Hari Kunzru on Networks, the Novel, and the Politics of the Author

Hari Kunzru is a British-born writer who lives and works in New York. He is the author of four novels as well as numerous articles in publications including Wired, the New Yorker, the Washington ...

Hari Kunzru is a British-born writer who lives and works in New York. He is the author of four novels as well as numerous articles in publications including Wired, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the Times of India, and the New Statesman. His first novel, The Impressionist (2002), which won the Betty Trask Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the Pendleton May First Novel Award, follows the adventures of the orphaned son of a wealthy family in Agra as he escapes sexual slavery and tries to pass as white in the raucous and race-paranoid world of early 20th-century Britain. Kunzru’s most recent book, Gods Without Men (2012), is in some ways his most ambitious: a classic American novel as can only be written by a non-American, one set in the Mojave desert and featuring high-frequency trading, the Coyote trickster figure, UFO cults, simulated Iraqi villages for Marine training exercises, strung-out Brit rock stars, autism, and a good old-fashioned media circus. It is a testament to Kunzru’s skill as a writer that he somehow weaves these seemingly incongruous elements into a highly readable, often humorous, never cynical novel that is as moving and compassionate as it is timely and meditative.


I | On History and the Novel


Max Haiven (MH): I want to begin by asking you to talk about the way your approach to narrative has shifted through your four novels. It seems that your early work, like The Impressionist, is a more traditional form of storytelling: it focuses on a single character and follows him chronologically. In My Revolutions [2007] you return to the focus on a single character but jump back and forth between his radical past and melancholic present. But then in Gods Without Men you are really experimenting with temporality and perspective, telling a story not only through multiple characters but between and across multiple temporalities.


Hari Kunzru (HK): I think I’ve kind of edged my way gradually towards something. I’d say that if The Impressionist is traditional, then it’s a traditional postmodern novel in that it’s a book about books, and very much a highly self-conscious response to the canon of literary writing about India. On the surface it’s a very picturesque novel, full of elephants and the spice market and all the furniture of the Raj novel. My Revolutions tries to pretend it speaks to a particular time in a particular place … it’s a New Left novel. But it was my way of trying to address very contemporary questions about political violence, ideological commitment, and making change, and whether it’s possible to use force in support of your politics, by going back to this period before I was born. It was a kind of interrogation of the ’60s nostalgia that I certainly grew up with. You’re a bit younger than I am, but it was a huge thing for me growing up in the ’80s, in this very conservative moment where the revolution was a long, long way away in any psychological or concrete way. My Revolutions was about me trying to imagine being 21 in a moment when it seemed that you might be about to have this millennial change. That moment was always very fascinating to me.

Now, Gods Without Men is a book about God, the way that to be human is to find some livable way of orienting yourself towards the unknown or the unknowable, whether you decide there is some sense of transcendental meaning or some sort of stable or theoretical story you want to tell, or whether you feel there is some sort of void you’re in relation to. I’m interested in the way the structure of religious yearning and mystical experience is very constant, but the contents change. From that theme a certain form became an obvious way of proceeding: to make a lot of parallels, to tell the same story with different kinds of furniture, and in fragments. All these stories break off, and a lot of stuff happens in the silences between them, and there’s a lot of gaps and deliberate unknowns. In Gods Without Men I sort of break that primary “contract” between the reader and the writer, which is that if I tell you something, you’re going to get it explained in the end, and I very deliberately don’t do that. At the heart of that book there’s something that doesn’t add up: what happens to that kid that is in some ways the same child and at other times not. But in general it’s a fairly realist-textured book, but there’s kind of an impossibility in it, something that drains meaning away … There’s also the mythic dimension, with Coyote turning up as a character who may or may not be this human, gnarly, meth-dealing hippie, but may also be this embodiment of this mythic, motive principle. There’s a sort of interrogation of a kind of realist storytelling I’m interested in, which gradually edged on from my first book.

