That Quivering Point of Saturation
By Robert BirnbaumJune 15, 2012
RB: WHEN I FIRST SAW YOUR NAME I took it to be Japanese.
HZ: Really? It’s an old fashioned Indian name. You know, Hari Krishna, Hari Rama. Hari is another name for Vishnu — a god in the Hindu trinity. My full name is Hari Mohanat Kunzru —my dad is Krishna Mohanat, my grandfather was Chandra Mohanat etc.
RB: You aren’t Hari M. Kunzru on any documents or anything?
HK: No, there’s enough (laughs) identification without that.
RB: What nationality do you consider yourself?
HK: I am British. I was born in London. Grew up in the southeastern suburbs of London, just where London turns into the county of Essex. And my dad, who is retired now, was doctor in the local hospital. My mom had been a nurse and a midwife. She gave that up to have kids.
RB: And what does your father consider himself?
HK: He’s got dual citizenship. He would call himself a proud Indian as well.
RB: You must have relatives in India?
HK: Oh yeah. He was the only one of his family to come over to the UK. He grew up in a big rambling old house with his first cousins and their parents. Its a very traditional extended Indian family. We are Kashmiri Hindus. Our immediate family left the valley almost 200 years ago and became part of a migrant community on the plains of North India.
RB: How close are you to the culture?
HK: I have traveled to India quite frequently. Semi-detached would be a way of putting it. My mother is English. She grew up in the southwestern London suburbs. English Anglican-Protestant family.
RB: When your father was courting her, what was her family’s reaction?
HK: Both sides of the family were nervous, I think. At first.
RB: Just nervous?
HK: There was more than that on my dad’s side. My mum’s family actually had the advantage of getting to meet him — he’s kind of a charming guy, my dad. I mean he’s a doctor — every family wants their daughter to marry a doctor. He won them over quite quickly. My mum does remember being taken for a walk in the garden by her step-father and him saying, "We love Ravi we think he’s great but how will you feel pushing around a little brown baby in a pram?”
RB: And how was it?
HK: Well, my father to this day claims never to have experienced racism in the UK. Which I find an extraordinarily disingenuous statement, given the kind of shit that I experienced all the time when I was growing up (laughs). But I think he was quite insulated by his professional position. He chooses not to recognize certain things. He’s a proud man and he feels sorry for anybody who would hold such prejudices. For me, the weird thing about growing up where I grew up with a mixed race family — not a phrase I love but for the want of a better one — you are different from both your parents. Especially my dad. As a first-generation immigrant, he wouldn’t know what it was like being a teenage boy in the London streets. And so, I grew up with a very sharp consciousness of race and racism. Eighties London was a hard-edged sort of a place.
RB: And what did your mother think pushing around a little brown-skinned baby?
HK: She is quite an extraordinary woman in that she doesn’t see things in categories really. She sees individuals. She loved my dad — they are still together. And loved her children and expected no problems, really. She has no stories that she has ever told me about ever experiencing prejudice. Having said that, I was two years old before my father’s family was speaking to my dad and my mum. So there was a certain amount of drama.
HK: I’ve got one younger brother, two years younger.
RB: What is he about?
HK: He’s cool. Richard, looks very English really. He’s got the English name and the English looks. He has a condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa which means he is registered blind and learning disabled. He has never worked. He lives in South London, and he’s a big sports fan. That’s the main thing in my brother’s life. We are completely different that way.
RB: Gods Without Men is such an expansive novel. I wonder about how you look at the world — what happens when you wake up in the morning and you are set on writing.
HK: I think of stuff to write. I have a great love affair with the internet — almost as if it were invented personally for me. Drifting through one kind of material or another and finding things to read and research has just been a huge boon to me. I am living with my fiancé, who you have a little picture of there, on the table, in Arches National Park in Utah. Amazing place. Katy and I are living in a tiny little studio in Chelsea. We live near the galleries and both of us are quite interested in art. So if it’s an off kind of day we well might go look at some art. Or meet friends for coffee.
RB: Is that how you came to write a piece on Damien Hirst?
