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

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.


  1. Absolutely right, John. A book of no originality whatsoever. The more I read it, the more I couldn’t believe it was a book by one of Britain’s supposed best young writers. Shockingly dull.

  2. Sadly no, Isabel! The cover above is the only one I could find online but it isn’t the cover that’s available – it must have been an earlier draft. Usually in those circumstances I would scan on or photograph my copy of the book, but with this one, frankly, I couldn’t be bothered!

    Yes Jonathan, I know at least one person who liked My Revolutions but I thought it lacked not only pretty much all the qualities I look for in a book, but also all the qualities I had previously enjoyed and admired in Kunzru’s work. I’ll put it down to an off-day, but with the decline in the three books of his I’ve read, I’m not sure I’ll bother with his next to find out if he can return to form.

  3. Snap! I’m just over half-way through this at the moment. The book would benefit from a sense of urgency, especially in the present-tense sections, and for a novel centred around the life of a one-time anarchist the prose is oddly conformist: so far I’ve counted two instances of characters described as having ‘a mop’ of hair. But, you’re right, he does stud the narrative with the odd arresting detail: Sean is ‘piratically bearded’, which is wonderfully quick and vivid!

    I suppose the stock prose reflects the stock characters which reflects the difficulty of the task Kunzru set himself in trying to sit inside the head of a bomber. Updike had the same problem in ‘Terrorist’: he found himself in the dark and reached for what was familiar and easy to comprehend instead of risking getting-it-wrong.

    But I think I will read Kunzru’s next because, although I agree with your assessment of this book, it’s still for me his best novel so far. ‘The Impressionist’ was I thought derivative, dull and full of caricatures. And although ‘My Revolutions’ may be derivative and dull, he has moved from caricature to stock character. Progress may be slow, but he’s on the right track.

  4. Hmm. I actually really, really enjoyed this novel. I read it in about two days, I was that caught up in it. I can’t really remember why, though. I think the parallels between what Michael Frame was doing against Vietnam and what was not being done against the current war in Iraq really held true for me. Mike himself, and his backstory (always something I like to read – I think it is vital to an understanding of any fictional character) were really engaging.

    And I haven’t read any other Hari Kunzru, though I do really want to. He’s on my exceptionally long list.

  5. I’m pleased you like it, matt – and if you did, as indicated above, I think his other two novels are better (though as you can also see, Sam wouldn’t agree!). Interesting you should mention the parallels with the current Iraq war – I noted that too, and was surprised to see a (positive) newspaper review of the book which said it was pleasing to read a work which didn’t for once claim any connection between past and present events! Takes all sorts eh…

  6. Hiya John,

    Not read this — and don’t really fancy it …

    Above, cited as one of your objections to the novel, you say “none of the characters came alive.” Readers often say this, of course, so forgive me for picking on you, but I’m never really sure I know what it means!

    For me, characters don’t ever really come alive. I’m neither convinced by characters that we are told are impressively 3-dimensional, nor put-off by characters that are said to be wooden or 2-dimensional … so what are your requirments for “good” characterisation and what does it mean for you when you say they need to come alive?


  7. Hi Mark

    Well I suppose in saying that I was guilty of using reviewerly cliché. What I meant in the case of My Revolutions was that the characters never seemed to do or say anything unexpected: once Kunzru had introduced them they seemed to play along predictable lines: the middle-class businesswoman; the cynical political fixer; the fiery revolutionary. Real people, and well-portrayed characters in books, occasionally do unexpected things which jolt the reader awake. Not here.

    But I tend to agree overall. Many authors I like produce characters who are little more than caricatures: Waugh, Amis, Vonnegut. Also I’m amused by Nabokov’s response to claims by E.M. Forster (among others) that the characters can take on ‘life of their own’:

    What a preposterous experience! Writers who have had it must be very minor or insane. … My knowledge of Mr Forster’s works is limited to one novel which I dislike; and anyway it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or wherever he takes them. My characters are galley slaves.