II | Faith, Finance, and Markets


MH: I wanted to pick up on the parallel that I see in the way Gods Without Men is structured and some of the key themes of the book. You’ve spoken a bit about the ways you are playing with narrative, temporality, and the sort of leaps of faith, if you’ll excuse the term, you ask of the reader. Then there’s the recurring appearance of the UFO cult in the desert, which takes on all these different forms and which is the hub of a lot of mystery and mystical activity in the book. And then we also have the theme of finance capital and the 2008 crash. I wondered if all three of these—the form of the novel itself, the UFO cult, and finance—might be imagined as some means of grappling with causality or fate in a dramatically uncertain global environment?


HK: It seemed important to me to talk about the market in a book about American faith. It’s there in the very fabric and language: credit, credo, I believe. The essential nature of value in a market economy fascinates me, especially when we’re talking about highly abstracted objects. If everybody believes Google shares are worth “X” today, that makes it so. Consensus emerges out of the beliefs of actors in the market. We live in a world of increasing volatility and intensity, and the type of instruments used in the markets, and the emergence of high-frequency trading (HFT) and that kind of suprahuman aspect, I find particularly interesting. So on one level I’m trying to map faith in the market onto other forms of faith and belief, and then there’s a political question: I want to ask about what markets are for. I identify as someone of the Left and from a Left perspective, but I think there’s a lot of rather crude thinking on the Left about markets, a kind of residual crude Marxist notion that “markets” equate directly to capitalism, and capitalism is a bad thing. But 20th-century experiments with command economies have shown fairly definitively that it’s no way to organize soap production to have a committee in Moscow try and top-down direct where resources should go. The social function of markets is to help us organize production by means of price signals; they are a useful tool.

On one level I’m trying to map faith in the market onto other forms of faith and belief, and then there’s a political question: I want to ask about what markets are for.

But when you get into what happens with complex derivatives and technologies like HFT you get to a point where the basic social role of markets is very unclear. If the point is to say, “Hey, there’s a demand for coffee in Clinton Hill, let’s direct some of our energies towards providing it,” that’s one thing, but that’s not happening in fractions of a second. There’s no social utility to HFT, unless you buy the argument, proposed by some, that it has improved access to the market and hence made it more stable. A really interesting Marxist category is socially necessary labor, which is his idea of the origin of value; there’s a notion of social utility. We’re very shy of that category because it involves someone determining what might be socially useful instead of it emerging in some sort of perfectly untrammeled way out of the functioning of the market itself. But we have what looks increasingly like a parasitical double world that is preying on the socially useful functions of markets in order to hive off profit for the people who have access to and control of the tools.

And then there’s also the whole business of emergence. Since the brave days of the early ’90s I’ve been very fascinated with chaos and complexity theory. The first time I saw a Mandelbrot set led me to James Gleick and Stuart Kauffman and trying to get my head around the idea that complex phenomena can emerge from the interaction of very simple large populations of actors. A market is clearly one example and now, with the increasing volatility brought about by new technological instruments for trading, huge changes can emerge and blossom and fade away in seconds. And it seems to me this is fascinating, beautiful, and scary all at once.

There’s always been a kind of hidden mystical history of traders in the stock market. If you go back in time there’s an element of propitiating odds. In the early 20th century there was a trader named W. D. Gann who made very complex pen-and-paper models that, reasonably successfully, demonstrated the correlation of astrological cycles to the movements of the market. He showed a cycle of Saturn that was a regular period he could track something in the commodities market to. There’s a lot more esoteric thinking in this milieu where people are trying to get an edge on each other in tiny ways, and are well funded to do so.

Hari Kunzru. Free Word Centre / Elixabet Lopez

Hari Kunzru. Free Word Centre / Elixabet Lopez

What interested me was the idea of thinking about this as a sort of research into the nature of existence, that someone interacting all the time with these extraordinarily complex, changing, very beautiful abstract systems might come to believe they were in some way getting glimpses of the face of God. The one kind of semi-hidden joke in Gods Without Men is that the computer model is called “Walter,” after Walter Benjamin, who, through his friend the radical Jewish theologian Gershom Scholem, became very interested in Kabala and the Kabalistic notion that the world which was once whole has been zerstreut, fragmented, scattered; and that it takes the scholar or Kabalist to sift through and do a sort of algorithmic work on the fragments of the world, looking for these sparks which could be put back together again to restore the world to wholeness. This is the project of the hedge fund in the novel, the kind of second agenda, instead of purely making money, that is this capitalist recuperation of things.