HK: Yeah, I have a fairly long standing relationship with Paul Laherty at the Guardian and he’s happy to have me sound off about stuff. Hirst is such is an important figure for what being British came to mean in the nineties. I have spent a lot of time in the East London art scene and I know the world he comes out of and I disapprove (as you can probably tell from the piece) of a lot of ways he has gone about making art and being an artist. He’s done a lot of damage to the art world as a whole.
RB: Well it doesn’t speak well of him that he has an art factory in Baja and he pays his assistants poorly.
HK: Absolutely. I hadn’t gotten any figures that I could stand up in a newspaper but anecdotally he has always paid people a little bit above minimum wage. They don’t share in the bounty — he’s making a huge amount of money and he’s not inclined to spread it around.
RB: I don’t recall that Andy Warhol was generous.
HK: I don’t think he was. It’s a great tradition among artists — screwing the people who work for them.
RB: I was interested in how you acquire information — how active your pursuit of it is. The core of Gods Without Men is about a mixed marriage couple — a Punjabi Sikh and a Jewish American woman, and then a 17th century Spanish priest makes an appearance, and there is the Wall Street firm developing a program that searches for discontinuous connections that may be predictive. And then there are UFO/Alien visitation people. And hippy communes. And at the end you have a disclaimer that Fray Garcia’s report was never redacted, as it was in the novel — a fact whose reality I was never concerned about.
HK: That I felt was necessary because he is a historical character. He did make that journey across the Mohave, and the diary of his journey exists. So I inserted two missing weeks. I am holding my hands up to say that’s a clear determinate case of fabrication there. Novels always have a kind of oblique relationship to research material and sources of all kinds. There many other echoes of stuff that I found and used.
RB: The native people’s mythology — did you make those myths up?
HK: Again, yes and no. There was an extraordinary woman named Carobeth Laird who was an anthropologist, and in the years before the first World War married a much older anthropologist. She was a young college girl in San Diego. He was a kind of mean character, very cold, who wanted a research assistant and taught her how to do field work. He would dump her in Indian communities in the desert while he went off and did other research. And then eventually she fell in love with her informants. Fell in love with a Chemehuevi Indian guide called George Laird. And told her husband, this guy Harrington, that she was leaving him. And then disappeared off the map for many, many years. And then in the late sixties, when people were going through Harrington’s papers, he had left this huge mass of unpublished research. People realized that there were two sets of handwriting and thought to ask who she was, and whether she was still alive. And someone went and found her. She was in her nineties, and she had been working that whole time. She had produced the most extraordinary — it seems to be regarded as the best — ethnography of any Southwestern native people in existence. In the first little section of the novel, I used the way a Chemehuevi storyteller would work. Not necessarily naming a character directly to the audience, but to speak in a certain way and with a certain vocal tone and everyone would know who was speaking.
RB: And this was echoed when the native people would not say someone’s name.
HK: Yeah, there were several layers of naming and several layers of mystical attributes everybody has — so if you were initiated into certain secrets, then you would know the true names of things, not only the public names. I wanted to talk about so many things — to try to map things about the financial crisis, to map markets onto all kinds of spiritual and metaphysical concerns in the rest of the book. The very notion of Kabbalah comes from the credo, “I believe.” And value in the financial markets is a matter of consensus. If every body believes an asset is worth something, then that’s what its worth. When everybody’s belief falters, then 2008 happens. With the advent of high-frequency trading and various sorts of simulation in the financial markets you are into this great dream, a dream of perfect control — the dream of Cybernetics. The search for deep patterns is something that we seem to have a real psychological affinity for. There was this character called W.D. Gann in the early years of the 20th century who was all about finding deep patterns that had to do with astrology. He was trading on Saturn’s moon cycles.
RB: How did he do?
