My review for The Indian Express; appeared in today’s edition.
In Hari Kunzru’s last novel, Transmission, one character was described as "less a human being than a communications medium, a channel for the transmission of consumer lifestyle messages". Another, travelling by plane, thought of himself as a message being transmitted from one point on the earth’s surface to another. A third imagined the globe contracting "like a deflated beachball". The epilogue, titled "Noise", was about the many imperfections in communication systems: "information transmission, it emerges, is about doing the best you can."
The shrinking of global spaces, the increasing interaction between man and technology to the point where one melds with the other...these are staples of Kunzru’s best writing, despite the red herring served up by his debut novel The Impressionist (which led some critics to hail him as the next big thing in Indian writing in English -- ironical for a writer with such wide-ranging concerns). Now, in the stories collected in Noise, we get a glimpse of those ideas in their embryonic form. These short pieces are among Kunzru’s earliest published works, some written as far back as 1995 for Mute, a magazine set up to discuss the interrelations between art and new technologies.
In the creepily fascinating "Bodywork", a man slowly metamorphoses into a car, even as his wife (literally) rots away in their bedroom. "I don’t think you see anything at all," she tells him, "But there’s someone here, Barry. A human being." It’s a parable alright but never hackneyed, and written in a coldly mechanical style that’s particularly well-suited to the narrative. In "Deus Ex Machina" a guardian angel tinkers with computers to help save a young woman’s life -- but implicit in even this relatively straightforward story is the question: are machines the real guardian angels, and what happens when they break down? (A later story promotes machines to God-status.) And the brilliantly subversive "Memories of the Decadence" and "Eclipse Chasing" give us, in the guise of science-fiction, social settings which are not so difficult to relate to ("...it became impossible to tell the fashionable from the afflicted...we became collectors of objects, not from any interest in the things themselves, but simply for the opportunities they presented for cataloguing").
Kunzru is always an interesting writer, but his energetic style, and his talent for saying a lot in a few crisp words, are especially well suited to short pieces; his novels meander in parts but these stories are completely engaging and full of brio. Which is appropriate -- speed, change, the constant need for new things to replace the old as the pressures of the modern world build; these are the bywords here. The ending of "Memories of the Decadence" sums this up, with its description of a new era of moderance. "We are content. And yet...and yet there is something stale in the air. Citizens whisper in the social clubs. They say that it cannot last."
Kunzru’s early stories have more than lasted; they are more relevant now than when they were written.
(Incidentally, this volume is one of 70 pocket books produced by Penguin to mark seven decades of its existence; the series is eminently collectable, even though -- hush, don’t tell anyone! -- at least three of the five stories in this collection are also available on Kunzru’s official website.)