The two central people in the book are Jaz and Lisa. Jaz is a scientifically trained skeptic who’s very uncomfortable in the face of the infinite and the unknowable and who believes everything should be potentially knowable. But at the same time, when he’s faced with what seems to be this kind of mystical correlations between totally different phenomena in the world, he finds it terrifying and repellent, and finds the lead financial architect Cy Bachman’s obsession with “Walter” is the opposite of everything he can handle. Whereas Lisa, his wife, is a figure who wants to believe and has that sort of soft-core new-ageism that seems to be the side effect of having a liberal arts education: the sort of middle-class mysticism where people start off going to a yoga class and before long they’re telling you about homeopathy. There’s a crude cultural split in this husband and wife relation. Lisa’s response to the indecipherable thing that happens to their missing son while he’s away is to have faith (in Kierkegaardian terms, to make the “leap into faith”). Jaz is unable to do that, and he develops a kind of paranoid, overdetermined approach to what he sees around him. He knocks his head against it and is more and more troubled, especially by the change in his son.

III | Systems, Networks, and the Form of the Novel


HK: This is almost too well known for us to go over here, but the ideology of the market is an economic model of man as a rational actor who is motivated by self-interest. But that liberal individualist model has great trouble with ideas of community and ideas of people who don’t behave in economically modelable ways, which we don’t always do. The newish discipline of behavioral finance is an attempt to address this, which is very interesting to me. You can read people like the Nobel Prize–winning economist Daniel Kahneman, whose popular book Thinking, Fast and Slow is an attempt to bring the modelable, quantifiable assumptions and tendencies to seemingly non-quantifiable aspects of human behavior. But it’s about the sovereign individual and the threat that comes to that model if you allow in certain ideas about community and the constructed nature of desire. If your wish for an iPod is not an expression of your sovereign free will but is in some way the product of coercion, then what happens to the Republican Party? I’m very interested in modeling as a way of understanding the world, and that’s essentially what these “quants” are doing with the quantitative approach to trading: you make the model which seems to be an accurate representation of the world for a finite amount of time, because of course the model becomes an actor in the market and then changes the thing that it’s modeling. So these models have a shelf life; you get a better model. In general, I’m very interested in simulation as a way of knowing the world as very characteristic of the present day, and the way certain things are possible to understand intuitively through simulation that wouldn’t be in a top-down way.

I did some graduate work in the philosophy department at Warwick University where people like Manual DeLanda came to teach, and there was a lot of Deleuze and a lot of quite sciency materialism in the mix. Everybody was kicking Derrida in the behind and it was very fruitful to me as a would-be writer because I’d come into that department from an undergraduate literature background where I was all about “the sign” and its relationship to the referent, a very linguistic way of understanding the world. So this kind of thoroughgoing materialism, which at the time was based on Deleuze and what were at that point fairly sketchily understood ideas about emergence, put together a really interesting picture. Which is all by way of saying that my interest in these things has been quite long-standing, partly because they’re so un-literary. It’s always appealed to me to try and use the novel as a way of exploring these complicated and abstract ideas, rather than having to funnel everything through a domestic story about a character understood as sovereign and individual. There’s something very interesting to seeing your characters as nodes on a network and shot through with these larger social and economic forces.