  8. Hi John,

    Thanks for such a wonderful site, I always enjoy a good read here – in addition to all the multiple suggestions of other good reads. I have not read anything by Hari Kunzru; I don’t know why, I’ve never been lured – or rather, another book twinkling up at me has always outlured any HK tomes. The real reason for my comment, though, is to ask for suggestions on possible … probable … Man Booker longlist suggestions. I’m normally buried in books from the past and am currently reading ‘Sister Carrie’, Andrew Marvell’s poetry and ‘Disgrace.’ However, after some involvement in last year’s Man Booker I am making an effort to read ‘possible contender’ books. I’m sticking to the new ones, not ones by Peter Carey, et al, which will automatically be on the judges lists. So … any suggestions? So far I’ve read ‘Pilcrow’ ‘Northern Clemency’ and ‘Crusaders’, but it is so difficult to decide where to spend my money, when there are so many books and the reviews are so variable. All guidelines welcome, and apologies if you have already discussed this and I’ve missed it.

  9. Hi Carole

    Thanks for the kind words. It’s an interesting subject you raise and one that has been on my mind lately – the longlist announcement is only two months away!

    I did quite well last year at guessing five of the thirteen longlisted titles, but to be honest this year I’m struggling. I too have read Pilcrow and (about half of) The Northern Clemency and would be surprised if either made it. I’m currently reading Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland which has had a lot of praise in the press: I have mixed feelings so far, but it might be worth a shot (that’s if O’Neill qualifies: he’s described as Irish but living in New York, so he could qualify for the Booker the same way Peter Carey does).

    Speaking of Carey, a few people I know have raved over His Illegal Self, so although you’re avoiding established names, it too could be in with a good chance. I personally have high hopes for Patrick McGrath’s Trauma – see elsewhere on my blog – but again I don’t know if McGrath qualifies: he was born in England but has lived in New York for 30 years, and I don’t know if he has taken US citizenship, which could disqualify him. (To bring things round in a circle, he’s friends with Carey too.)

    I will stick my neck out and predict that Andrew Crumey’s novel Sputnik Caledonia will make the longlist, and I would also be pleased to see David Park’s The Truth Commissioner there -I’ve written about both here; you can find them from the author index at the top right. Otherwise, like you I feel swamped by the sheer numbers of possible contenders every time I look in a bookshop.

    Oh, one other title that seems a good bet is Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture – again, he’s an established name having been shortlisted before, but it’s been well received.

    Do let me know how you get on with selecting some to read!

  10. Hi CaroleJ

    Hope you don’t mind my twopennorth. To everyone’s surprise, I picked out ‘Life of Pi’ and ‘The Gathering’ as probable winners before the longlist was announced, so I’m not bad at Booker-guessing (though I thought Messud’s ‘The Emperor’s Children’ was a near-cert and that fell away at the longlist stage). But…

    O’Neill is a US Citizen so unless he has dual nationality (and I don’t think he does) ‘Netherland’ won’t be eligible I’m afraid.

    Winton’s ‘Breath’, Carey’s ‘His Illegal Self’ and Ghosh’s ‘Sea of Poppies’ I think will all make the longlist but get no further.

    The little-known books that I think really will make an impact are: ‘The Impostor’ by Damon Galgut, a South African novelist whose debut ‘The Good Doctor’ made the shortlist a few years ago. Also ‘The Lost Dog’ by Australian writer Michelle de Kretser has been slowly making the right kinds of noises. And ‘A Fraction of the Whole’ by debut writer Steve Toltz (another Australian) has been generating some strong murmurrings about being a potential contender come the Booker sweepstake.

    But I think you have to also look at the judges and see what their prejudices are. The brilliant critic Alex Clark (who laid into McEwan – hurrah!) is on the panel and I think she’s not averse to the ambitious comic novel (in the past she’s said that both ‘Darkmans’ and ‘Kalooki Nights’ were her favourite longlisted titles). So, depending on her skills of persuasion, it might be the year of the comic novel, à la ‘A Fraction of the Whole’.

    On another point, characters come alive for me all the time.

