Writing and Nothingness
By Hari Kunzru
What is identity? Ask this question and you’ve touched the inquiry at the heart of contemporary letters. What is it to be black in a white world, or white in a black world—or, indeed, brunette in a blonde world? What is it to be a Jewish-American, a female cattle-rancher, overweight, a victim of child abuse, an addict, the child of a celebrity? Where the issue of class was the sociological lodestar of the first half of the 20th century (an issue in many ways defanged by the economic boom of the 1950s), class has now been absorbed into the democratically broad fascination with individual identity. What is it to be poor, middle-class, extravagantly wealthy? These are now all equally viable subjects for exploration, equal by dint of their categorical existence. In the all-inclusive ethos of a globalizing age, each component contributing to the planet’s diversity perforce merits serious consideration.
Why is identity important? Ask this question and, innocently enough, you’ve found the hollow core of so much of the literature that confines itself to the investigation of this theme. A novel that is about the experience of, say, a Chinese teenager who emigrates to the US is able to reveal how it is to be a teenaged Chinese-American immigrant during a certain period of time, but if you plumb such a book for deeper truths you’re prone to be frustrated by the inability of labels to yield them.
Most books, of course, never even attempt to transcend mere documentation. Because novels have been more and more reduced to the lowly level of memoirs—a kind of book that everybody should one day write but only a select few, poets and presidents among them, should ever publish—believable transcription of the experience of being X, whether X is a hermaphrodite, a child soldier in Africa, or a freelance writer in Brooklyn, is sufficient excuse for the book to be considered significant.
But even novels that aspire to more than autobiography tend to strike against a dead end when pursuing the theme of identity. The only greater truth that it seems possible to draw, in fact, is that identity is subjective and changeable. Its very malleability can be a prosperous topic, as John Barth’s absurdist pseudo-history The Sot-Weed Factor and William Gaddis’ subversive, head-spinning masterpiece The Recognitions amply prove. But the scope and intellectual rigor of books such as these are hardly within the reach of the ordinary ruck and run of earnest novelists. In an honest effort to confront 21st-century multiculturalism, most writers will dicker over a character’s appearance and pedigree throughout the length of a novel (the irony being that delineators of diversity are often more obsessed with skin color and ethnic extraction than hardened racists), only to conclude that identity is just skin deep and a poor way by which to judge your neighbor. No one should be surprised that these books can’t tap into universal themes; there’s a good reason that Shakespeare didn’t write plays simply about what it’s like to be a Moor, or a Montague.
In 2002, Hari Kunzru published The Impressionist, a smart, marvelously imaginative, and ultimately disastrous debut that serves as an ingenious epitome of the present-day preoccupation with identity. The Proteus of this performance is a half-Indian, half-English boy born in the start of the 20th century initially named Pran Nath (he will have six or seven names before he turns twenty) whose mixed lineage causes him to be barred of his inheritance and cast from his Indian household as a child. From that point, like a mannequin taking on any persona it’s dressed to depict, the boy slips from one existence to another. He is first taken in at a brothel, where he’s drugged and prostituted; he’s then sold as a catamite for a debauched British officer; fate and authorial contrivance lead him to be adopted by married missionaries (his passport for all these transmigrations is his white skin); finally, he gets his hands on a murdered British boy’s documents and moves to England to attend Oxford, now thought by his caretakers to be a prettily-sunkissed purebred Anglo-Saxon.
It is tempting to say that the writing style in The Impressionist changes to reflect the unstable identity of the main character, but it’s far more likely that Kunzru was simply searching for his voice. In the first half of the novel, set along the borderline of 1910s India and a slightly fantastical place that can only be thought of as Salman Rushdie-land, Kunzru’s narration is mordant , derisive, and aloof: it gazes critically at the horror-show of the story with, at the risk of making an ethnic stereotype, what one might call British phlegm. In the very first chapter, for instance, as a flood surprises a caravan of travelers,
Moti Lal keeps hold of his umbrella, standing bolt upright in roiling foam with a looks-like-rain expression on his face. Then he is swept under, and the umbrella goes skating off across the swell. As his lungs fill with water, he thinks with irritation about the expense of replacing it. Then, one more bead flicked across the abacus, one more column of figures completed with the stroke of a pen, he drowns.
In these nightmarish (and very entertaining) early chapters, Kunzru’s quips are so dry that Noël Coward might arch an eyebrow, as in this description of a boy named Jean-Loup, who is angling for the attention of the pederast officer:
Jean-Loup stalks the corridors, a purposefully aimless flâneur. He suspects he has a rival. Jean-Loup hates rivals. Jean-Loup’s rivals get cut. So he looks around for a good-looking boy dressed in English school uniform. He will not be so pretty soon, hein?
