A 10-to-7 Job

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Hari Kunzru on how internet memes inspire him to create a whole new English, knowing when to shut off the world, and stocking up on 0.5 mm ballpoints in preparation

Hari Kunzru is the author of four novels, a prolific and erudite essayist on books, art, architecture and pop culture, and even a former nominee of the Bad Sex Award in 2002 for a passage in his debut novel which likened the lead character’s violent sodomy to ‘having a fallen log hammered up one’s backside with a mallet’. There’s one thing he’s not, however, and that is an intellectual eremite of a writer, toiling a discreet distance away from public view and engagement.

Since he completed his latest novel, Gods Without Men, in March, he has interviewed legends like author Joan Didion and poet Robert Coover, as well as the reigning New York art-world sensation Ryan Trecartin. He’s reviewed Joseph Lelyveld’s book on Mahatma Gandhi and David Foster Wallace’s posthumous magnum opus Pale King. He’s also written a long, thoughtful essay on postmodernism, and made statements in support of Ai Weiwei and Occupy Wall Street.

He has now, however, resolved to put an end to his journalism and turn to the task of plotting his next novel, which he is thinking of setting in an America of the future. This might just be a good point to revisit his youthful obsession with science fiction, fantasy, Don Delillo, Thomas Pynchon—and his first unpublished novel from about 20 years ago, Orbital. The work explored the M25 motorway that skirts London as a metonym for the “banality of the suburbs”, with some “mystical stuff” thrown in. “There’s a character in Gravity’s Rainbow,” says Kunzru, “who, every time he has sex, a V2 missile falls in that location, and he becomes convinced that there’s some paranoid connection, and indeed there is. I loved the idea of this strange causality and ordinary technological things having a mystical significance.” 

His second novel, Transmission, continued the mystification of technology with its descriptions of a virus on the rampage and the laid-off Indian Silicon Valley techie who created it. Part of his recent novel also dwells on the occasionally scurrilous, often demented denunciations of message board commenters, which stemmed out of an interest in “how people behave online in general, the way rumour works, the snowballing effects of online comments… the atmosphere we live in and the way information propagates”. Aside from meditations on the poetics of technology, Kunzru has also tried to speak in tongues, internet-style.

“I actually get real pleasure from a lot of weird internet subcultural stuff like 4Chan,” says Kunzru, “memes generated out of 4Chan are the funniest things imaginable, and it’s inexplicable unless you know the context, like ‘I know you like mudkips’ and ‘advice dog’… it’s like this petri dish of culture. I’ve tried to write a 4Chan-like leet (internet slang) story. I thought of doing a whole novel like that, but that’d be a bit much. That language dates so quickly.” He’d still like to write a novel like A Clockwork Orange or the sci-fi classic Riddley Walker—“books that manage to invent a whole new English for their own purposes.”

He is acutely aware, though, that the process of trawling chat-rooms as the memes silt up in his mind is antithetical to the “300-year-old activity” of being a writer, which “takes a certain kind of quietness to make” and calls for a “different mental state to the three windows open on your desktop and something on the TV and taking a phone call kind of thing that we all do, more and more naturally.”

Frantic overstimulation is something of a religion in New York, which Kunzru has called home ever since a New York Public Library fellowship brought him here about three-and-a-half years ago. Some writers, like his friend Nathan Englander, amplify the distractions with the help of that other New York religion—working in cafés. “Which is why I think he took ten years to write his book!” he says, with a laugh. Others, like writer couple Zadie Smith and Nick Laird, resist it violently. “Nick got so convinced that he wasn’t going to be able to work at all,” Kunzru says, “he tore the internet connection out of the wall in a fit of anger and broke it.” For his part, Kunzru says he knows when he’s “on”; when the garrulous chatters and Skype callers need to be kept at bay, and when he must resist the urge to compulsively minister to his mail and Twitter feed.

Part of this entails tuning out and summoning up a sustained, chat-window-thwarting concentration. A set of rituals prepare him for this: a “massive” post-prandial cafétière of coffee, a specific type of notebook, and a stock of superfine 0.5 mm black ballpoints at the ready. “It’s gotten to the point where I have to get them off the internet,” says Kunzru, a little sheepishly, “because they’re only made in China and Japan.” He writes at a steady clip, about 1,000 words a day, between 10 am and 7 pm. “If I do more than that I get excited and go out too late,” he says. “If I do less, I get guilty and go out too late.”

For zone-out music, Kunzru often turns to atmospheric washes of pastel noise by composer Brian Eno. “There’s one song, Thursday Afternoon, which is about an hour-long,” he says. “I must have spent about 80 or 90 hours listening to this one, and it doesn’t get old.” For moments that call for a more piercing intensity, he turns to Pandit Pran Nath, whose Raga Malkauns, he says, “sounds like the centre of the earth”.

While sounds sustain the writing of his books, it’s often images that spark them. Kunzru’s latest book, which is set in the high-altitude Mojave Desert, began with a road trip there. “I was very affected by the feeling of being in this very empty space with this dazzling light,” says Kunzru. “The light’s strong enough to start bleaching colours and people become insubstantial because the contrast is sort of screwed. The emptiness, the distance from other humans, is really profound, and that feeling was the origin of this complicated novel.”

While Kunzru, as a self-confessed “library geek”, happily burrowed into a pile of books during the research stage, his most critical explorations for the book were physical; taking road trips all across America; going to “odd places” and meeting “peculiar people”. “I managed to go to Burning Man, and it was a work trip,” he says. “Yes, it’s a party full of naked people, but it’s a product of the West Coast counter-culture scene, and it’s culturally very linked to utopian communities and ideas of self-organisation; a lot of stuff germane to the book.” But it’s the “physical, textural things” that proved most useful in the writing of the book—like getting stuck in a dust storm.

“It’s a salt flat there, there’s this incredibly fine dust, so with the slightest bit of wind, it goes from clear blue skies and clear visibility to zero visibility—in seconds,” he says. “You’re pootling around on your bike and suddenly it’s like, boom! This fine dust gets in every pore, every crevice, and after you’ve been in a dust storm, you look like someone coated in flour. And when you wash your hands, it turns to mud. Physical things like this that you wouldn’t know… they’re useful when you’re trying to describe someone walking or riding through the desert.”

Nothing clears up the musty scent of meticulous research like the crisp, cold wind of lived sensation.