaby’s parties always having a clown but never any laughter was impressive. But for the most part, it’s just a lot of “cool new stuff” which isn’t really all that cool or new. & What was with the ending? Arjun Mehta will never be Tyler Durden, and his sudden elevation from loser-geek to mythical-virus-creator was hard to swallow.
    At least the desi characters were recognizable. Kunzru seems to be lost with the firangi ones. Both Guy & his girl friend felt like cardboard cut outs… Gaby could be any character from any new chick-lit book – beautiful, rich, screwed up…Guy – I really don’t know what this character was about…
    In short – did not like this book at all. It will take a lot of persuation before I try Kunzru’s next one.

  2. DoZ, very true. Apparently it was satire, but I had a hard time believing that. Just putting together a few stereotypical characters together is not satire. The whole Guy thing was a totally unnecessary aside. He served no purpose at all to the central part of the book – almost like an unfunny Vadivelu comedy track in a movie.

    At least you partly agreed with me ;-).

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