Our Planet Speeded Up: Review of Transmission by Carol Ann Duffy

Hari Kunzru's first novel, The Impressionist, won a Somerset Maugham award and earned him a place on Granta's list of the best British novelists under 40. His second novel, Transmission, is hugely engaging.

Vividly set in the computer-virus present, it effortlessly and wittily shows how like the future our present day already is. Rather like early Martin Amis, only nicer, Kunzru combines a satirical comic gift with a cool prose style. And his storytelling is well plotted and compelling.

The two main characters here are Arjun Mehta and Guy Swift, both heroic failures in their own way. Arjun ("something about the boy emanated muddle") is a computer-programming geek in New Delhi who is hoodwinked into moving to America to work for Databodies, a slave labour outfit who will hire him out to companies and charge him savagely for the privilege.

After a year of this, he can't sleep properly, has eczema, lies to his Indian family about his success in the West when he calls home, and has little or no illusion left: "He knows what lies above him, the sublime mobility of those who travel without ever touching the ground. He has glimpsed what lies below, the other mobility, the forced motion of the shopping-cart pushers, the collectors of cardboard boxes. At least in India the street people can lie down for a while before being moved on."

When Arjun finally lands a halfway decent job at Virugenix, it is a lifeline he will be fatally reluctant to let go. In despair after the firm releases him, he unleashes a vicious computer virus that infects inboxes around the world. Its signature is an image of a Bollywood star, "dancing in jerky quicktime in a pop-up window on your screen".

Guy Swift is a coke-snorting young Englishman who heads the London PR company Tomorrow*, lives in a permanent state of arrogance about what he has - flash apartment, beautiful, unloving girlfriend - and holds a sweat-basting fear of losing it ("when, like Guy, you put yourself ahead of the curve, you live in the future"). His office neatly sums him up: "The room contained a daybed, a draftsman's table, boxes of unused art and design supplies, a home-cinema set-up and a cabinet filled with a quantity of toy robots and Quentin Tarantino mementoes."

The female characters are equally well drawn, especially Guy's girlfriend, Gaby, ("Gabriella could sense neediness and did not tolerate it very well") and Arjun's colleague Christine Schnorr; she deflowers him in a druggy scene that includes one of the queasiest descriptions of bad sex I have ever read.

This is one of those increasingly rare books where it would be mean to discuss the plot in a review; it's enough to say that it is very clever and funny, entertaining in a true way, and set in a global village which is a recognisable and shame-making exaggeration of our world today.

The characters- haves and have-nots - move through "an eroticism of materialism", where, on an average Thursday in June, "bombs went off in Jakarta, Jenin and Tashkent. An elderly single-hulled tanker sank off Manila, releasing its load of crude oil into the South China Sea. In Malawi, a man was diagnosed with a previously unknown retroviral infection. At Heathrow Airport, two dead Ghanian boys were found frozen to the undercarriage of a Boeing 747."

Add to this a couple of hilarious set pieces (Guy's game of golf in Dubai while pitching for a contract, Arjun's reaction to the news of his redundancy) and the sleight of hand at the end that turns several disappearing acts into a royal flush of happy endings, and you have a terrific new novel from a terrific writer. Respect.

Carol Ann Duffy

[this review appeared in the Daily Telegraph, June 2004]