Friday, August 20, 2004

A Review of Hari Kunzru's Transmission

The Viral Qualities of Hindi Cinema: A Review of Hari Kunzru's Transmission

This novel is not quite satire -- satire implies a clear object an author wishes to mock or demystify. And while there are some satirical objects in some of Transmission’s subplots, especially relating to multinational corporations and Hindi cinema, the same cannot be said for the novel's protagonist, an alienated software programmer named Arjun K. Mehta. Mehta’s basic story is a familiar one: he finds his way from a second-rate technical university in India to an exploitative ‘bodyshop’ working arrangement in the Bay Area (one of Kunzru’s other characters calls it a “slave visa”), and then later in Washington State.

Nothing to laugh about. Kunzru isn’t quite sure what to do with Mehta. On the one hand, he is questioning what is in many ways a false promise to which a great many Indian engineers remain susceptible -– the dream of working in Silicon Valley. The pay isn’t all that great after you consider rent, car payments, cell phone bills, as well as periodic plane fare to and from India. Also, dealing with the Department of Homeland Security to try and keep one’s visa straight is a dehumanizing, time-consuming, and expensive process. [A friend of mine -– a successful engineer working on the west coast –- is in the process of moving to Canada to avoid the American immigration process.] And worst of all, most of the legendary west coast IT companies have been, since 2001, hanging onto their positions by a thread. It’s quite possible that a job that seems almost like a gift might quickly evaporate, as more than 100,000 have done since the boom days of the IT revolution. Only some of those jobs have "gone to India"; many are just gone. Not much material for comedy there.

When in doubt, make fun of corrupt corporate stooges. When you’re not sure what to do with your protagonist, what do you do? Kill him off or make him go crazy, and shift the burden of narration to someone else. Kunzru opts for the latter. As a result, the Mehta plot begins to dry up, and the novelist is forced to shift his attention to Guy Swift, a fast-talking British executive, whose marketing company is on the rocks. Here Kunzru’s target is easier, and he readily satirizes the rich (and ripe) world of Corporate-speak through Guy, who is very concerned about his bank account, as well as Guy’s girlfriend Gabriella Caro, who appears not to be concerned with much at all. The corporate-speak parody in particular is quite good -- worthy of being quoted at some length. Guy Swift’s marketing agency is called Tomorrow*, and Kunzru cleverly barnstorms through a discourse that is part New Age psychobabble and part entrepreneurial self-promotion:

Tomorrow*, as Guy liked to remind visitors, was not so much an agency as an experiment in life-work balance. Guy’s stated commitment to his staff was to provide an environment that fostered creativity and innovation, while spurring them on to excellence—an environment that made work fun and fun work. . . . In return for Guy’s commitment to them, around eighty people were at that very momen balancing life and work by researching, auditing, analyzing, conceptualizing, quanfitying and qualifying, visualizing, editing, mixing and montaging, arranging, presenting, discussing, and all the other activities that Guy liked to group under the general heading getting one’s hands dirty at the brandface, by which he meant convincing people to channel their emotions, relationships and sense of self through the purchase of products and services.

Note to any new age entrepreneurs who may be reading this: "making work fun and fun work" is a sure recipe for a quick fall into bankruptcy.

Kunzru also scores a hit when, much later in the novel, he has Guy Swift do a pitch with European Border Authority officials in Belgium. The merger of Brand-speak with the discourse of citizenship leads to some priceless zingers – beneath which is (and Kunzru is aware of this) the specter of a new fascism, to which information technology is by no means immune.

'What my team has come to realize is that in the twenty-first century, the border is not juset a line on the earth anymore. It’s so much more than that. It’s about status. It’s about opportunity. Sure, you’re either inside or outside, but you can be on the inside and still be outside, right? Or on the outside looking in. Anyway, like we say in one of our slides, ‘the border is everywhere. The border,’ and this is key, ‘is in your mind.’ Obviously from a marketing point of view a mental border is a plus, because a mental border is a value and a value is something we can promote. . . . Citizenship is about being one of the gang, or as we like to say at Tomorrow*, ‘in with the in crowd.'

And even better, a few pages later:

‘Well, we have to promote Europe as somewhere you want to go, but somewhere that’s not for everyone. A continent that wants people, but only the best. An exclusive continent. An upscale continent. And our big idea is to use the metaphorics of leisure to underscore that message. . . . Ladies and gentlemen . . . welcome to Club Europa – the world’s VIP room.’

