Friday, March 11, 2016

A social network and a sharp knife: on Arun Krishnan's Antisocial

[Did this review for Business Line newspaper]

Early in Arun Krishnan's novel Antisocial, the narrator-protagonist Arjun Clarkson is quoting a Buddhist sermon for the edification of a woman bartender. She listens intently at first, intrigued by talk of “bodily sensations on fire”, but as Arjun drones on about more abstract things, she loses interest. “She had begun to fidget,” he tells us, with apparent relish, “She twisted her hair anxiously into knots of the hangman’s rope. I felt calm and equanimous. I enjoy watching the insides of people fill up with unease and anger, even as they are listening to the words of the Buddha. It is the most benevolent way by which one can cause pain to others.”

As it happens, Arjun – who works in an advertising agency in New York – will soon find more gruesome ways of causing pain. His first murder is committed in an unplanned burst of violence, spurred by demons from his past, but then things spiral quickly: one crime leads to (and necessitates) another, and he sets about bending the American dream of “Yes, we can” to his own purposes. Killing becomes an addiction, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It also becomes a way of hitting out at the impersonality and the hypocrisies of the social-media age… while working with the very tools of that age. The initial murder is an indirect result of Arjun’s ability – via the ubiquitous online network MyFace – to track the movements of an ex-colleague, a woman he has a crush on. MyFace, a barely disguised version of Facebook, is the book’s other protagonist, a Big Brother monitoring the actions and movements of hundreds of millions of people, and Arjun’s homicidal spree might be said to involve both collaboration and defiance: what could be a more intimate, more immediate way of “connecting” – reestablishing the human touch – than to thrust a real knife into the real, soft flesh of a real person?

So this thriller is, in part, a comment on a world where privacy and anonymity are always fading. But overemphasizing that aspect of the story might mean treating Arjun as a cipher and ignoring his very particular qualities. He quotes the Buddha often (not just when he wants to torture listeners) and wears T-shirts advertising his beliefs, but we can tell from the start that something is off, that a time-bomb is ticking away. He reminded me a little of the protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho – a bonafide psychopath or someone with a rich inner life, using fantasy to cope with the moral decay around him? Notwithstanding his name, he also has some of the markers of a modern-day Karna, the Mahabharata anti-hero who is mentioned in the book: full of anger because of his inability to belong, lashing out at the world while simultaneously trying to fit into it, using skill with weaponry to carve out a place for himself.

This is a suspenseful narrative, its urgency growing as Arjun’s potential victims – including the one person who is genuinely sympathetic to him, a girlfriend named Michelle – drift in and out of view, and as his encounters with a sceptical detective become edgier. The prose is somewhat clunky in places (“I stepped on the staircase. It had been lying undisturbed. Now, it resented being woken up. It creaked and complained with a long, drawn-out sound”), but I couldn’t always tell if this was a shortcoming in the writing or a way of conveying Arjun’s solemn awkwardness – whichever the case, the voice does fit the character. One gets the impression he is learning the mores, manners and rituals of American society as if by rote; he offers us little observations about the world he moves in (“If you give a signal that it is all right to be politically incorrect, white businessmen feel more relaxed. They chuckle. They even chortle. They like you more”). But he is also an outsider in a wider sense: he has trouble relating to people in general, and there is something mechanical about his attempts to be warm and social – consider a scene near the end where he speaks to a little boy, or the one where he reads an email from Michelle after they spent the night together, and wonders if “Thanks for the sexual intercourse last night” would be an apt reply. “Or perhaps, this was an occasion that called for a more informal communication: ‘Thanks for the sex.” Would that be the gentlemanly thing to do? I hadn’t read anything or overheard any conversation that would help cast some light on this matter.”

Here and elsewhere, Arjun emphasises the importance of always being a gentleman, but he is not a suave, controlled killer in the league of, say, Hannibal Lecter – his calm surface seems to conceal waves of hysteria. Eventually, though, there are signs that he is feeling more comfortable in his own skin. The book has as its epigraph lyrics from the song “Mack the Knife” – lines about an underdog with a lethal concealed weapon that he uses against a formidable adversary, the “shark”. By the end, it is clear that this Mack is spreading his net wider and looking for new sharks he can – to use social-networking parlance – “poke”. No wonder all those MyFace stocks are plummeting.

No comments:

Post a Comment