Hari Kunzru was selected in 2003 as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. Four books later he talks to Ted Hodgkinson about his latest novel (a multistranded epic that interweaves stories from the 18th century with the present), the scandal surrounding News International, the recent riots across Britain and his boyhood dream of being abducted by UFOs.
It’s emptiness. Three years ago I went on a road trip with some friends and happened on the desert, almost by accident. Since then I’ve been back many times. It’s a high desert so the air is very thin and the quality of the light – its sheer brightness – is extraordinary. It’s a bizarrely occult place too. Deserts, of course, are traditionally places for metaphysical reflection, introspection, self-questioning. Coyote himself is a kind of trickster in the midst of it all. Tricksters have a very important place across all religions and mythologies: they steal what belongs to the gods. They are pragmatic, always grounding the transcendental and divine in the here and now. So, Coyote is opposed to the gods. All of the characters in the book are searching for something, from a god to UFOs and Coyote acts as a counterpoint to this. The book is full of unanswered questions, of holes, you might say. And so Coyote is way of unraveling those novelistic threads even further. In a sense I was using him to undo novelistic conventions by refusing to tie up the threads and show what the characters were searching for, or found.
There is a kind of poetics of technology that runs through your books from your story ‘Lila.exe’ in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 2, which later became your novel Transmissions to your latest novel. Do you think technology is bringing us closer together or just creating another set of barriers?
We live in a networked age so we need a networked art form that can reflect that. I think the novel, in all its complexity, is very good at doing this. It can editorialize and clarify the ways that networks are reshaping our lives.
I am particularly interested in the effect it has on language. There are a lot of writers who deliberately don’t use that kind of technological register in their work because they think it’s not literary but I think they are overlooking an area of change that is unique to our time. The way technology is altering our language is precisely what interests me. I think these are the most important stories we could be telling right now.
In your latest book spirituality itself is in crisis. Can a sense of identity ever be formed without some sense of spirituality?
Identity without spirituality can certainly exist but at the same time it seems that there is always the question of the unknown that humans are continually plagued by and religion – I mean organized religion – is just one mechanism that people have used to answer that sense of not knowing. Unfortunately where religion often seems to fail is its refusal to enact this same process of questioning: it doesn’t allow for us to go on not knowing and asks that we fill that void with belief. I’m basically an atheist myself, but I have a problem with the militant atheism of Dawkins and his ilk. To me it comes close to an essentialized Protestantism, with its bounded reasonableness. It takes all the fun out of it. What it doesn’t allow for is this same sense of questioning into the unknown. In other words I find distinctions between spiritual and not-spiritual totally bogus as, like many of the characters in the book, these are not categories but continually shifting forces and are embodied through experience and time.
You’ve been a critic of the tabloid press in the past and your latest novel features a news cycle reminiscent of the Madeline McCann story. How far do you think that the scandal surrounding News International will reshape the media-landscape in this country and globally?
I hope it profoundly reshapes it, though I don’t anticipate it will result in a moral revolution of any kind. No, I imagine that the tabloid press will continue to be as ruthless and ravenous as before. What I do think might change, and I certainly hope does, is for the ownership of the media to be somewhat diluted. At the very least it could help to break up Rupert Murdoch’s empire. He has had an unwarranted influence on the political life of Britain for far too long.
What have you made of the scenes of rioting across London?
The place I know best and live is Hackney but I was staying in Camden last night so just arrived back this morning. I think what’s happening is kind of inevitable. Though the young people who are out on the streets don’t have a specific political goal what they are doing is in the realm of the political in the sense that it is born from a long history of social exclusion.What we are seeing now is a harbinger of things to come. We’re at the beginning of a much more serious economic downturn, with the crisis in the Eurozone only threatening to get worse. And the simple fact is that the post Second World War model of the social democratic settlement into the welfare state has, over the last twenty years, been replaced by a hierarchical arrangement which only benefits the top few per cent. This structure clearly needs to change. The current hierarchies that only profit the already very well off can’t carry on regardless any longer. It’s clear we have to reach a more egalitarian arrangement.
What did being selected as one of Granta’s Best Young Novelists mean to you?
It was a really good thing for me. It was something easy to point to, a vote of confidence when I was only just starting my career. It was great to be identified as someone that worth keeping track of. I did watch a documentary on the Granta list recently and was terrified of appearing in the ‘Where are they now?’ category. Thankfully, I didn’t!
In your latest novel there’s a troubled aviator, Schmidt, who becomes fascinated by UFOs. Do you share this fascination at all?
I am fascinated by them. When I was younger I often liked to imagine a Close Encounters-like experience of UFOs descending. It seems that the further away UFOs come from the more the mystery increases. The novel taps into the fascination with aliens that was gripping people during the 60s. The depictions of UFOs and their craft are based on accounts from the 60s, the likes of Ashtar Command and Lightworkers, real believers in other words. It was interesting to me how readily UFOs can be mapped onto a spiritualism, Madame Blavatsky and so on. UFOs seem to translate very easily into a transcendental experience. I’ve never seen a UFO myself but the closest experience I’ve had is something called the Marfa Lights in Texas. It’s a paranormal phenomenon in which a fluctuating number of twinkling lights appear to be levitating over the desert night sky. Though the number varies it’s otherwise a fairly regular occurrence. No one can explain it. It’s a reliable fast-food-like UFO experience, if you’re looking to have one.
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