The Millions Interview

Plot, Rhyme, and Conspiracy: Hari Kunzru Colludes with His Readers

By posted at 12:00 pm on March 20, 2012 1

covercoverHari Kunzru was anointed one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2003, just as his first book, The Impressionist, hit U.S. soil. In the nine years since, Kunzru’s four novels have more than justified this title. His only deviation from it, in fact, is that four years ago he picked up and moved across the Atlantic to New York. The American landscape, its culture, its myths and belief systems figure prominently in Kunzru’s latest novel, Gods Without Men, whose name comes from Balzac: “In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing… It is God without men.” And it’s the Mojave desert that acts as the geographic center for this sprawling series of narratives that unfold over a duration of more than two hundred years.

In the two weeks since Gods Without Men’s release, it’s already been praised by Siddhartha Deb as “one of the best novels about globalisation.” Douglas Coupland, too, sang praises in his New York Times review and coined a new genre to classify it: Translit. Coupland writes, “Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and spaces as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind.” And according to Jacob Silverman, Kunzru’s latest novel is “the fulfillment of the type of ‘networked novel’ that Kunzru has advocated for, one that he argues is particularly suited to our networked age.”  Last week when Hari Kunzru and I spoke, our conversation touched on the systems that inform the novel’s content and structure, the American West, and UFO mythology born from the convergence of spiritual tradition and technology. Befitting twenty-first century networks, noise, and disembodiment, we spoke via cell phone, he in Seattle and I in Chicago, connected via two New York numbers.

coverOn Thursday, March 22nd at 7pm, Hari Kunzru will visit WORD bookstore at 126 Franklin Street, Brooklyn, NY for an event co-hosted by The Millions. Visit the WORD website for further details and RSVP. See you there!

The Millions: In your novel Transmission, you write: “As soon as there is a sender, a receiver, a transmission medium and a message, there is a chance for noise to corrupt the signal.” The noise occurs here when a laid off immigrant programmer deploys a computer virus that has international ramifications. Signal corruption (or interference) also factors in to Gods Without Men, for example, where a mathematical model used in derivatives trading appears to have the power to interfere with and collapse national economies. And on a structural level in the novel, there are gaps in narrative time and in lives, there are a number of unexplained disappearances and returns. Would you talk more about the way that signals, noise, and systems in general inform and organize your novels?

coverHari Kunzru: Yes, I can do that. I have a sort of dark past as a technology journalist and I’ve always been interested in communication systems, both as technological artifacts and as the building blocks of social life. In my book I’ve become very interested in the ways that we’re enmeshed in these systems, whether they’re technological strictly, or not. The dream of perfect information is an old one, and Transmission is organized around this technical notion of information and thought. [Claude] Shannon’s famous information theory pretty much summarizes this: there’s a sender, there’s a receiver, there’s a transmission medium, and the mathematical idea is for the signal to go from the sender to the receiver with no corruption and no loss of data. In any real world situation there is always noise. And the ways that our attempts to make meaning and transmit meaning to each other fall away into noise in that sense, are an enduring interest of mine. You’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head with linking that to the gaps and the silences and the ways that Gods Without Men is organized. I mean, Gods Without Men has become a more explicitly metaphysical, spiritual notion. The way I usually approach talking about the book is to say that it’s about people dealing with the unknown, and beyond just the simply unknown, it’s the idea that some things might be potentially unknowable. I mean, to go back to kind of pointy-headed stuff, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem states that in a mathematical system there are things that are true within that system that can’t be proved by that system so that you can never predict absolutely. And these mathematical systems are the most-nailed down, supposedly predictive tools that we have — they’re kind of incomplete, their meaning kind of bleeds out into nothingness. And all sorts of weird stuff can come into those gaps, and all these ideas are really good for the novelist in particular. The exploration of these areas is the sort of thing that the novelist should be doing.

TM: I really enjoyed how the structure resonated with those ideas. In a BBC interview with Tom McCarthy and Stewart Home

HK: Oh, you heard that? That was a funny interview.

TM: …you say that because of the Internet, we live in a “relentlessly subcultural world,” that there are many co-existent subcultures, and that this has changed the way that culture is perpetuated. I’m wondering, how has this altered our idea and perception of narrative? And are linear narratives outdated?

HK: I think there are two thing things here. When I was talking about subcultures there I was basically — I don’t know if you know Tom and Stewart’s work. I mean, we were set up in this interview to be supposedly coming from three separate places and the poor BBC people, we all knew each other from ages ago and actually had far more in common in our interests that might first meet the eye.

TM: I’m aware of your former membership in the INS.

