Transmission is Kunzru's follow-up to his debut novel, The Impressionist, which described the life of a half-English, half-Indian protagonist in colonial India. The success of that bookand the million dollar-plus advance the author reportedly received to write itmade Kunzru, now 34, one of the world's hot young authors. That has turned out not to be a curse. Half-English, half-Indian himself, Kunzru, a former technology writer for Wired magazine, has emerged as that rare phenomenon: a promising young author who exceeds his initial promise with his second novel.
The book begins as 23-year-old Arjun Mehta is about to leave for America to join the New Economy. Mehta is your average young middle-class Indian. He is smitten by a Bollywood actress named Leela Zahir, has visions of striking it rich overseas and like all Indians is, of course, an absolute genius with computers. Unfortunately, Mehta finds that he has arrived in America during an economic downturn and jobs are scarce. He finally lands a posting at Virugenix, a company that protects businesses from viral attacks, only to be laid off for no fault of his own. That's when he decides he'll win his job back (and simultaneously declare his affection for Zahir) by releasing a computer virus bearing her image. Like a pyromaniac who starts fires so he can be the hero who reports them, Mehta plans to inform his company how to stop the virus before things get out of hand. But his scheme goes seriously awry, to the discomfort of practically everyone on earth.
The message of Transmission is that there's something rotten in today's fully wired world. Hopscotching among a host of minor characters and a variety of geographic backdrops, Kunzru attacks the absurdities of a superfast, superficial society. Kunzru's gift is that he can relate with equal authority how unbalanced things are today in London, Brussels, Delhi or suburban Californiawhere, he writes, "Anyone on foot ... is one of four things: poor, foreign, mentally ill or jogging." Like Don DeLillo, the great American novelist whom he admires, Kunzru is part of a modern breed of fiction writers who double up as cultural critics, describing the tastes, sounds and sights that constitute the experience of being alive in 2004 while providing mordant insights into how our experiences are relentlessly manipulated by advertising and marketing executives. Sure, it feels good when the flight attendant in business class pays you special attentionbut Kunzru's protagonist detects the hypocrisy in her "android charm, the way this disciplined female body reminded him that it was just a tool, the uniformed probe-head of the large corporate machine in which he was enmeshed."
The author says that one of his models for Transmission was the fiction of English satirist Evelyn Waugh. When he exposes the inner workings of a Korean online role-playing club, hilariously parodies a Bollywood plot or offers a careful study of how tomatoes are stacked in a California supermarket, Kunzru shows he can do everything a gifted satirist is meant to do. Except perhaps for the most important thing. Waugh's critiques of the modern world's shallowness are set off against a sense of a Christian past that has been lost, a past that can be regained by the determined individual. Except for a deep sense of compassion for the plight of immigrants, Kunzru's work has no similar moral center, no vision of what a better world might look like. Indeed, as his publisher's publicity machine swings into action to make sure Kunzru's new novel earns a hefty return on their investment, it's hard to escape the feeling that Transmission is not really a chastisement of our way of living. It is just another amusement that our fully wired, fully market-researched world has thrown up, giving us a chance to laugh quickly at our absurdities before we plunge right back into them.