Although globalisation is universally acknowledged as one of the most pressing issues of our time, it has usually proved a poor subject for fiction. Far too many of the Anglo-American novels referring to globalisation are full of what the critic James Wood has called "irrelevant intensity", exhibiting an endless fascination for pop-culture trivia, post-structuralist meta-theories and self-referential irony. Hari Kunzru's new novel appears, in the first 30 pages or so, to be heading in the same direction. With riffs on the information economy, brand marketing and Bollywood cinema, it begins by promising its readers an efficient, if slightly lacklustre, narrative about the interminable and dizzying flow of labour, capital, data and images, until it finds its course with something as simple as a man walking down a highway in California.
That man is Arjun Mehta, a Delhi computer geek, fan of the Bollywood actress Leela Zahir, and a seeker of the American dream. He is also a failure. "Anyone on foot in suburban California is one of four things: poor, foreign, mentally ill, or jogging," writes Kunzru, and Arjun seems to qualify for three out of those categories. Never having been away from home before, he possesses little knowledge of the world beyond computers and Bollywood. When he finally finds a job at a large network security company, he is unable to adapt to his new environment.
Kunzru's first novel, The Impressionist, was a whirlwind tour of British colonialism, demonstrating a relish for all the ideological and cultural props of empire, shuffling stock characters and situations into an atmospheric and passionate narrative of miscegenation and identity. In Transmission, where the subject is the new imperium, demanding libations of Starbucks lattes rather than gin and tonic, we see the same voraciousness at work on characters, places and ideas, in an energetic exploration of what lies beneath the rhetoric about seamless networking and open borders.
The new economy is built on speed, porousness and virtual reality - ideas that animate the lives of the characters in Transmission. There is Guy Swift, owner of Tomorrow*, a marketing agency in London which seeks to "emotionalise" brands and harness the future. There are golfing sheikhs, chilly EU bureaucrats and oversexed Bollywood producers, appearing in places as diverse (and similar) as Dubai and Scotland and Brussels. There is Arjun's heart-throb, Leela Zahir, shooting song-and-dance sequences in the Scottish Highlands. Most of all, there is the computer virus bearing her name and image, a virus that will shut down the global economy, transforming Leela into an international star and the creator of the virus into a wanted terrorist.
As in The Impressionist, some of these elements work less well than others. With his dreams of tall buildings and his unpromising love life, Guy is funny, but in a predictable sort of way. The Bollywood mix of self-absorbed stars, lecherous producers, mafia financiers and exploitative mothers is also slightly mannered. And the expositions on information technology or global capital occasionally threaten to flatten the narrative into a demonstration of ideas.
But like Don DeLillo, whose influence is evident here, Kunzru seems genuinely interested in ideas and social problems, such as the predicament of the disenfranchised. Arjun, having lost his job, and beginning his terrifying descent, tries to keep a grip on himself by retreating into the certainty of numbers, counting the sails of the rich at play in a seaside marina. What awaits him, however, is a more untidy reality, taking him across an America where every poor person is a fugitive, and where controlled suburban environments and software parks give way to shabby Greyhound terminals and solitary highways.
At the other end of the social ladder, Guy pitches for a contract for the new EU border authority, speaking eloquently on promoting Europe as an exclusive destination: "A continent that wants people, but only the best . . . An upscale continent." If this appears more benign than the US, it is in keeping with what Kunzru describes as Europe's tendency towards "discreet violence". But the EU plan to deport 5,000 sans papiers within 72 hours and the bust of Leopold II looming over Guy as he delivers his marketing spiel indicate that overt violence is never far away, even in softer, older Europe.
For some readers, Kunzru's attention to such weighty issues might detract from a funny and skilful novel. Yet to ignore the passionate concerns that animate Transmission for the sake of its comedy would be to turn Kunzru into a lesser writer. It would reduce what is one of the best novels about globalisation to the rank of irrelevant intensity.
[This review was published in The New Statesman 31 May 2004]