HK: Ah, yeah, in the first iteration of the INS. Yeah, so you know about the INS — Tom’s into avant-gardes, I think he’s a very retro figure in that way. And there’s the notion that there is a kind of modernist probe heading out into the future and dragging the rest of culture behind it. I think that’s not how it works anymore. There might have been a moment in the middle of the twentieth century where that was actually happening and this kind of modernist project was functioning in that straightforward way. But now, to skip to the way we actually receive information and the way we make culture, it’s very, very difficult to work out where an avant-garde might be if you were looking for such a thing. If there is an avant-garde, you know, it’s some ten guys in Nigeria. It’s very unlikely to be a bunch of university types in a cafe who want to make formally experimental literature. You know, it may be that that kind of world is one way, one place that new culture is happening, but it’s very difficult to make it this kind of one’s-at-the-fore, everyone-else-behind thing.

That’s one thing. The second thing you asked me was about form and linear narrative. And I’m certainly interested in the ways that traditional narrative doesn’t function properly at the moment. I like traditional narratives, I take pleasure in stories, I watch multi-part HBO dramas, and I go to Hollywood movies. But I appreciate them because of a formal thing, because we all know really instinctively now about how plots are supposed to work. You know when there’s supposed to be a reversal, you know when it’s supposed to tie up. Most films, and books to be quite honest, in the first few pages you know what kind of thing you’re reading and you know how it’s going to go. I mean, certainly in movies — you know you’re watching a comedy, so you know the guy and the girl, they’re going to get together in the end. You know the shape of it. And it’s a sort of banal thing to say on one level, but that’s not how experience is actually shaped in the world. That’s how stuff happens in books; and characters in these kinds of stories behave like characters, they don’t behave like people. If you do try the more complex, in kind of fleeting ways, that experience actually happens to us, then you’ve got to screw with plot in some way.

You know, you can still make books where stuff happens. I don’t think you necessarily have to be some kind of high postmodernist and refuse any kind of stability of meaning. One way I’ve found is through the use of silence and the use of incompleteness, because that demands a kind of active reading. It demands something from the reader — a kind of collusion with the writer. You’ve got to decide what you think might have happened, you’ve got to decide why you think certain things are being placed side by side. Because, you know, in our Internet world, we’ve got a constant flux of stuff. You’re clicking on one thing and then one thing leads to another and leads to another. And yet, the kind of interesting thing about the novel is almost the most old-fashioned thing about the novel: you’re putting a boundary around a bunch of stuff. You’re taking some stuff out of the flow and saying, Look at this — this is the reason all these things are between these covers, are within this boundary. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to go and tie it all up in the end in a neat way, but there’s still an interesting specific set of decisions made about putting it all together. So there are a number of ways that you can approach this, and various people have quite different approaches, but certainly in Gods Without Men I was interested in making something that was organized almost through rhyme rather than through plot. The different stories in the book echo each other, and hopefully start to work together to grow elements that are repetitious, and there are elements that are different.

TM: Right, the book almost asks a reader to read meaning into the work.

HK: Right, exactly. That’s exactly it.

TM:  I’d like to talk more about the fragmentation and the vitiation of culture throughout the novel. Neither Jaz nor Lisa closely identify with their heritage but still wield it when making personal decisions. And in spite of Jaz possessing the trappings of a culture, he never escapes an awareness that he’s faking it, he forgets his immigrant roots. Or, there’s the military base where the Iraqi immigrants role-play in a model Iraqi town in order to train troops before they’re deployed. What role does culture play in these American lives? Is it a costume to try on, to wear on special occasions? Is there an integrity to this fragmentation?

HK: That’s a question I’ve always had to deal with in a very personal way because of my own background. I’ve got an Indian dad and an English mom and I grew up a second-generation kid in London, and so the kind of way you position yourself in relation to culture is a kind of live question at all times. Since the ‘60s and through the ‘70s and ‘80s in particular, people were being taught that culture is basically, the world is basically a floating collection of signifiers and that you can pick and choose, and you can completely create yourself. And there’s some element of truth to that, in that there’s definitely an element of performance in the cultural identity that you end up with. I mean, it’s what you do and what things you choose to adopt. But at the same time you can’t. There are bodies at the basis of this. You know, there are things that you can’t get free of. I live in a body with quite brown skin compared to my brother and I have an Indian name and my brother was given an English name. My brother’s called Richard and no one would really think he was Indian from looking at him, and yet I’ve always been quite clearly identifiable as somebody who is half Asian. And so in between the idea that there is only one culture and that you inherit it and you live within the tradition and there’s no wiggle room, and the sort of PoMo idea that we’re all busy trying on new stuff, you know, new cultures like hats — we’re floating in between that.

