Our interview with Hari Kunzru was published today.
We met him in Bryant Park for an hour-long conversation. He’s an awesome guy. He talked about trying to get a U.S. visa so he can continue writing his current novel, and apparently this requires him to apply for status as an “alien of extraordinary ability.” Which made us both laugh.
Kunzru is so dreamy that we couldn’t even give his latest book a proper review—it was more like a fawning description of the plot.
But there’s one thing we didn’t bring up in the interview, so we’ll talk about it here.
People in the publishing industry don’t seem to “get” Hari Kunzru. His first novel, The Impressionist, caused a ruckus when it sold for an $1.8-million advance. At the time, it set a record for the highest amount paid to a debut fiction writer, and there was talk that it represented the worst aspects of book publishing. (Huge advances for books with tons of buzz that never live up to their sales pitches.) But The Impressionist is a good book. It’s about a mixed-race kid in India who goes on a comic odyssey through the British Empire, adopting a number of guises to blend in to different strata of civilization. It’s a coarse, rollicking, undisciplined adventure. But Kunzru’s publishers didn’t market it that way. They tried to pass him off as a latter-day Salman Rushdie, or an heir to the throne of Kipling. Which makes sense, since Kunzru echoes those writers. But his publishers seemed to ignore the best aspects of the book—its humor, its irreverence, and its very contemporary outlook on personal and national identity. Check out the cover designs from the US and the UK. They’re like promo shots for a Merchant Ivory film. I’m no expert, but glancing at the BookScan numbers, I’d say Kunzru didn’t earn back his whopping advance. By the twisted logic of book publishing, that means his first outing was a failure.
Kunzru took a different approach for his second book. Transmission follows a hapless Indian computer designer who moves to Silicon Valley and accidentally creates a virus that shuts down the global network. Transmission is contemporary instead of historical, darkly comic instead of broadly picaresque, global instead of Oriental, short instead of long, etc. It’s great fun. But there wasn’t a clear pitch for it. Kunzru’s publishers couldn’t pass it off as the second coming of Kipling or Rushdie. They got the cover designs right: they’re all hip, unique, and colorful. But without a clear role model, Transmission didn’t sell nearly as well as The Impressionist.
And now comes My Revolutions, which is nothing like what Kunzru has written before. It’s a taut psychological profile of underground radicals in London in the ‘60s. There are no Indian characters, it’s not especially humorous, and it doesn’t embrace the themes of globalization and personal identity. But it’s awesome. And it’s been getting the attention that Kunzru deserves—not for his ethnic heritage and his ability to sound like other, more canonical writers, but simply for the skill and compassion he displays in the service of a damn good story. (The cover designs, in case you’re curious, are badass.)
One thing we love about Hari Kunzru is he’s impossible to pin down. He didn’t try to follow up his record-breaking sale of The Impressionist with anything similar. (Unlike, say, Khaled Hosseini, who followed The Kite Runner with The Kite Runner, Part 2.) In fact, check out his comment, in the interview, where he distances himself from the kinds of Indian-American fiction that’s blowing up the charts these days. Kunzru might never live up to that $1.8-million advance, but he’s clearly improving as a novelist, right before our eyes, as he hops around to very different projects.
Also, dude has a rad web site.