HK: He had some strategies that still turn up every so often. There is some commodities-related cycle that has to do with moon phases. (laughs) Nobody actually wants to face up to what that one might mean. The other aspect of that financial stuff is the Kabbalah — Bachmann’s wish to restore the pieces of the broken world. It’s a very algorithmic process. You go through counting letters and finding numerological significances in the Torah. And the idea of a world made of significant signs seems to be a very powerful one, especially in Jewish culture, and has an affinity to things that I do as a writer and to what these guys are seeing on their trading screen. The patterns are coming through in these descending cascades of figures.
RB: The guy who writes on financial matters for The New Yorker, James Surowiecki — you thanked him in the acknowledgments.
HK: Actually last night I did an event with him. He’s a good friend and he was obviously the right person to pass some of this stuff by. He made a couple of really good tweaks — one which is slightly scary. I wanted Chas to have a moment of moral qualm when they crashed the Honduran currency. And Jim was like, ”Dude, they don’t care about that (laughs). They wouldn’t think twice about doing something like that.”
RB: Apropos of nothing, I’m fascinated by the playlist/mixtape that you have at your website — this is music you listened to while you were writing this book?
HK: Some of it is, some of it isn’t. While I am actually writing I do listen to music. Very minimal music with no vocals.
RB: Like that Brian Eno piece
HK: Yeah, its like automatic — it’s gotten to the point that when I hear that through headphones, my concentration just increases. I create a box around my head. I have always loved music. In recent years I developed an interest in these Harry Smith anthologies, you know, folk music.
RB: Mississippi John Hurt and Doc Boggs.
HK: That stuff is wonderful if you are used to listening to modern production and this soup of stuff that gets added in the studio. Roots music can often be revelatory, just somebody singing with a banjo. An elderly jazz musician in London named Benny Green was a friend’s dad. He’d do a bit of chat and a bit of playing — he was kind of a raconteur. He had endless stories about playing with American and Canadian guys — like Oscar Peterson. He saw some stuff that other people had just not seen.
RB: As you grew up in London was there a moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
RB: Are you a writer?
HK: Yeah, I like the generic name “writer.” I never really understand that thing about “author.” It’s all writing. I was a reader first. I was a completely obsessive and passionate reader as a teenager. I don’t know exactly when I would have first formulated the idea that I should try and write something. Certainly in college I was beginning to do that — 18, 19. I published a couple of short stories in a magazine.
RB: How did you come on to reading? By yourself, or was someone a guide and motivator?
HK: I don’t even remember. I remember being able to read when I was quite young … five, I was quite happy reading. My parents never stopped me from reading anything — weird old paperback books I would read as a kid and not necessarily understand everything in them (chuckles). I remember being very struck by reading The Godfather when I was nine or something like that — when Sonny is having sex with one of the bridesmaids upstairs and the description of her panties. I remember that being very moving. I was also reading things like Greek myths. And a lot of fantasy stuff as well; Tolkien was very big for me. I went through a phase of reading almost only science fiction, to the exclusion of anything else. When I started to need better characterization and the interestingness of the settings was wearing off, I naturally drifted to other kinds of writing.
RB: I stopped reading science fiction with Frank Herbert’s Dune
HK: Dune was fantastic. That meant a lot to me as well. They get worse and worse, don’t they?
RB: His son started to write them after Herbert died. Speaking of The Godfather, Ed Falco has written a prequel.
HK: Makes sense.
RB: Really? I think its silly. Other writers finishing a book or continuing a series. The Chandler estate had Robert Parker complete Poodle Springs. Need I add that it was awful?
HK: I read and reviewed the posthumous David Foster Wallace novel, The Pale King. I think that’s a better book for not being finished. You saw what he was going to do to it — he was going to turn it into this incredibly frenetic thing, rather like Infinite Jest. I, controversially, don’t think he was a natural novelist. He was an extraordinary writer of short fiction and non fiction. But there was some thing about the novel form that just made him — his instinct was this kind of fractal instinct, to keep on going. And not be able to stop. That there is something very melancholy about The Pale King and there is a softness to it that was not there in the Infinite Jest. I think it’s rather a beautiful book and I think he would have trashed it.
RB: You write short stories.
HK: I do. I had a couple in The New Yorker and various other places. I haven’t collected them. I‘m hoping to persuade Knopf to publish them.
