Monday, December 19, 2011

Gods Without Men, by Hari Kunzru

Hamish Hamilton, 2011 (UK edition)
384 pp

There is just something in my genetic makeup that draws me to anything out of the ordinary, so when I read the blurb on the back cover of Gods Without Men, I knew that this book and I were going to get along splendidly. And we did. 

The setting for this book is California's Mojave desert,  and begins with a brief episode entitled "In the time when animals were men,"  where Native American lore of the Coyote morphs into the tale of a white-bread and ramen noodles-eating, RV-driving crystal meth producer, who dies several times but it is resurrected by other mythical figures: Gila Monster, Southern Fox and Cottontail Rabbit.  At the end of it all the crystal is made and the Coyote disappears, just as in legend the Coyote disappears into the Land of the Dead, waiting for someone to take his place so he can return to the world. The crossing point between the two lands is said to exist in a cave under the Three-Finger Rocks, and it is at or near this natural formation known as The Pinnacles that people have converged over the centuries.  These rocks, with their spires pointing toward the skies, are believed by many to hold the keys to  transcendence -- but what that means to anyone at any given time varies  through time and circumstance.  From Native Americans to UFO cult members to hippies, and on into the contemporary world, different people have written their own meanings onto this landscape. While this all may sound a bit on the new-age side, there's a great deal to this novel that is grounded in real and modern concerns -- war in the Middle East, the economy, and the challenges immigrants face in coming to this country.   It's also a story about wanting to believe and the need people have to understand the incomprehensible, and it's a story about transcendence -- on many different levels.

It is in this bit of desert where where the four-year-old son of Jaz Matharu and his wife Lisa vanishes while the family is on vacation.  Jaz, the son of working-class immigrant parents from India, has a great job on Wall Street and is married to Lisa, whose parents are Jewish.  Jaz's parents continue to maintain old traditions and as much of their culture as they can while living in Baltimore.  When Jaz and Lisa's only child Raj is diagnosed with severe autism, Lisa seeks out reasons for Raj's condition, collecting scientific information, attending conferences, and trying different treatments, diets, etc.  Jaz, on the other hand, deals in reason, and for him, rationality  is a way to "limit the chaos that had overtaken their life." At the same time, he finds himself wishing that their life could back to the way it was before Raj.  Lisa stays at home with Raj while Jaz works, and Jaz's attitude toward Raj's illness and Lisa's efforts adds resentment  to an already-strained situation.  Jaz decides that the family needs a vacation to find time to work through their issues and to heal.  They decide to go west, and find themselves in an old motel near the Pinnacles.  While on an outing, Raj disappears. While the family is put through hell on television, in newspapers and in vicious attacks on the internet, the divide between them grows.  While Jaz insists on placing his faith in reason and physical evidence to find Raj, he is overcome with guilt, wondering if somehow his desire for life the way it used to be has played a part in Raj's disappearance. Lisa withdraws, eventually re-emerging on a different side of things.

Around the core story of Jaz, Lisa and Raj, there are narratives that illuminate others who have passed through the desert and found their way to the Three-Finger Rocks.  These include the stories of a friar in the 1770s, a Mormon miner in the mid 19th century, a veteran of the first world war who brings his wife with him as he studies Native American lore and language, and then there's the story of Schmidt.   Seeking to "get back right with the world" after being consumed with guilt over events in his life, Schmidt began looking for some hidden truth hoping to find his way back. He finds it in  airplanes -- in how "the earth relinquished them and gently welcomed them back." Believing his salvation would come in a union of  the technological with the spiritual, after the Hiroshima bombings, he left his job, went out into the Mojave and looked to the skies for answers, having decided that advanced technology would bring some kind of order to the chaos of the world. Add to this group of characters some Iraqi immigrants hired by the military in a simulation exercise for American troops heading to Iraq, a British rockstar who's hit his own rock bottom, and even a supercomputer named Walter that has been programmed to examine randomness and find patterns, and you'll begin to discover how very unusual a work Kunzru has put together here.  And then, of course, there's the figure of the Coyote that is present throughout the novel. 

Gods Without Men is a wonderful book, one in which events from the past reverberate into the present and vice-versa.  There are some very surreal moments throughout the story as well as many things that are left unexplained. If you must have a linear read you may come away a bit unsatisfied, and you may be looking for patterns that aren't always there or difficult to find.  I spoke to someone else recently who'd also read this book, and her  biggest issue was that she found herself flipping forward to catch back up with the story of Lisa and Jaz, and found many of the rest of the stories getting in the way. But I think that if Lisa, Jaz and Raj were  the main focus  of the novel, that would have been the story that the author would probably have written.  It definitely may not be for everyone, but it is highly engrossing and I found it to be very approachable as a reader.  Awesome book -- and I definitely recommend it for anyone who wants something very different.

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