June 10, 2008
Hari Kunzru: My Revolutions
Hari Kunzru made a bit of a splash with his first novel The Impressionist, and was named as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2003. The Impressionist was a fine book, rich in detail and witty flourishes, and showed Kunzru to have a knack of producing fleeting characters with a real sense of identity to them. This was balanced by the conscious decision not to give the protagonist (‘the impressionist’) a character of his own, which may explain why the book hasn’t become a more widespread success. His second novel Transmission, had a wonderful buzz to its first half, but after the central plot point had unfolded – a computer virus released on the world which did everything the Millennium Bug didn’t – Kunzru seemed not to know where to take his story, and the horribly rushed ending put the tin hat on Transmission as an honourable failure, or an example of difficult second book syndrome.
My Revolutions unfortunately shows a further decline. It was pure ploddery from start to finish, and the most striking and disappointing aspect was that none of the characters came alive, which is extraordinary from the author of The Impressionist.
The concept of the book is an interesting one. Mike Frame is a 50 year old Englishman living a comfortable life with his partner Miranda; together they run an upmarket toiletries business called Bountessence. However Mike is not really Mike, but had a former life in the 1970s as a left-wing rioter and bomber called Chris Carver. As the book begins, on the eve of his 50th birthday celebrations, he is about to be uncovered:
I have to be clear. It’s already over. All this – the house, my family, this ridiculous party – no longer exists. But accepting that doesn’t mean I know what to do next, and even if I choose to do nothing, events will carry on unfolding, and very soon now, days or even hours, my life here will be over.
His life – his new life – will be over because his old life is still there, waiting in the shadows. Identity then is central to this book as it was in The Impressionist, but this book never really gets properly into the issue. We are supposed to wonder whether the central character, is really his ‘now’ self – Mike Frame, prosperous suburbanite – or his ‘then’ self – Chris Carver, Vietnam war protestor turned agitprop revolutionary. “What, I wonder, if we were what we appear to be?” So the central drama of the story should be how Chris, and more importantly those around him, deal with the revelation of his hidden past.
Unfortunately – spoiler for a book the author pre-spoiled for you – this never happens, as he’s just about to tell his wife as the book ends. Instead Kunzru concentrates mostly on Mike/Chris’s past, and his slow development from anti-war campaigner into Leftist bomber in 1970s England. (Kunzru in the acknowledgements emphasises that the story is not a representation of the Angry Brigade, though some of their bombings match. Why so cagey? Can you libel terrorists?) As a reader never that interested in ‘backstory,’ it’s uninvolving and not even particularly illuminating: why tell us what made a person who he is when we never find out much about who he is? I have no doubt Kunzru researched his people and milieu thoroughly, so it’s a shame that so many of the characters seem types and the details feel like stock background (“…a flophouse in Naples where you could hear cockroaches scuttling about on the tiled floor after they turned out the lights … I sat around in my bedroll on main squares, listening to long-haired kids playing guitars and hustling one another for dope…”).
There is the odd hint of the old Kunzru’s talent for smart phrasemaking (a town centre with Starbucks and other ubiquitous brands is “a wipe-clean playpen for the consuming classes”) but overall the impression My Revolutions gave me was that it was beginning to look worryingly as though, with three books behind him, it was the good one that was the anomaly. There’s an interesting story to be told about an Englishman’s involvement in leftist terrorism in the 70s, and it’s the last third of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart. There’s an interesting story to be told, too, about living a dual identity in politically violent times, and the trauma of hiding your past from your family, and it’s by William Boyd too: Restless. Either would be a better investment of time than this.