IV | The Politics of the Novel


MH: This brings us to another quotation I wanted to ask you to comment on, from your keynote at The Literary Consultancy’s 2012 conference on “Writing in a Digital Age.” There you said,

The one thing literary fiction can do, and we can do better than other kinds of art making, certainly better than filmmakers, gamemakers, journalists, and most types of visual artists, is something to do with understanding networks. You could call it reification … forget the specifically Marxist connotation of reification—I’m interested in the way in which it’s possible, through narrative, to make something concrete and particular out of an abstraction … Never more than now, when so many of the powerful, ubiquitous aspects of our daily life are these network phenomena [that are] distributed and made up of many parts, some of which are physical, some of which are made up of data, some of which are people … [reification or] fixing things down becomes an important task…. and I want to make the argument that novels are particularly good at dealing with these and describing how it is right now just to navigate through this networked world. It’s a form of what postmodern theorist Jean François Lyotard called “narrative knowledge” … Fiction is a network form.

I think a lot of people felt that fiction was behind the game in dealing with these themes, but you have a different view.


HK: There’s a sort of constant lag between the kind of terms in which fiction is talked about in newspaper criticism and more visible types of public debate, and what’s actually possible. We just had the Booker Prize announcement, and half the people on my Twitter feed are saying, “Yay, Hilary Mantel,” and the other half are saying, “this is a disaster, the historical novel is this awful bourgeois middlebrow form,” as if the only valid kind of writing is the sort that takes its cue from European high modernism and has to do with skepticism and is wrapped up with a tradition that Derrida comes out of: the unraveling of things to do with your epistemological and ontological security. I feel in some ways that is quite an old-fashioned opposition. It’s something that made a great deal of sense in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, and there was a lot of necessary and important writing that did that work of unpicking the assumption of a bourgeois realism. There’s the American fabulists who were pumping things up until they’re light as air—Thomas Pynchon has chorus girls dancing across occupied Europe—and Calvino starts telling stories and doesn’t finish them, and nests them and nests them. So if you want to say it’s all about skepticism towards grand narratives and we’re totally belated and you want to make work about our fragmented postwar nature, I simply don’t believe that’s the be-all and end-all of writing. But the rejection of that decision does not necessarily imply a kind of crude return to some sort of comfy-slippered realist novel.

If you want to say there’s the possibility that the novel can act in a political way, and can describe in some meaningful way social realities, it doesn’t have to have as its sole concern an interrogation of the unstable nature of reality.

The network is the figure that defines our period, it’s a new quality of our existence and a really powerful mediator of our lives and constructor of people, everything from flash mobs to the way people pile on someone they’ve identified as a “bad person” over social media. These phenomena would be unthinkable without the network. The novel, or fiction more generally, has some pretty big advantages in dealing with this networked reality. In visual media you have to show something. If you want to say “Max is sad” you have to see his mouth turn down, or he has to cry, or in a more sophisticated film he has to look out the window while it rains. It’s terribly, terribly difficult to do abstraction and distance in place and time and to show the way places and times have an impact on one another. When in fact, all this is completely, childishly simple (in fact, traditional) in a novel. It’s easy for me to write “Max is sad” and scroll right outwards into some sort of perspective where Obama and Putin are on the phone making global decisions. It’s trivial but it’s actually still true that the novel is a form with which you can do abstract explanations, and very close work about an individual’s subjective experience and affect, and link it to social forces. I can’t imagine a good Hollywood movie about high-frequency traders and mysticism that didn’t depend on lots of shots of dudes looking at screens and scrolling numbers. The nearest thing is something like Darren Aronofsky’s Pi [1998], which would have been a much less garbled business had it been a novel. You could have made a clear set of connections that, in film form, you’d be straining at the leash to make.

Some people have called this the “systems novel,” in reference to Pynchon and Foster-Wallace and other forms of more cerebral fiction, and I’m OK with that term, but I like the idea of centering the network at the heart of fiction. The Deleuzians beat Derrida in: if you want to say there’s the possibility that the novel can act in a political way, and can describe in some meaningful way social realities, it doesn’t have to have as its sole concern an interrogation of the unstable nature of reality. It takes that as a given and understands the constructed nature of ourselves and our experience and still wants to push on. That’s something that’s beyond what was going on in 20th-century avant-gardism. I worry that there’s this sort of politically conservative and quietist thing that comes with being content to go off into the corner and unravel your characters.