RB: Why do you write short fiction?
HK: Because I can experiment at that length, take risks that I can’t in a novel. Also, if you are spending a couple of weeks on something, or three weeks, you can see if it works. If it doesn’t, then you have tried it and it doesn’t. They tend to be much more formally experimental than my fiction. And there’s a pleasure to turning one off neatly. If you get the thing right and it says what you want it to say then there is — the same with an essay, 3,000 to 5,000 words is a thing in itself.
RB: When you sit down you know what form you are going to write?
HK: Usually. Most of the non fiction I write is commissioned — so I am often working to a word count. With the fiction it is usually — this book started, I thought it was short story. The first material I wrote was a sketch of a couple having a silent argument around a pool in a motel. And it very rapidly became apparent that I wanted to involve a set of feelings I had about a desert landscape and there was something to do with UFOs and at that point, I thought maybe linked short stories. It metastasized, I think is the best word.
RB: Where do you find out about music?
HK: It really varies. Blogs, at the moment. I check with a friend, Jonathan Bywater, a New Zealander who over the years I have stayed with when I’ve been in Auckland. I think it would be fair to say he is one of the world’s great record collectors. Some of the areas he specializes in, he has collections that very few other people in the world can rival. He lives in apartment full of mostly vinyl, indexed in a way that is unique to him, with certain key records and then out from them certain things flow. I can spend days sitting and listening with him pulling stuff out of the stacks — “Well if you know this than you need to know the five other things…” He’s one of these people you make a mix-tape for him and he will compliment you politely on the juxtaposition because he will (laughs) know everything, however obscure and clever you think you have been. Lately I have augmented his recommendations with things like a blog about Thai music where some one is posting rips of popular Thai music from the forties through the sixties.
RB: And where do you find out about books? I assume you read contemporary fiction.
HK: I don’t read in a systematic way. I have given up feeling obliged to read every contemporary piece of fiction. If a lot of my friends, whom I trust, are beginning to talk about something then I might read it. It ranges — physical browsing in bookstores is still a really, really interesting method of tracking stuff.
RB: While they last.
HK: I feel like they will now. It’s the middle that’s going. The Barnes and Nobles…
RB: You seem to get around a bit — what country haven’t you been to that you would like to visit?
HK: Russia. The other place I’d like to visit is Iran. I’ve gotten to the place that I am less interested in being a tourist. When I was in my twenties I worked out that you could sometimes get a magazine commission and someone else would pay a plane ticket for you to go somewhere. I was pretty happy just to turn up to anywhere I hadn’t been. And now I prefer to have something to do in a place. A connection to people in a place.
RB: What is the attraction to Iran?
HK: It’s the Persian culture which actually touches my family a little. The older members of my family would actually recite Persian poetry, and migrations from Persia into North India were part of that. That kind of ancient culture — gardens and so on.
RB: How much of that is left into today’s Iran?
HK: I have no idea. I have Iranian friends here and — a certain sort of courtliness seems to survive.
RB: A formality.
HK: Yeah. Also, they had a big French language culture at the core, up until the revolution. Teheran and Paris have certain cultural links. And then I actually want to see this bogeyman place — I want to see what its like living with the Revolutionary Guard on the streets. It would seem like to have a decent opinion of it would be much better to have a little texture to the place.
RB: Have you seen A Separation?
HK: What a beautiful film that is. For once — the Academy Foreign Film award almost always goes to a piece of trash. I forgive them every previous decision for choosing that movie.
RB: Speaking of movies — I am interested in how these cultural tidbits filter down to you. Seems that much of it is word of mouth through a wide network of friends.
HK: Yeah, if something is beginning to circulate in the people that I care about. I have also ended up using Twitter quite a lot. I use it as a big filter. I follow people who are interesting, weird or expert in a particular area. And they curate a lot of my news and a lot of my stuff in general. I have found endless good things through cultivating that network, kind of gardening it a bit.
RB: And you are never overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of information?
HK: Sometimes I want everybody to shut up and I switch it off and go for a walk.
