Friday, October 14, 2011

Novel craft

Today, I had lunch with three old friends. We have all graduated from premier business management institutions, held down rather high paying jobs and have all taken extended breaks for our families' sakes. The halo of which may very well have ruined us by the expectations it has created within us, for us, from us. So we discussed company set ups, philanthropic ventures, food blogging, novel writing. The conversation was charged and lively; I was hard put to contain the little spurts of energy and ambition I experienced in the course of the lunch, for fear of spilling it, frittering it away forever. Something about my self-induced catatonia put me in mind of the book I am reading now –Franzen’s Freedom, and I spoke of it as the perfect post modern novel for us to read. As I went on to make the points that I hope to include in the review which I will write after I get down to finishing the book, Sa remarked apropos its running theme, “I suppose one can never be free from people.” And then she said this interesting thing about how all of us have these epiphanies but it is incredible that the writers are able to make a book out of it. My view was that epiphanies made for short stories; the novel form would call for a grander scheme. At this point I was thinking and talking at the same time and so was everybody else, so I am not very confident of my reportage. But let me try and take these strands of thought and talk and reel in a thread long enough to be blog-worthy.

It was hypothesized that if one of us smart and glib, even if we say so ourselves, one of us hyper-organized, spread-sheeting, flow-charting, Venn-diagramming, jargon spouting, Powerpointing MBA types were to write a novel we may start with a single epiphany and flesh it out, by taking many other trips on the way. Yes, if I remember correctly, that was Sanchita’s drift, while I thought of how PG Wodehouse wrote, with pages stuck horizontally in his writing room while the revisions for these pages were arranged vertically and so his books would flow in a single line across his walls, around his room, until they hit a column of rewrites for a single page. I do not think I shared with my friends the gorgeous imagery of a Wodehouse in progress, because I was intent on urgently communicating my own little epiphany – that Hari Kunzru was a writer of this mold, an author who had crafted a novel by taking a central idea, charting a plan to demonstrate this idea, providing the context for the plan and then simply writing it up. However what he has not done is let his pen run away with him, like perhaps I have! Maybe it is time to shut up and write a straightforward review of -

The Transmission by Hari Kunzru

The Fundamental Interconnectedness of Everything could have been another name for Transmission. In the post Internet age a computer geek from Delhi is body-shopped to the United States. A new age marketing guy jets around the world with his laptop, selling his version of branding for tomorrow. A Hindi film actress straining against her mother’s ambition has a meltdown on the sets of her latest film. There are other, secondary characters - the manic Chris, the depressive Gaby, the panicked heart-throb Rajiv Rana, all of whose lives are affected by a strange sequence of events that has everything to do with the global village that we are a part of, and the technical wizardry that some of us are capable of. So there you have it- the premise and the context for the story. How does the author make this into a novel, what about those trips that we spoke of at the lunch? Sure, we have insights on how body-shopping works, the cocaine fueled world of quick money and glamour, the seamy underbelly of Bollywood and my favorite trip, the virtual reality of the video-gamers’ universe. All fascinating yet relevant, all taking the story forward. To flesh these ‘trips’ out we have great descriptions- of an interview office in Delhi, life in the US for a down and out computer programmer, a hotel in Scotland, a golf course in the Gulf- and pitch perfect social exchanges. All apposite and entirely interesting.

Strangely what sounds tired is the description of the geek-protagonist’s Indian family. It could be that I am easily bored reading about a familiar setting. But it is also possible that Kunzru himself was too bored to bestir himself in this direction. Maybe he deliberately went pedestrian for fear of mining a mother lode of rich material too soon; maybe he was saving up any deep insights on Indian family life for a different book. Maybe this sounds ridiculous, but I cannot shake off the feeling that ‘Transmission’ is too pre-meditated, that the brain has had the upper hand in the writing of this book. That unlike in my case, letting the pen and the heart run away with the writing may not be a bad thing at all for Mr. Kunzru.

Be that as it may (☺ yes, I am still reading Freedom), this mastery of the brain attests to phenomenal talent and discipline. The book is made moreover, by the fine thread of humanity that runs through it, a nuanced understanding of every character and their back-stories. And a good finish. You could read it.