Gods Without Men
Hari Kunzru. Knopf, $26.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-307-95711-5
As characters in acclaimed British novelist Kunzru’s pitch-perfect masterwork tinker with machines for communicating with an interplanetary craft circling the Earth, their desperate quest for meaning is interrupted by a nonlinear mélange of other strange endeavors that span centuries and cross the Mojave Desert: British rocker Nicky Capaldi’s escape from L.A. in a convertible with a gold-plated Israeli handgun stowed in the glove box; beleaguered parents Jaz and Lisa Matharu’s disastrous vacation with their autistic four-year-old, Raj; former hippie commune “Guide” Judy’s return to the desert, strung out on meth; and traumatized Iraqi teen Laila’s participation as an actor in U.S. army war game facsimiles of Iraq. Presiding over it all are the Pinnacles, three fingers of rock that bear mute witness to Raj’s disappearance and the ensuing frantic search. Also on board are Fray Francisco Hermenegildo Tomás Garcés, a half-mad Jesuit missionary intent on converting Native Americans at the close of the 18th century; Deighton, a disfigured ethnologist, annoyed by the young, “half-educated” Eliza’s failure to recognize “the distinction he’d conferred on her by asking her to be his wife”; an aircraft mechanic named Schmidt working in the ’40s who feels betrayed by what the Enola Gay unleashed over Hiroshima; a working-class mother seduced by the possibility of fellowship with benevolent otherworldly beings; and a local girl who once lived with the hippies and who—even though she returns years later to run the motel where Nicky, Jaz, Lisa, and Raj briefly stay—suspects she has never quite returned. Kunzru’s (My Revolutions) ear for colloquial speech creates a cacophony that overlays his affectionate descriptions of the desolate landscape, creating a powerful effect akin to the distant cry of urgent voices crackling up and down the dial on a lonely drive through an American wasteland. Agent: Melissa Pimentel, Curtis Brown. (Mar. 9)
GODS WITHOUT MEN [STARRED REVIEW!]
Author: Kunzru, Hari
Review Issue Date: December 15, 2011
Price ( Hardcover ): $26.95
Publication Date: March 6, 2012
ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-0-307-95711-5
Hopscotching across time, looking quizzically at space, Kunzru’s marvelous novel uses diverse cultures (Native American, Catholic, Mormon, Wall Street, hippie UFO believers) to speculate on the nature of reality and religion, magic and mystery.
The novel is anchored by a time, a place and a relationship. The core year is 2008; we visit several other time periods. The place is the Three Pinnacles rock formation in the Mojave Desert. The relationship involves Jaz, an assimilated American Sikh, and his Jewish-American wife Lisa. Instead of a linear narrative, we have the energizing cross-currents of history. In 1947, Schmidt, an aircraft mechanic and World War II vet traumatized by Hiroshima, is alone at the Pinnacles, hoping to attract extraterrestrials with his message of universal love. Success! A spacecraft lands; he’s welcomed aboard. (That same year saw the alleged UFO crash-landing in Roswell, N.M.) Meanwhile in Brooklyn in 2008, Jaz and Lisa are raising their autistic son Raj. Seems it’s easier to talk to aliens than for the Matharus to communicate with their four-year-old. Kunzru’s portrait of their marriage is finely nuanced. They’re a modern, secular couple, yet shreds of old beliefs divide them. When they visit the Pinnacles on vacation and Raj disappears, the marriage almost comes apart. The rocks may be a crossing point into the Land of the Dead; they have witnessed much drama. Schmidt met a fiery end when his homemade space capsule blew up. An anthology professor holed up there and went mad after betraying a Native source to a bloodthirsty white posse. A Spanish friar saw God there in the 18th century. As for our century’s tarnished magic, the computer trading program overseen by Jaz generates millions but wrecks the Honduran economy (collateral damage), while our royalty, rock stars, are represented by a worthless narcissist. Ironies abound; mysteries multiply; there’s a cliffhanger ending for Jaz and Lisa.
Kunzru (My Revolutions, 2007, etc.) just gets better and better. This fourth novel is an astonishing tour de force.