(Plume)It's funny at the beginning, as funny as any book I've come across: India, computer programmers, Bollywood, films, PR agencies, Microsoft, electronic mischief, and the ultimate breakdown of everything internet.
Our hero is a computer-mad, wistful, film nut from India. His name is Arjun Mehta. He has been imported to California to serve as a modern-day indentured servant, That is, to do cheap "temporary visa" work set up by an American fly-by-night company called "Databodies."Here he is, having just learned the truth about his employer and their finances and his finances (wages less expenses means a net negative income):
Anyone on foot in suburban California is one of four things: poor, foreign, mentally ill or jogging. This person, whose thin frame was almost lost inside a grubby Oakland Raiders shirt, was moving too slowly to be a jogger. He appeared edgy, dispossessed. Defeat radiated from him like sweat. If the soccer moms zipping by in their SUV's registered him at all, it was as a blur of dark skin, a minor danger signal flashing past on their periphery. To the walking man the soccer moms were more cosmological than human, flaming projectiles that dopplered past him in a rush of noise and dioxins, as alien and indifferent as stars.
But unlike all the other slaves brought from home, Arjun has a fallback. He is one of those geeks who knows too much --- more, apparently, than anyone else --- about the secrets of computer internet hyperspace manipulation. He invents a virus which includes a five second clip from his favorite Indian movie, Naughty Naughty, Lovely Lovely complete with a young lovely dancing lady named Leela Zahir.
The hyper-virus comes to be known as "Leela" and it gums up everything. Everything. Airlines, water delivery systems, e-mail, trucking, shipping, and scariest of all, money transfer: Money disappears into electronic nowheresville, apparently never to rise again. It is The Virus of viruses --- disabling the entire international intercommunication consumerist bag-of-tea.
Across America citizens started to look with suspicion at the computers on their desks. These machines --- which has always terrorized them in small ways by crashing, hanging, demanding meaningless upgrades or simply scolding them in the persona of an annoying paper clip --- were now revealed to harbor something more sinister, something with an agenda.
"This was it, the enemy within, a technological fifth column in the homes of ordinary Americans." The ultimate time arrives, what they were to call Gray Day, being the day when all the mischief released by Leela .01 - .09 comes to a head: "a certain cybernetic gloom that hung about the time, the communal depression of network administrators yearning for perfection while faced with appalling losses, drop-outs, crashes and absences of every kind."
<> <> <>
Transmission is a merry romp for the first hundred or so pages, the kind of merry that makes you want to scan paragraphs and e-mail them off to friends ... such as this dry commentary on day-time television conjoined with the tragedy of Arjun's job interviews: "Victoria warned Diego she was onto him. Belle learned the truth about Jan's pregnancy. Jerry goaded plus-sized women to fight with their love-cheat partners and Arjun spoke to three, five, seven companies. None of them wanted to employ him."
As he became more attuned to American language and economics, he realized he was living in a "low-income area." In his bedroom the drone of traffic from Highway 101 was a constant presence. On the corner, listless young black and Latino men played bass-heavy music and leaned into car windows to have short conversations with the drivers. A hydrocarbon stink lay heavy in the air.
"The idea of American poverty, especially a poverty that did not exclude cars, refrigerators, cable TV or obesity, was a new and disturbing paradox, a hint that something ungovernable and threatening lurked beneath the reflective surface of California."
Used to worlds where everyone looked more or less like him, he found it took nerve to move through crowds in which everyone was so tall and heavy, meaty.
<> <> <>
Sadly, Transmission begins to hang heavy after the first spurt. It droops with the dark load of satire: long plot lines of silly Indian movies, extended examples of carefully coördinated corporate mischief, a lengthy PR presentation by a vulgar character named Guy Swift to Euro heavies who want to unite Common Market security.
All these combine to force the plot-line to sag and wither. The parodies are too real, turn as leaden (and as dreary) as that which drives our modern-day economic determinism, the bleak faces of men clawing their way to the top through any means whatsoever.
Because of the fine, ironical opening, we want to be charitable to the author. We find ourselves hoping that Kunzru's next novel will hold up under the opening scenes, making us cheer all the way through to the very end. For the ending of Transmission is a fade: perfect for one who spends so much time watching movies and computer screens, imperfect for the diligent reader.--- Larry Bolef