  11. Thanks for all those suggestions John and Sam – any more contributions out there, anyone? I was definitely intending to read the Sebastian Barry, John, as I was so impressed by the language and structure of ‘A Long Long Way.’ I’ll also be reading ‘Sputnik Caladonia’ – I’d missed the reviews completely, but ‘MD’ was excellent. After reading all your pieces on Patrick McGrath I was working up to trying ‘Trauma’ (Booker contender or not. NB An article on Carey desribes McGrath as C’s ‘fellow adopted New Yorker’ … but I havn’t checked any further). I keep putting it off as I loathed ‘Port Mungo’ but I’ll give him another go. And, yes, Sam … the Damon Galgut was in my sites; I enjoyed ‘The Good Doctor’ although ages after its Booker appearence – that’s the problem, my head’s always elsewhere and I miss works when the fuss is happening and then many can be lost. I’ll definitely try the de Keltzer and Toltz, but agree with you about the Ghosh. Thanks again, I’ll let you know how I get on.

  12. Loathed Port Mungo, Carole! Then Trauma may not be for you after all. I too liked The Good Doctor but I admit I summarily dismissed Galgut’s The Impostor after reading the opening scene in a bookshop and thinking it very derivative (man falls foul of corrupt cop). But I could, as so often, be wrong!

    Very interesting choices Sam – I was just thinking about Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole this morning and thinking I should have added it to my reply above. I’d like to read it irrespective of Booker betting but at 700+ pages it just looks like a major commitment. Though if Clark liked Kalooki Nights (it was the first Jacobson novel, and I consider myself a fan, that I couldn’t finish) then she may be tempted by his new one The Act of Love which I think is published in time to qualify.

    I read Winton’s Breath last October in an early proof copy but the publishers didn’t want me to post about it then, and I can’t remember much about it now. I did enjoy it though: it was my first Winton. The Lost Dog hasn’t really appealed to me but it was explicitly tipped for the Booker by Kate Saunders in The Times (though I’ve found I disagree with her as often as I agree).

    ‘Netherland’ won’t be eligible I’m afraid


  13. Yay for Australian books! A Fraction of the Whole is a genius book! It looks long, but it is not a particularly difficult read. Or that’s what I tell the customers, anyway.

    Hmm, other Australian books for the Booker…Breath, probably, His Illegal Self, maybe. Whoever wins the Miles Franklin on Thursday. Yay! Australia for the Booker!

  14. Thanks Matthew. I did in fact buy A Fraction of the Whole at the weekend, after the exchange above with Sam and Carole (and narrowly avoided buying the Galgut). Looking through it I can see what you mean: it’s long but far from dense. Put me a little in mind – dare I say it? – of Tom Wolfe, and though that might seem faint praise, I was thoroughly entertained by Bonfire of the Vanities, so who knows? It’s compared on the back cover of the UK edition with A Confederacy of Dunces, which I find more problematical. Dunces is a book with such a strong following that it’s almost verboten to criticise it, and I did enjoy it very much when I read it, but even while doing so I could tell I wasn’t going to want to return to it (or even hang on to my copy). So I’d hope for slightly more than that from A Fraction of the Whole.

  15. Incidentally Carole and Sam, a couple of other titles keep giving me a gut feeling about the Booker longlist: Edward Hogan’s Blackmoor and Mohammad Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes. I’ve toyed with them both in bookshops, but will probably wait for the list to be announced next month. Sorry Matthew, neither of these titles is by an Australian!

  16. Thanks for the great column about new writing, John.
    I read MY REVOLUTION and liked it less than either of Kunzru’s other two. It seemed to me to be a tale told by someone with almost no personality. Compared to him, the narrator of THE IMPRESSIONIST was as broadly and energetically drawn as the lead role in a great Joan Crawford picture. Was Mike/Chris ever really passionate or engaged about anything? Even his fear of the repercussions of being exposed after he is found out seem oddly passive and uninvolved. His fights seem far removed from his own concerns and his relationships don’t feel plausible for anything more than an exercise to move symbols about. The book’s in the pile to be moved out to the charity shops or Friends of the Library or something. Books can be so hard to get rid of when you don’t like them. I don’t suspect many people will be buying multiple copies of this one to pass around to friends.
    Sorry you’re having a hard time finding something to delight you lately. I very much enjoyed a couple of your recommendations and I hope you’ll settle on something short, smart and brilliant. I recommend:
    Charles Willeford THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY and/or PICK UP
    Vicki Hendricks MIAMI PURITY It’s porn like James M. Cain would write…if he were a very twisted woman.
    Robert Plunket MY SEARCH FOR WARREN HARDING (an awfully funny, late 80s gloss on THE ASPERN PAPERS) and/or LOVE JUNKIE.
    I’ve read each of these at least three times and bought countless copies to distribute. Each has a smart, manipulative, unreliable narrator who is blind to the destruction they are causing. I know you like that story and so do I.