The novel has always been a messy thing. Whenever anyone’s tried to hammer it into some sort of modernist program it always sort of “bags” out, it can never achieve the cool surface of contemporary art, which can seem very perfectly hermetic and grown-up, whereas the novel seems sort of adolescent and starts jabbering on. And it’s always been like that. There’s always something of Tristram Shandy in every novel; it’s a baggy bit, a hybrid monster.


V | Occupy Wall Street, the Age of Austerity, and the Class Interests of Writers (Plus the Joy of Writing Media Statements by Committee Consensus)


MH: I wanted to go over your comments as part of the Occupy Writers statement from October 2011, when Occupy Wall Street was in its heyday. You wrote then that

Writers do many kinds of cultural work, but one of our roles (or duties, if you prefer) is to make visible what is hard to see, to use words to tell the truth about the world. We live in a period when the ideology of finance capitalism is presented as common sense, and uses the language of freedom and human development to promote the agenda of the class that is now becoming known, through the shorthand of the Occupy protests, as “the one percent” … I can help by exposing this ideological mystification, so that a more honest assessment can be made. As a fiction writer in particular, I can help by opening spaces of imaginative possibility and asking whether other kinds of social, economic, and political arrangements are possible. Writers, it must also be said, occupy a precarious place in the current social order. We tend to be freelancers, with variable incomes and little security. Because of this, despite our education and privilege, we have a lot in common with other workers who are forced to operate “paycheck to paycheck.” This insecurity is only exacerbated by the collapse of the traditional publishing industry and its reconfiguration by the Internet. Our class interests, as writers, lie with the rest of the 99 percent in struggling for a more just distribution of wealth and resources.

HK: It was a funny thing, the Occupy moment … Its most lasting effect has been to put the notion of debt into the center of mainstream political discourse. I think the repercussions of that are still being thought through: debt as an instrument of social control is becoming glaringly obvious. You’re unable to get to the position where you could dissent effectively because you’re educated and have enough spare time to do something other than feed yourself, without also having incurred major college debt. As European social democracy is murdered slowly by the international bond market, that’s the model that’s being put in place in the UK. Nineteen eighty-nine was the first year that a completely free UK university education began to come apart and the first year student loans were brought in. I left university with a debt of £500–1000 and we marched and demonstrated against that, but that wedge is now a lot bigger.

We’ve talked before about precarity and freelancing. I don’t think there is a conspiracy plotting the demise of a sort of quasi-bohemian intellectual class. However, structurally, that is what is happening—it is being made increasingly hard for the class I suppose I’m a part of to function. We’re being forced into the office, into formal employment. The notion of a critical education is being more or less surgically removed from university curricula as universities are reconfigured as a training ground for financial technicians, engineers, and other “useful” workers. In capitalism, the notion of a critical perspective is not valued and people are being squeezed ever further. I look on the current MFA boom with a sort of horror: there’s a group of relatively privileged young people who are being fed the lie that they will have the same class position as their parents because they have read Kant, and that’s really not true.

Occupy Chicago Protest March (2011). Flickr / Michael Kappel

Occupy Chicago Protest March (2011). Flickr / Michael Kappel

My generation, certainly in Britain, are discovering that we won’t be as wealthy as our parents and that we’re having to work harder and longer and for less reward under conditions of greater social discipline. That’s true across the board. So the class interest of writers absolutely is, or should be, aligned with resisting the financialization and instrumentalization of the economy and the drive to greater efficiency that is being imposed.

The notion of debt more generally, in terms of government debt and budget deficits which are being used to drive austerity agendas, particularly in Europe, are in a certain sense a pure ideological fiction. The money is still there, we are still producing, production hasn’t radically disappeared in the last few years. But it’s been decided that it is politically possible for people to be forced to accept less of a share and for the pharaohs, the current global elite, to take a level of wealth that is unprecedented in the history of the world.