But the instant that the boy who was Pran Nath becomes Jonathan Bridgeman, an Oxford underclassman, it’s made apparent that this witty, detached voice is not quite natural to Kunzru, that it is accomplished mimicry. Now, although the conflicts are far less traumatic than those earlier on—fitting in with the lads and winning over a flighty first love compared to rape and attempted murder—an attitude of somberness emerges, as though to tell us that the serious part of the book has begun. Here, Jonathan reflects on a friend he has let down:
What began on the day of Paul’s expulsion has been completed; the long slow process of betrayal. He wants to run back and tell him that he did not mean it, that he does not hate him, or want him to die or disappear. It was a disguise, Paul, it was only a game. He cannot rid himself of the memory of his friend’s face, the look of horror as he recognized him, the quick sequence of hurt, anger, and defiance. Loneliness crushes him like a physical weight.
The book indeed becomes lachrymose to the point of self-importance, an indication that Kunzru identifies too personally with his main character and is taking his ill-treatment to heart. The attentive reader will not be surprised to learn, then, that Kunzru himself is half-Indian and half-English, and that he attended Oxford as well. Once again autobiography has rushed in to fill the vacuum left when the theme of identity exhausts its potential.
Strangely though, it turns out that Kunzru’s primary interest is the vacuum. Near the end of The Impressionist, in its most heavy-handed scene, Jonathan Bridgeman watches a stage performer act out a series of impressions:
One after the other, characters appear. One with a deep baritone voice. Another with a little cap and a hectoring way of talking. Each lasts a few seconds, a minute. Each erases the last. The man becomes these other people so completely that nothing of his own is visible. A coldness starts to rise in Jonathan’s gut, cutting through the vodka. He watches intently, praying that he is wrong, that he has missed something. There is no escaping it. In between each impression, just at the moment when one person falls away and the next has yet to take possession, the impressionist is completely blank. There is nothing there at all.
For Kunzru, it’s not the mutability of identity that he wants to illuminate but its wholesale fraudulence. That fraudulence is underscored by other fixations in the novel: séances, phrenology, ethnocentric anthropology, even the entire British Empire, whose façade of benevolent authority is fast crumbling away into chaos. Something vaguely atavistic seems to lie behind the identities the person named Jonathan Bridgeman has assumed, but this root truth is never seriously sought out by Kunzru. He’s interested, instead, in falsity, and behind the make-believe there is only emptiness.
|The flaws of an aesthetic based on emptiness surface in a particularly egregious manner in Kunzru’s second novel, Transmission. Like its predecessor, Transmission begins convincingly—it follows a well-meaning Indian programmer who moves to Silicon Valley, endures years of alienation, and then unleashes a computer virus (the sympathetic humor here is light years more mature than that in The Impressionist, far more sensitive and warm)—but then collapses into the black hole it vainly tries to posit as plot. Incredibly, Kunzru’s idea of an ending is to simply make all his characters disappear. The point seems to be that our identities can in an instant be wiped out of reality, like the data on a corrupted hard drive. But this point, dubious in its own right, is made at the expense of the reader, which Kunzru seems to realize since he spends the last chapter of the book attempting to explain to us that he hasn’t actually made a dramatic blunder of the first magnitude.|
With My Revolutions, freshly planted on bookstore new release tables, there is an early sense that Kunzru is trying to rectify these previous abdications. For one thing, the novel is told in the first-person, which works as a kind of child safety lock to prevent Kunzru from running away from his main characters. When a person tells a story about his life, you have to believe there’s something real about that life to warrant the telling.
And at first it seems that there is, although what that something might be exactly, Kunzru can’t quite identify. His narrator is Chris Carver, who in his youth joined British protest groups that began by staging marches and sit-ins and escalated to adopt terrorist tactics. After helping to organize a bombing, Chris fled from his past, took an assumed name, and hunkered into an ordinary middle-class existence with a woman and child who know nothing of his background. But when the novel starts, a figure from the revolutionary underground has threatened to reveal Chris’ identity, and Chris has decided again to flee, without a clear idea of who he might next become.
Clearly, Kunzru’s old bugbears of fraudulence and disappearance are still present and accounted for, but the key to My Revolutions is in Chris’ attempt, as he runs away from his well-heeled family life, to come to grips with the inchoate passions that led him from being a staunch pacifist and equal-rights idealist to a violent criminal. He reflects that “you can’t hate the world’s imperfection so fiercely, so absolutely, without getting drawn toward death,” but what was it precisely that he hated, and what made that hatred—and the attendant zeal to strike back—so intense?
There is a genuine pathos in Chris’ effort to explain his life to himself. Of the hectic, idealistic early days, he recalls,
You could make something out, dimly through the blizzard of opinion that seemed to surround even the simplest question of right and wrong: change, the sense that everything was in play, all verities suspended. We were getting telegrams from the CGT union in Barcelona, from Bertrand Russell. We were a sign of something, the canaries in the capitalist coal mine, the Vanguard.
And when he meets and shares a drug trip with his principal revolutionary partner Sean Ward he says, “that trip with Sean accelerated something”: “I had a sudden sense of the incredible connectedness of things and soon afterward my environment transformed itself into something rich and radically strange.”