HK: I do deliberately get myself to that slightly quivering point of saturation because it interests me as a mental state — attention and concentration and a kind of meditative quality — temporality changes. I am interested in the way we are getting rewired in our interaction with this always-on network of stuff. And I don’t think it’s altogether positive. I know other writers who have a terribly confrontational relationship with all that stuff. My friend Nick (chuckles) lost his mind and ripped his internet connection out of the wall. That was a bit extreme.
RB: (laughs) I’ll bet he’s sorry now.
HK: Yeah, I think he is — he’s a man for the grand gesture.
RB: Gods Without Men stimulated some interesting commentary. Douglas Coupland had smart things to say. He talked about 9/11 being the last event that was unmarked by universal phone camera coverage and imagery. And now, with the ubiquity of the phone cameras and video, its hard to distinguish time frames.
HK: I’m of two minds about that. I think he was really spot on about the formal stuff he was talking about, and he definitely understood my project and the idea of placing a lot of things side by side and allowing them to resonate together without the need to knit them too closely. Do we live in a post-era era? I think there is a hell of a lot of history coming down the pike — it feels very particular and feels very fitting. Of course, we have access to lot of information all the time and everything is represented at the same time its presented — I don’t think that that means that everything is flattened out. I don’t feel this belatedness. I am very suspicious of the idea of belatedness.
RB: Are you middle-aged?
HK: I probably am officially now. Clinging desperately to some vestige of youth. I’m in my 40’s — I think that counts.
RB: That’s still youthful.
HK: Thank you, thank you for saying that.
RB: 40 is the new 20. (both laugh) Do you have a life plan or an overarching ambition?
HK: Overarching? No. I am just about to get married for the first time. I am beginning to think about where I want to be at 60. Its much more to do with a style of living than a place. In terms of work, I want to make sure I don’t get lazy. I want to find ways of keeping on pushing myself and being critical enough of myself — to keep on being interested enough as well as being interesting.
RB: Have you started the next book or project?
HK: I have. I have a couple of things on the go — one interesting project is a commission for a piece of fiction for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. What they want to do — they have a contemporary art program now. They want to explore the relationship between narrative in the gallery space and design. So I am commissioned to write a story that will be instantiated in some way in the gallery through the work of 20 differently designers that they are going to commission. It’ll be finished some time in the summer. Also, I have another novel in the very early stages. Hopefully a very short, fabular piece of writing. I want it to be kind of crisp.
RB: How do you know its going to be short?
HK: Because I have actually planned it. Very different from this. It’s set in the future — it’s a science fiction novel. And I think with that kind of writing its got to turn up and do its thing and leave. It’s got to do it in kind of neat and crisp way. Otherwise I won’t get away with it.
RB: I take it that the way you approach writing each your novels has not been the same.
HK: Not at all. I am now at a stage where I can make decisions — make a statement – whereas I don’t think I could have done that earlier in my career. I would have just said I am trying to write a novel and its going to go how it goes. Now I know I can do certain formal things, and I know I can control enough of my work to try particular types of things. Also, I want to take a breath before I try anything large again. This last book was a complicated project.
RB: So writing has gotten easier?
HK: I have certainly gotten better at it.
RB: Is this your best work?
HK: Yeah. I think its — it does things that I certainly could not have done when I started out. Its much more controlled. It may feel loose in certain way to the reader. I am satisfied that that’s deliberate.
Literary journalist Robert Birnbaum, who grew up on the mean streets of Chicago’s Golden Ghetto,West Rogers Park, is also a veteran member of the Newton (MA) Little League umpiring corps and a (bumbling but) active father of a teenage athlete. He contributes to a number of smart journals and maintains a relentless web presence at Our Man In Boston. He counts among his influences Nelson Algren, Ernie Banks, Golda Meir, Mike Royko, Leon Dupres, Hannah Arendt, Howard Zinn, Eduardo Galeanos, and Barbara Ehrenreich. He lives in the working-class section of West Newton with his pooch Beny. He claims to be working on his long awaited memoir Just Talking: Doing Things With Words.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.