You know, it’s really the debt and terrorism (and, we could possibly add, sensationalistic paranoia around pedophilia) that are the tools that have been used to undo the social settlement that had persisted since the end of the Second World War, certainly in Europe and to a lesser extent in the US, including the notion of what a certain acceptable level of inequality is, what a sort of reasonable level of social provision ought to be, and what rights the individual has against the state. The state of exception that was introduced after 9/11 more or less managed to suspend any enforceable notion of civil liberties, here in the US and elsewhere. The notion that “we” have to tighten “our” belts and work harder and accept less reward is being introduced as a way of dismantling the other parts of that settlement that are found unacceptable. The only real question is whether people will be screwed down enough to start resisting in a serious way.

I don’t know in a structural way what still exists of Occupy and what doesn’t. It was effectively a tactic more than it was or is an organization. It was a fantastically successful tactic in small terms, but it also showed the limits of this sort of horizontal organization. I’ve never been somebody who could get with the idea of a vanguardist party.

There was something beautiful and absurd about the anti-G8 camps, and about Occupy Wall Street’s General Assemblies in Zuccotti Park. I think I sat through one whole one.

I remember being in an anti-G8 protest outside Gleneagles, Scotland, in 2005. The 7/7 bombings had happened in London and there was a meeting of everyone in the camp, trying to respond. I tried to say that anything that was directed towards having a media presence should be stopped, because we had no media presence. At that point every journalist had fucked off and gone to London to cover the attacks. There was no way anyone would give a damn what the smelly hippies in the camp were doing. But there was a notion that there should be a public statement from that camp about the events, and so various people sat in a circle and tried to write a piece of text. We actually did get a pretty cool text, but the sticking point was on the idea or language about saying “we condemn violence.” The German Autonomes were against it. Well, maybe we want to see a world without violence? Could we be working towards that? The German Autonomes were still not into that, though I’m not sure why. And I know a lot more about their position now than I did then, having read a lot more about the Red Army Faction. But even the notion of working towards a world free of violence was very difficult, but that was the text that was accepted. And then, in a fantastic piece of politics, the Autonomes said they’d deliver the piece of paper to the press tent, but then didn’t. Which was the biggest political lesson I learned from that whole thing. It had a quality of comic absurdity to it.

There was also the possibility at that point that we were going to be overrun by very eager and highly armed riot police, so we were trying to work out if we are all about to have our heads cracked. Which is all by way of saying that at a certain point you sort of want some sort of tyrannical executive actions. There was something beautiful and absurd about those camps, and about Occupy Wall Street’s General Assemblies in Zuccotti Park. I think I sat through one whole one. I’m not great with committees at the best of times. It was the usual suspects down there, you could kind of name all the types from their different positions, though there were the strange Ron Paul “End the Fed” people, who were new to me.

What’s the legacy? I think it was interesting how threatening it was to the social order and that it was put down so thoroughly and effectively, and with actually a great deal of violence given how essentially positive and non-violent it was. It was quite shocking to me. Essentially, most people down there wouldn’t hurt a fly and yet had the crap kicked out of them and were put in jail, some for quite a long time. I hope that that spirit of resistance is continuing, but I don’t have any immediate expectations that America will be the place where some kind of new form of organization is found.

I have friends in Athens who are now dealing with the situation where the cops are unable to keep order and aren’t getting paid, so they’re outsourcing a lot of what they’re doing to paramilitary neofascists like Golden Dawn. There are no cancer drugs in the hospitals. This is what austerity actually concretely means: poor people die. There’s a social unraveling going on there that’s scary. Greece was a totalitarian regime in the ’70s. The Catalans are talking about seceding, and there’s a chance of them doing that. Elsewhere in Europe the French-speaking Belgians are talking about unraveling the country. That’s where we’re going to see some real shifts, and I don’t know whether I feel hopeful about any of that, but certainly in terms of sharpened contradictions, that’s where it’s going to be. Britain is depressing, but relatively stable compared to some of those other places. Portugal, Spain, and Greece are heading in one very scary direction.

Portions of this interview appeared in Wasafiri, vol. 28, no. 3 (September 2013). icon

Featured image: Coyote in the road, Death Valley (2008). Flickr / Margaret Killjoy