And the business of fragmentation when it comes to culture, that’s a slightly different question again. I grew up being called mixed race and people would say things like, “Oh, it must be nice to have two cultures,” or, “It must be bad not to have one culture.” You’re existing in a split way, and yet that was never how I was experiencing it. It’s normal inside your head. You’re not flipping between one mode and another mode in some sort of troubled way. Even though there’s a lot of people who think of themselves as securely belonging to one culture who imagine that’s what it must be like. I mean, usually that’s only as a kind of complicated or mixie person, by the people who imagine that you must’ve lost something, or you must be a bit rootless and homeless, and you must be yearning for some sort of Little House on the Prairie-type origin. So culture is in play. You take traditions on and then you change the traditions by what you do with them. I mean, Jaz in this book is having quite extreme trouble because he’s made a quite extreme leap. His parents are from a village background in north India and he’s invented himself as a sort of wealthy Wall Street dude, and the gap he’s having to bridge is quite extreme. He has, maybe more than I ever had, a sense of strain from that.

TM: That’s obvious. And it’s interesting to use the U.S. as the landscape for that to play out.

HK: Yeah, it is different from how it is in the UK, for example. I’m really aware of how the whole race and identity stuff plays very differently here. It’s been quite fascinating for me to come from one context — I’ve been living in New York for four years now — and to look at how it goes here in the States. Because the founding myth of America is the melting pot. You know, you come from wherever and then by taking the Pledge of Allegiance you transform yourself into an American. The way you become an American is by assenting to this list of baseline values, or propositions. And beyond that, you don’t have to eat some food or dress a certain way or behave a certain way in order to say you’re American. You stand up and you salute the flag, and then off you go — you’re an American.

It doesn’t work that way in Britain because Britain started off as this colonial, imperial country with the belief that there’s only one way of being British. And then it had a massive influx of immigrants, mainly after the second World War. And people like me turn up, who are clearly British, but at the same time don’t have the kind of… you know, it’s a place where you didn’t have a set, I mean we don’t have a Britain Constitution, there’s not a set of things you have to assent to in order to be a British citizen. It’s all culture and precedent and how it’s always been done. If a bunch of people turn up who do stuff differently, that’s much more threatening to the identity of the country. And the multicultural story of Britain in the last five years has been remaking the whole identity of the country to fit all the new kinds of ways of being British that have turned up. It’s a totally different history from America.

TM: The American landscape figures prominently in the novel. Although the chapters jump across time, from 1778 to 2009, and lives are lived across a multitude of locations, most of the novel unfolds in one geographic area, near the Pinnacles in the Mojave desert – -a landmark described as, where “three columns of rock shot up like the tentacles of some ancient creature, weathered feelers prob[e] the sky.” What is the significance of geography to the novel, and also, in its relation to the American dream and myths of UFOs, higher energies, and the supernatural?

HK: I suppose the first thing to say is that it’s kind of doubled with New York City, and you know, New York is a place of verticals and the place of finance. I’m trying to say it has much more in common with the desert, the place of horizontals and spiritual questions. All of the Walter financial modeling kind of stuff is a way of talking about the idea of credit credos and markets based on faith, in that way when everybody decides to believe the value exists. But the main action of the book is in the desert. The desert has a kind of incredible hold on me as a person. I mean, I first ended up out there just after 9/11 and in the week after 9/11, when I got stuck in the U.S. I’d been on the West Coast for about six weeks and I was supposed to fly out on the 12th of September. And at one o’clock at a motel in West Hollywood I watched the second tower go down. I was supposed to bring this rental car back to LAX and I had this scary experience — all the freeways were closed and the airport was closed and yet the rental car company wouldn’t take no for an answer. They wanted their car. I ended up getting a bit lost, and would kind of hang there on the far side of the street, and was driving around the perimeter. I had a beard at the time and I got pulled over by the cops. They were incredibly jumpy, got their guns out, and I think it was only my English accent at the time that sort of saved me. They just realized when I said, “Hello what seems to be the trouble?” that I was an idiot, and didn’t shoot me. But at that point I just didn’t want to be in LA anymore and I didn’t get to fly out, and so I went to Death Valley and drove around the Mojave for several days, actually ending up in Vegas, which is a whole other story and a very weird time to be in Vegas. But I was out in this moment filled with dash and worry, out in this place. And I went back years later, when I first came to live here, and that kind of got doubled up again. When I’ve been on my own out there, which I have quite a lot — I think I’ve spent around three months in the last two or three years, just driving around different routes and hiking and just being out in this space — it’s a very intense physical experience, just being out in this space. It has to do with light, with thin air, with light bouncing off the white. Midday in summer the contrast is less and the world is bleached out, the light is so intense. And you have that feeling that the gap between the land and the sky has gotten narrower.