  17. Thanks for the recommendations Christopher – I’m a little ashamed to admit that I’ve never heard of any of these writers (well, except Charles Willeford, but that’s only because you mentioned him earlier!). Yes, you’re right about my weakness for the unreliable narrator.

    Like you I haven’t held on to my copy of My Revolutions. In fact I’m finding it easier and easier as time goes on to discard (usually to the charity shop) books which I don’t like, or even those which I quite like but don’t love. I never have time to revisit most of the books I do love, so what’s the point of hanging on to the second division ones?

    Fortunately I have hit a slightly riper patch recently, with Malamud’s The Assistant which I just posted about today, and Damon Galgut’s The Impostor, which I’m currently reading.

  18. Sorry, John, just saw your above post. I’d love to see ‘Blackmoor’ on the list. I’ve managed to read most of it over the last few weeks without actually buying it (but I will once the mass-market PB comes out). It’s not particularly mind-blowingly well-written but it does have an appealing first-novel gaucheness/earnestness about it that I liked. Not sure if Simon & Schuster will submit it, though. Talking of first novels, none of us have mention ‘God’s Own Country’ by Ross Raisin! Surely a longlistee shoe-in…?

    I hope you’re not right about the Hanif. The pages I read were, I thought, pretty shoddy, but then I don’t really get satire (odd thing to admit on a blog by John Self) so I wouldn’t listen to anything I’ve got to say on that book.

    I’ve noticed that the Galgut’s been building up a head of steam lately. I think he might do it, you know. Hope so.

  19. Yes the Galgut must be there, I feel. Ross Raisin I have a prejudice against because of his silly name and also the fact that the publishers have seen fit to market his book with a cover to make it look like a Niall Griffiths novel.

    Simon and Schuster aren’t a big lit-fiction publisher so I’d hope they have submitted Blackmoor. I’m certainly glad they submitted (or listed for call-in) Animal’s People last year.

  20. You’re right, John, but that is rather what publishers do, isn’t it, even literary ones: ‘Londonstani’ looked like ‘Brick Lane’ which looked like ‘White Teeth’ (all that embossed wallpaper and ethnography). And, more interestingly, they do it with titles. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that those three mentioned above (and particularly the last two) are all heavy on the plosive consonants (Ali’s working title was ‘Seven Seas and Six Rivers’ until Doubleday got their hands on it). At one point I was certain someone would publish a novel called ‘Drum Beat’ or something.

    The current trend seems to be for début novels with long and sad-sounding titles: ‘Then We Came To The End’, ‘The Invention of Everything Else’, ‘All the Sad Young Literary Men’, ‘All Shall Be Well, All Shall Be Well, And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well,’ (this may just be an American trend). I blame Dave Eggers, and publishers who, as you’ll know, are a lovely bunch forced into unimaginative corners by the ever-rising bottom-line.

  21. Interesting, I was browsing and noticed this older post. I liked this book a lot more, but possibly as I think the novel was about different things than you did and so perhaps I had different expectations of it.

    I didn’t think this was a novel about identity particularly, or that the parts set in the 60s and 70s are intended as backstory to who the central character is in the late 90s period. Whether successful or not, (obviously not in the views of most comments here) I think the novel’s themes are quite different to that.

    As you note, the novel barely treats the question of how Chris deals with his hidden past, and that I think is because the novel isn’t about dual identities or particularly about Chris’s present and what he is going to do now it is all coming out. How he takes things forward with his wife is irrelevant, which is why it is offscreen.

