- Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru – review
- Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men, reviewed.
- by Hari Kunzru (Knopf)
The reader is primed for entry into what the blurb calls "the mysterious world of Gods Without Men " by the short prologue, a modern fable about a coyote who goes out into the desert in his camper van to cook up some crystal meth. It's nicely done, with the folk tale diction playing off against the trailer-trash detail.
Thereafter, the book is divided into shortish chapters, which move back and forth between points in the past and a series of strange events in In the first chapter, set in , a troubled aircraft engineer called Schmidt drives out into the Mojave and selects the Pinnacles — three columns of rock which "shot up like the tentacles of some ancient creature, weathered feelers probing the sky" — as an ideal "natural antenna" from which to summon benign extraterrestrial forces to Earth.
In the second chapter, in , a British rock star flees LA, to escape creative differences with his gun-toting producer, and to find inspiration by dropping peyote in the desert. Next, Kunzru cuts back to , with a Spanish official visiting a Franciscan mission in western Arizona. In the fourth section, we meet the characters at the heart of the story: Jaz and Lisa, a New York couple of, respectively, Punjabi and Jewish backgrounds, who are staying in a motel near the Pinnacles with their severely autistic son, Raj.
And so it goes on, moving back and forth between and the past.
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Essentially, there are two main plotlines: the awful story of what happens to Jaz and Lisa, and the development of the cult founded by Schmidt — part Scientology, part Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters. These narratives are interspersed with accounts of various wild-eyed visitors to the desert: a murderous Mormon miner in the s; a shell-shocked ethnographer after the first world war. All the tales, which shoot off here or there to Baghdad or Los Angeles or New York, intersect sooner or later at the Pinnacles, and with each other. There is also a set of recurring themes and leitmotifs: disappearing children, unexplained phenomena, technology and chaos.
The title, by the way, is explained by an epigraph from Balzac, to the effect that in the desert there is nothing: " C'est Dieu sans les hommes. I'll admit to having had serious doubts about this enterprise, and to having been previously agnostic, at best, about Hari Kunzru. Kunzru is conspicuously clever and talented — he was named one of Granta's best young British novelists in — but his best-known book, the colonial-era picaresque The Impressionist , errs very definitely on the glib and smart-arsed side of things. And though he is very much a globalised author — see Transmission , his information-era comedy based on three continents — it seems odd for a British writer to take on the Mojave desert.
Don't big horizons, peach-coloured hills, Joshua trees, hallucinations and enigmatic Indians properly belong to road movies and embarrassing rockers such as Jim Morrison?
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- ‘Gods Without Men,’ by Hari Kunzru!
- Book review: ‘Gods Without Men’ by Hari Kunzru.
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But Gods Without Men is something of a revelation. At its worst, it's diverting and readable; at its best, it's genuinely interesting and exhilarating.
Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru – review
People travel to the Pinnacles—three columns of rock that rise into southwestern desert air like "the tentacles of some ancient creature"—for many purposes, but what they find there is often something quite different from what they sought. Both visions and hallucinations haunt this landscape. Few novels embrace a more disparate collection of subplots. My two favorite threads in this tapestry involve the aforementioned rock star, who breaks up with the band and heads off into the desert to reboot his life, and a much different narrative about a MIT mathematician working on a Wall Street financial model that seems to have become a "god in the machine," a black box capable of moving markets and bringing together the most incommensurable elements into a single overarching framework.
By the way, the latter bit of artificial intelligence could serve as a metaphor for Kunzru's whole book. Sometimes the events that take place at the Pinnacles are inexplicable. Unusual powers seem to be at work here. Yet just as often, those who come to the spot seeking a transcendent experience leave disillusioned or disappointed. He realizes that the raw power of his story is enhanced by its inherent mysteries and paradoxes. This is a significant book, both in its own right but also as a sign of the changes afoot in contemporary fiction.
What Kunzru has delivered is one-of-a-kind, yet it is also a book that I would recommend to someone who wanted to read a single novel that represented the current moment in modern fiction. Even when all its stories are told, Gods Without Men leaves us with more questions than answers.
Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men, reviewed.
That may be why this novel, which seems to disregard the tenets of literary realism, comes across as far more true to life than those books in which the mysterious is hidden behind an wall of unmitigated plausibility. Click on image to purchase. Welcome to my year of magical reading. My choices will cross conventional boundary lines of genre, style and historical period—indeed, one of my intentions in this project is to show how the conventional labels applied to these works have become constraining, deadening and misleading.
In its earliest days, storytelling almost always partook of the magical. Only in recent years have we segregated works arising from this venerable tradition into publishing industry categories such as "magical realism" or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some other 'genre' pigeonhole.
These labels are not without their value, but too often they have blinded us to the rich and multidimensional heritage beyond category that these works share. This larger heritage is mimicked in our individual lives: most of us first experienced the joys of narrative fiction through stories of myth and magic, the fanciful and phantasmagorical; but only a very few retain into adulthood this sense of the kind of enchantment possible only through storytelling.
A long-form solidity emerges, even though the links between substories can be as ethereal as a snatch of music, a drug-induced sensation, a quality of light or a rock formation. The Translit author assumes the reader has the wits to connect the dots and blend the perfumes.
But that somehow feels dated, as Translit prose, while crossing genres within itself, tends to be icy cool, and what once seemed like hysteria in our culture has now become a staple of daily life. The Translit reader knows there is a spirituality lacking in the modern world that can only be squeezed out of other, more authentic eras. And why not? Hello, YouTube. Thank you, Wikipedia. Oh, that Google! I do wonder if being a writer in means needing to be able to write in multiple genres, as do Kunzru, David Mitchell et al. Genre shifting is as fundamental to working with words as is punctuation and knowing the difference between serifs and sans-serifs.
Indeed, Kunzru interconnects his stories — as much as needs pulling without his giving it all away. Children glow green, whether from the light of God or through night-vision goggles. This book strives to locate the profound amid what on the surface seems like the nothingness of the desert and the emotional sparseness of the age.
by Hari Kunzru (Knopf)
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