A long list of positive objects are tried out in substitution of this ubiquitous “something”—reactions to nuclear stockpiling, economic exploitation, overseas aggression (this is the period of the Falklands war), even the very existence of a supervising state; at times the potent “something” seems like it might be camaraderie, friendship, or love (in this case with a fellow revolutionary named Anna); perhaps, Chris wonders, it is simply the intoxicating thrill of standing up to authority. There is a strong, sharply described scene in the novel’s first half in which a protest is smashed by police, and shortly after that, even more impressively, Kunzru stages a sex scene that superbly captures the illicit excitement of youthful defiance.
But soon enough, dishearteningly if predictably, all of these “somethings” recede into irrelevance. The novel’s title, we discover, contains a brilliant but self-defeating pun: Chris’ revolutions (literally referring to the forced-exercise marches he underwent during a brief prison sentence) also allude to the redundant circularity of his antigovernment activity. Not only do his actions produce no tangible changes, he begins to lose any notion of why he’s taking part in them. Chris and his cohort, despite their increased energy and aggression, are just chasing a stuffed rabbit around a track.
And while Kunzru can’t very well make Chris vanish (Anna, the love interest, isn’t as lucky: throughout the novel we’re promised a climactic reunion with her that never comes to pass), he does the next worst thing: he makes Chris insignificant. Chris’ growing militarism is recollected hastily, almost distractedly, to imply the pointlessness of each more violent, radical scheme. Here is a passage from the misdemeanor stage of Chris’ life, when he and his friends pillage a grocery store:
The next few minutes were insane. We ran around the building like television prizewinners, pulling stuff off shelves and slinging it into the vans. We’d only brought two flashlights, so several people were always stumbling around in the dark. In the freezer room I grabbed chicken after chicken. Sean and Anna were chucking in sacks of potatoes, jars of coffee, whole pallets of canned vegetables. Soon enough we were back on the road, skidding northward up Ladbroke Grove toward Free Pictures. I was whooping and shouting, laughing like a maniac.
And then this, when Chris has become a felon:
Like Sean, I’d had enough of Nice Mike. “Fuck his friends,” I said. It was two to one, so we went back to the Bentley and told him how it was going to be. When he argued, Sean stuck a gun in his mouth, to prove he was “packing.” We took Mike’s briefcase of cash and drove away in his ridiculous car, leaving his kneeling by the side of the road, his eyes tightly shut and his hands clasped in front of him, as if in prayer. If he had friends, they never found us.
If ever there were scenes that begged to be brought to life, to be dramatized in the moment so that the reader could have a chance to engage with what the characters are experiencing, it’s these, but nearly everything in the last 200 pages of the book is recounted like these passages—not in scenes but in glosses of scenes. And as a shellac of cynicism is applied to each of Chris’ convictions and pursuits, his narration turns more and more distant and impersonal, until My Revolutions ceases to even count as a novel and becomes merely a disenchanted inventory of a lot of mean, meaningless things done by hollowed-out people.
Of course, it will be argued that this pointlessness is the point—that Kunzru is making an artistic and political statement about the essential bankruptcy of terrorism. Kunzru never mentions al-Qaeda or September 11—he’s smart and skilled enough to let readers make what connections they will—but it’s easy to infer the lesson that violent resistances begin as small, innocent delusions and metastasize into vast, dangerous delusions in the vain attempt to become real. The only constant—the only constant anywhere in Kunzru’s novels—is the lie.
For one thing, though, the point itself is much too neat to provide any compelling diagnosis of how people come to embrace revolutionary violence. Unlike Chris Carver, real terrorists, whether their names are Maccabee, Murphy, McVeigh, or Mohamed Atta, know exactly what the “something” is that they’ve decided to fight and kill for, and are unswerving in their convictions of its truth. They recognize no delusion whatsoever.
But even if there is some cogency in the perspective Kunzru offers, what is the good of it? What is the good of constructing a believable novel if all you’re inevitably going to do is expose the blankness behind the construction? If he wanted to, Kunzru could plausibly keep writing novels about the fraudulence of every aspect of human endeavor—but what can he possibly get out of this? As he’s whittled each of his initially ambitious works of fiction down to an empty end, humans have nevertheless gone on loving, learning, working, hating, and killing—living lives that are as obviously, demonstrably full and significant as Kunzru’s gifts with the written word.
Ultimately, all that My Revolutions shines light on is the artistic trend that condones the bait-and-switch “revelation” in which the things the reader has been persuaded to care about are nothing at all, are just snazzy artifice. In art’s long life this trend will be only an eyeblink, but it still would not be bad if readers began to actively turn against an ethos that resists affirmation of anything, that confuses world-weariness for wisdom, and that thinks that making nothing from something is good enough.
Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, thefanzine.com, and The Quarterly Conversation. He lives in New York City.