Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru (Hamish Hamilton - September 2011)
In a sense Hari Kunzru’s latest novel Gods Without Men tackles the ultimate taboo, namely extraterrestrial entities. By this I mean any authority beyond men that may shape our fate. He does so without discounting the possibility that we are stirred by little green men as well as examining how we respond to more traditional deities. The pragmatic conviction and matter of fact approach with which Kunzru considers the prospect of such interferences could rival the intensity of David Icke’s conspiracy theories.
Cy Buchman, one of the central characters—searching for ‘the face of God’ by building a machine to predict the Dow Jones, puts it like this: “There are certain things you can’t look at directly. You need to trick them into revealing themselves.” Therefore, this novel comes across as some kind of trickery; the storylines are often understated and under-explained yet somehow add up to something which alludes to the sublime. They suggest clues to fundamental questions starting with ‘why’: Why are some children born with disabilities? Why do some make profits on the stock-market while entire countries go bust? Why do some children simply vanish without a trace? Why is there war? Why are some individuals elevated to stardom while others disappear in oblivion? And most urgently: Why me? If no rational answer can be found, all we can do is articulate beliefs. And this is exactly what Kunzru’s characters do in this book as they find themselves entangled in such heart-rending circumstances; they examine their beliefs from flower-power to Kabala to atheist/materialism to Mormonism to Sikhism to Scientology to whatever it may be that offers redemption. Not surprising then that Kunzru seems at times slightly unfocused and out of his comfort zone, who wouldn’t be in the face of such overwhelming concerns.
What holds the novel together is location: a rock formation in the Californian desert called the Pinnacles, near Mojave. The caves there seemed to have been a place of spiritual reverence ever since the Native Indians thought them a portal to the underworld—the home of the non-living that can not be named. These Pinnacles are portrayed as the sacred pole around which the world rotates, or is it the desert itself that, throughout the ages, seems to have attracted pilgrims of one sort or another? After all, was it not said that Christ had found enlightenment after forty days in the wilderness, or am I thinking of Lord Buddha?
The most striking aspect of this novel is its structure; there is no linear approach, but each new chapter throws the reader into a different era and point of view. This reaches from ‘times when the animals were men’ to 2009; touching on the accounts of the Franciscan missionary Fray Garcés who got lost in that part of the desert back in 1775, to the aircraft engineer called Schmidt who explored the Pinnacles in 1947, to the investment banker Jaz, his wife Lisa and their autistic son Raj who happen to spend their family holidays in a motel in Mojave in 2008. Through these short chapters the storylines are woven, they float in and out of each other without following a chronological pattern. The chapters are often linked by tender threads of chance-meetings and eerie coincidences. Thus a mosaic of information and images slowly builds and gathers momentum.
The different points of view are rather convincingly explored. In particularly I would like to mention the voice of Nicky, a wannabe rock-star from Essex, who is touring the States. He is generally out on a limb due to the mounting pressure imposed upon him by his record label, and is constantly under the influence of one drug or another. This adds to his obsessive behaviour, especially after he suspects his girlfriend of being unfaithful, and imagines her flirting in the dives of Shoreditch while he is wondering lonely as a dust cloud. Coyote is another cunning character with an unmistakable voice. It is a moody, mystical and dark voice rooted in an ancient past and is reluctant to give up the ghost.
In many ways this novel is reminiscent of David Michell’s Cloud Atlas but, in my opinion, it is not quite as orderly or funny or comprehensible or focused. Instead it is larger in scope, involving more characters, is concerned with more angles, and is generally more ambitious. The attention to detail is truly remarkable, and it seems a fair amount of research and character studies have gone into the making of this novel.
The main narrative arc is based on the disappearance of Raj, a little boy suffering from autism, who simply vanishes in the middle of the desert, thus driving his parents to disappear. This, like other storylines, triggers a déjà vu factor in the reader and we can not help but think of the case of Madeleine McCann or perhaps even more specifically the case of Azaria Chamberlain who was carried off by a dingo while the family was on a camping trip in the Australian wilderness in 1980.
Hari Kunzru’s name is not unfamiliar; he has won several literary prizes, including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Pushcart Prize. This is his fourth novel and one that should not go unnoticed as it is clearly thought provoking material. He tries hard to make us see the face of God in a fresh way and comes up with a colourful assortment of possible findings. It can be a comfort to believe someone or something is in charge of our wellbeing; keeping track of the forces of good and evil. But Kunzru also asks whether such divine entities might not be harmful to us as they will always be beyond our control and may lure us away from accepting ourselves and each other for who we are—mere mortals.