    Rather, I think the novel is more about the process by which Chris becomes radicalised, about the milieu he was part of and about early 70s radicalism. The part in the late 1990s is more a comment on what it all led to, a contrast between the future they believed in and the future they got. Put another way, the heart of the novel is not Chris in the 90s with the past shedding light on his present, rather its heart is Chris in the 70s with his present shedding light on his youth. The central drama of the story is the past itself, not how that past is dealt with.

    None of which means you should have liked it any more of course, I was just interested as what you took to be the central elements to the narrative were very different to those I drew from it.

  22. Thanks for your thoughts Max. Obviously every book is different for every reader, but there’s a case for saying I think that your reading is more ‘correct’ than mine simply as it gave more pleasure than mine did. And logically too, yes I can see that with the bulk of the novel made up of Chris/Mike’s past, then that must be where the heart lies. Nonetheless there’s something in me as a reader which rebels against that, as it were, foregrounding of the backstory: if an author begins a book at point X, I want the narrative substantially to continue from there, and not work its way up to that point. No good argument for that, of course; it’s just the way my wiring works (or doesn’t). I had a similar problem with Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos, and was probably similarly misguided there too.

  23. Hi John, thanks for coming back to me. I’m not sure an interpretation can be correct or incorrect, I think we were simply looking for different things from the novel and I was luckier than you in finding them. I entered the novel expecting a book of ideas about radical politics, radicalisation and a particular period in British history. I wasn’t expecting a novel about character or identity (not sure why not on reflection, I can plainly see why one would expect that, good job I didn’t though as I would have been disappointed).

    I haven’t read any other Kunzru, which I suspect may be relevant to my expectations going in (I note upthread the other person who liked it also hadn’t read his other work), as my impression from your comments is that as a writer he is moving away from the interests of his first novel and into territory which to me is closer to the traditional concerns of science fiction – society, change, big ideas, fiction where characters largely exist as vehicles for the concepts the novel seeks to address. I thought My Revolutions closer to recent work by people like Gibson and Sterling than it was to a more classic piece of fiction about character, as fiction about character My Revolutions plainly fails. As fiction about ideas, I think more of a case could be made (though I haven’t read Eat the Document or The Good Terrorist yet, or the Boyd’s you cite, in fact the sheer amount I haven’t read is sometimes quite intimidating it so dwarfs that which I have). On my blog I tagged this novel as literary fiction, I’m now wondering if I miscategorised it (not that categories hugely matter really).

    Interesting comment on Galapagos, I’m quite fond of it and the comparison is very apt. Galapagos in my view again doesn’t so much have a backstory as two parallel stories which shed light on each other, which can be a dangerous device if the reader finds that one of the stories doesn’t connect or finds one of the stories more interesting than the other. It can also be unsatisfying as a narrative, as the parallel tracking (necessarily? Not sure) undermines the development of the characters and situations within the work. Not sure Vonnegut’s characters develop much though anyway, as I recall some die and some don’t and so it goes.

    And, since I didn’t say it before, great blog by the way. It’s refreshing to see Patrick Hamilton and Joseph Roth getting some attention, and I hadn’t even heard of Malamud. Sadly, it looks like I was missing out and will now have to add him to the teetering tower of unread books I have at home that threatens one day to topple and bury me beyond hope of recovery.

  24. Well we all have those, don’t we Max! My blog is a public way of at least proving that I am gradually working my way through the towers. Of course I probably acquire new titles more quickly than I dispatch them so it’s an uphill battle. Thanks for your comments, thoughts to ponder on both Vonnegut and Kunzru as likened to sci-fi (a very interesting idea which would never have occurred to me).

  25. Yeah, so, about that ‘Netherland’ book – apparently O’Neill did become a US Citizen not so long ago, but (cannily) kept his Irish Passport, too.

    Sorry for misleading you, John.

  26. A correction.

    ‘Blackmoor’ was mentioned above. I’ve now read it properly and I think I was a tad unfair (and patronising) earlier. Its ‘gaucheness/earnestness’ is, I think, very deliberate; the subtle changes in the narrative voice are all part of the novel’s build: it helps create the sense of disturbance that runs throughout the book. It’s a really good read!

    There. I can sleep easy now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s