The idea of “rebranding” Europe an “upscale” continent is funny. But in a way (judging by some propaganda I was recently exposed to in the airport at Zurich) it’s true. Velvet ropes, ID at the door, obscenely long lines, punishing bouncers, expensive drinks -- the thought of modeling national identity on the image of a posh nightclub is a truly terrifying image. (Perhaps Kunzru might do more with it.)

Hindi cinema. Let me also offer a great comic passage that explains Arjun’s fascination with Hindi cinema. Here Kunzru is at his sharpest, and he manages to pack quite a bit into a single paragraph, both in terms of content and tone:

Pyaar. Pyaar. Pyaar. Throughout South Asia you can’t get away from it. Perhaps the rise of Love has something to do with cinema, or independence from the British or globalization or the furtive observation of backpacking couples by a generation of yuoung people who suddenly realized it was possible to grope one another without the sky falling on their heads. There are those who say Love is just immorality. There are those who believe it is encouraged by amplified disco music. There are even those who claim that the decline in arranged marriage and the cultural encouragement of its replacement by free-choice pair-bonding are connected with the obsolescence of the extended family in late capitalism, but since this is tantamount to saying that Love can be reduced to Money, no one listens. In India (the most disco nation on earth) Love is a glittery madness, and obsession, broadcast like the words of a dictator from every paan stall and rickshaw stand, every transistor radio and billboard and TV tower. While Arjun tried to concentrate on public key cryptography or Hungarian naming convention, it kept knocking on his bedroom door like an irritating kid sister.

Kunzru is onto something here. The obsession with “love” is a strange aspect of Indian popular culture, explicable through the prevalence of propagandistic media (popular music and film) as well as anthropological particularities (alluded to in Kunzru’s comments about family structure and late capitalism). And yet love (Prem, Pyaar, Dil, Mohabbat, Ishq, Aashiqana, and a vast array of related film-song concepts) is of course always something more than any mere ideology, anatomy, or ethnography can ever describe. It is, truly, a conundrum from which there is perhaps no escape -– and perhaps none wanted, except for by truly bitter curmudgeons amongst us. It may be correct to say, in a scientific temper, that love is a lie. But it is essentially a victimless lie. Kunzru is in my view absolutely right that when Marxists talk about unsentimentally about love, no one listens. (Everyone is too busy humming along to "pyaar kiya to darna kya?")

At his best, Kunzru’s facility with language -– especially the internal jargon of various professional subcultures –- gives him ample material for satire. As I hope the examples above illustrate, there are some great stand-alone comic moments. But such transcendent passages are unfortunately yoked to a rather predictable plot. The second half of Transmission is only a workaday high-tech thriller, albeit one that falls a bit short on thrills. Either one approaches the novel as a fishing expedition, where the goal is to find the good bits –- a depressing exercise akin to sampling a store-bought CD for the playable tracks –- or one asks Kunzru to simply filter and edit it all down to say, three short stories for The New Yorker. Neither is quite satisfying.


Rob Breymaier said...

The corporate stooge part reminds me of Julian Barnes's England England. It's not the best Barnes work but it addresses the ideas of leisure, status, and corporate stoogery.

s said...

i love the excerpt on love and your words that follow.

however, is love really a victimless lie? i don't know if i agree with that...

Amardeep said...

S, Actually I was thinking of the 'scientific' temper that comes over certain unhappy young people, whereby they become convinced that love is a lie. Jargon is found to support the belief ("love is just capitalist heterosexist patriarchy"; "love is a Bourgeois European convention"), which comes to sound increasingly grating if you're a) in love yourself, or b) you're at or over the age of 30, at which point -- hopefully -- all such loud bluster makes you cringe.

It's hard to argue with these bitter people -- how can one rise in support of something as nebulous as a "feeling"? One weak way to defend it is to allow that there's nothing objective about love, and plenty that is insidious -- hence the "victimless lie" line.

I personally don't really believe that love is a lie at all. Perhaps I should change the paragraph to make that clear...

Thanks for writing, and thanks for noticing that paragraph (I was proud of it). I checked out your blog -- sorry to hear that 26 was such a drag.

sheece said...

It's a while, since you wrote this post, but I have been reading the book and did a search for Guy Swift. I have heard that name before. The search led me to your site.

i would have been a bit harsher with my review. the focus shift on other characters irritated me a great deal. gave me a feeling that publishers were asking him to hurry up.

Shamik Chakravarty said...

The ending with the protagonist becoming an incognito legend seems to redeem the novel I would think. The predictable plot seems to be on the lines of a bollywood romance, which has its ironic charm in terms of the hope it brings. And since it has its moments, it is that we focus on the moments like we would in a Hollywood screwball comedy or a noir film in the context of the predictable plot, which is then merely structually contingent on the rest of what is being said.