Also, of course, the desert in the imagination of America — that great basin is the last barrier where if you’re heading West and you’re trying to get to California, that is the great obstacle that you have to cross. And there are all sorts of slight traces of westward pioneers. You find them in the name Joshua tree. The Mormons named those big yucca plants Joshua trees because they looked like somebody holding their hand up to heaven, imploring God. So the tradition of an intense spiritual striving is there. And on to that you get air space. It’s the place where you can head out to the desert and fence off a big area of land and make it into a bombing range or an aircraft testing range, or you can do your military maneuvers with the Marines. It’s land that gets very intimately bound up with the secret state. There’s Yucca Mountain, which is earmarked as a place where they’re going to store radioactive waste, there’s Area 51, you know the famous secret place that houses UFOs. When you drive around there you’re constantly coming across places you can’t go into. These huge areas of land look exactly like the land on the other side of the road, but are actually military, you know, Air Force or Naval land. I was driving in northern Nevada one time and you couldn’t drive straight through, and suddenly there’s a big sign that said Navy Seal Undersea Training Area. And I’m like, What the fuck? We are so far from water. There’s no doubt that this place had a lake in it, but for a while I was thinking I just don’t even understand what is going on anymore. Like, how is this place being used?

coverAnd the UFO thing really comes out of the convergence of those two things. It’s the spiritual tradition meeting technology, meeting specifically airspace technology. And at the moment of the Cold War, you can track the history of UFO sightings very closely to how people were feeling about the Cold War and their worries about nuclear destruction. Initially all the aliens that people were meeting were described as being these peaceful humans who had come to save us from our technological destruction. And then later, once the big security state had built up in response to the Cold War, when everything was getting fenced off and people were becoming aware that there was this massive secret budget within the government that was perhaps not fully under control, that’s when all the alien encounters turned dark as well. It all becomes very paranoid and all the Greys turn up, you know, the classic E.T. types, Aliens, The X-Files. They’re like a projection of paranoia about the government. The UFO story eventually turns into a story about the people’s relationship to government when the government is keeping something secret from us.

TM: When you were talking about the relationship of technology and spirituality, it made me think of a line in the novel about Schmidt that stood out to me: “The shape of his project became clear: how to connect the mysteries of technology with those of the spirit.”

HK: That’s absolutely the center of what UFOS… I think you can call it a religion almost. I mean, UFO mythology is actually a kind of tech version of something that was already there. The one thing I found out when I was researching that completely fascinated me was that there was this spate of airship sightings across the West in the 1880s and 1890s, from west Texas all through the Prairie States and into the Southwest. People would report airships and this was a time before they were in use. There were occasionally even sightings of encounters with airmen who seemed human but not all together human, including one report of a crash where there was supposed to be a body that the local pastor had buried somewhere, I think in Texas. When a new technology comes along, it kind of turns up in this sort of spiritualized way in the imagination. I mean, you could almost say the same thing was happening in the early days of the Internet in the late ‘80s when William Gibson was writing about these kind of ghostly AIs becoming conscious. And at that point we were just realizing that the global network was becoming bigger than we could comprehend and understand and what would happen if it actually took on a life of its own. You know, with each new wave of tech that comes along, there’s an early stage where our ideas about the beyond and transcendence get really wrapped up with that.

TM: What contemporary novels (besides your own, of course) do you think best speak to the times and the fragmentation of twenty-first century life?

covercoverHK: There’s an Icelandic novelist called Sjón and he wrote a book called From the Mouth of a Whale, that’s actually set in sixteenth-century Iceland but it’s about the lone man of reason in this age of superstition. He’s a sort of proto-scientist. He’s been collecting natural specimens and trying to think through this stuff, and he’s stuck out there on the edge of the world and in this kind of crazy… it’s an extraordinary, extraordinary novel that came out a few years ago. It’s dull almost to say because everybody thinks it but Bolaño’s 2666 is very important in the use of gaps and the kind of active reading stuff that we were talking about before. Quite a lot of the work of Don DeLillo actually was the first stab at this stuff — some of his 1980s work. I’m really interested in Libra, the book about the Kennedy assassination, that’s about how this plot takes on its own life, this conspiracy takes on its own life and without anybody really setting something in motion. The network takes over and things take the course and that’s a really important insight that he had in that book. And in a funny way, there’s a Chinese novel I’d like to recommend as well, by Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian, Soul Mountain. There’s a kind of genre to these Chinese books that are almost like Beat books in a funny way — they’re about people getting the hell out of the city and going to find themselves through road trips. Soul Mountain is essentially about a guy who’s traveling in very rural, traditional parts of China and he retells lots of folk tales and meets various people, but it’s fragments, and sometimes it’s first person, sometimes it’s third person, sometimes it’s second person, so there’s a destabilization there. His way of using stories and his way of splitting up the self really interests me.





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One Response to “Plot, Rhyme, and Conspiracy: Hari Kunzru Colludes with His Readers”

  1. sordfite
    at 10:01 pm on March 20, 2012

    I drove through northern Nevada last year and was similarly perplexed by the Undersea Training Area until I saw the lake on the other side. One of several bizarre experiences I had in northern Nevada.

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