Bugs in the story

Transmission: A novel by Hari Kunzru (First published in 2004)

Computer virus attacks, so often reported in the media, cross over into fiction in this novel. The Transmission of the title refers to the spread of computer viruses. Arjun, an Indian IT graduate, goes to work in the USA. Fired by the computer security firm, he creates a virus to infect computers around the world, hoping to get back his job by fixing the bug. But when his boss falsely claims credit for the security patch and refuses to take him back, Arjun mounts a wave of virus attacks and goes on the run, chased by the FBI. Sounds like a thriller, but it isn’t, quite.

The author, Hari Kunzru, is writing a Tom Wolfe-style novel that’s fiction as reportage. It covers computer viruses, body shopping (where a middleman recruits cheap labour, say, in India to be farmed out as temporary workers in the USA), cinema and the media. Arjun is body-shopped to the USA. His viruses are hidden in e-mailed attachments that are pirated clips from his favourite Bollywood actress’ biggest blockbuster. And they wreak havoc on the film world as well as the business world, which provide subplots for this novel.

Interwoven with the story of Arjun are two other stories, about his favourite Bollywood actress, Leela Zahir, and Guy Swift, an English PR flack. They don’t know each other but they are all affected by the virus. The PR agency collapses, the virus attacks generate a wave of international publicity for the young actress who can’t cope with it and disappears. And so does Arjun, to escape from the FBI. The novel ends with conspiracy-theory-style speculation on the Internet and in the media about what happened to Leela and Arjun. Kunzru refuses to give any definitive answer.

That may make for intriguing journalism. But I found it disappointing in this novel because it starts off like a novel of character. Arjun’s Indian background is so well described, his experiences in America so well told, this could have been a touching story of cross-cultural relations. Instead Kunzru ends up writing a parable about connectivity and the dangers of global dependence on the Internet.

That would have been all right too but for the ending. The mystery about where Leela and Arjun vanished seems a cheap trick. Of course, it happens in real life and can be exciting material for gossip on the Internet, but in this novel at least it seems the writer did not want to make the effort to take the story any further. He wants to tease the readers. That can be tantalising but also disappointing.

Yes, it lets down in the end but is pretty funny and entertaining much of the way. Kunzru, who went to Oxford like Amis, is as stylish a writer though mercifully less self-indulgent. He doesn’t quite get the ad scene right but is absolutely spot-on on Bollywood and computers.

An excerpt:

The truth is that Leela was not one thing. She was not even a set or a group or a family. She was a swarm, a horde. At the same time Leela001 was being spread via email, other Leelas, other things with her face, were being uploaded to shareware sites, were tunnelling their way into webservers to be doled out as Applets, were propagating at a phenomenal rate through peer-to-peer networks…

She could take on new forms at will, never staying stable for long enough to be scanned and recognized. Each generation produced an entirely new Leela, her organs rearranged, mutated, hidden under a novel layer of encryption. Worst of all, from the point of view of the people tasked with finding her, she could camouflage herself within legitimate programs she infected, inserting herself in between legitimate instructions, covering herself over by resetting all the references to the changes she had made. When the scanners peered at a Leela-infected file, it looked normal. It still functioned. Nothing appeared to have been altered since the last clean sweep was made. Legitimate programs were doing legitimate things. Until they stopped. Until she took over.

— Hari Kunzru, Transmission

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