by Hari Kunzru
Paperback (8 Jan 2013), 384 pages.
In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing... It is God without men.
- Honoré de Balzac, Une passion dans le désert, 1830
Jaz and Lisa Matharu are plunged into a surreal public hell after their son, Raj, vanishes during a family vacation in the California desert. However, the Mojave is a place of strange power, and before Raj reappears inexplicably unharmed - but not unchanged - the fate of this young family will intersect with that of many others, echoing the stories of all those who have traveled before them.
Driven by the energy and cunning of Coyote, the mythic, shape-shifting trickster, Gods Without Men is full of big ideas, but centered on flesh-and-blood characters who converge at an odd, remote town in the shadow of a rock formation called the Pinnacles. Viscerally gripping and intellectually engaging, it is, above all, a heartfelt exploration of the search for pattern and meaning in a chaotic universe.
In the time when the animals were men
In the time when the animals were men, Coyote was living in a certain place. "Haikya! I have gotten so tired of living here-aikya. I am going to go out into the desert and cook." With this, Coyote took an RV and drove into the desert to set up a lab. He took along ten loaves of Wonder bread and fifty packets of ramen noodles. He took whiskey and enough pot to keep him going. He searched for a long time and found a good place. "Here, I will set up-aikya! There is so much room! There is no one to bother me here!"
Coyote set to work. "Oh," he said, "haikya! I have so many tablets of pseudoephedrine! It took me so long to get! I have been driving around to those pharmacies for so long-aikya!" He crushed the pseudo until it was a fine powder. He filled a beaker with wood spirit and swirled around the powder. He poured the mixture through filter papers to get rid of the filler. Then he set it on the warmer to evaporate. But Coyote forgot to check his thermometer and the temperature rose. It got hotter and hotter. "Haikya!" he said. "I need a cigarette-aikya! I've done such a lot of hard work-aikya!"
He lit a cigarette. There was an explosion. He died.
Cottontail Rabbit came past and touched him on the head with his staff. Coyote sat up and rubbed his eyes. "Honored Coyote!" said Cottontail Rabbit. "Close the door of the RV. Keep it closed. Do your smoking outside."
Coyote began to whine. "Ouch-aikya! Where are my hands-aikya? My hands have blown off." He whined and lay down and was sad for a long time. Then Coyote got up and made himself hands out of a cholla cactus.
He began again.
He ground the pseudo. He mixed it with the solvent. He filtered and evaporated and filtered and evaporated, until he was sure all the filler was gone. Then he sat down and began scraping matchboxes to collect red phosphorus. He mixed the pseudo with his matchbox scrapings and iodine and plenty of water. Suddenly the flask began to boil. Gas started to fill the air. It got in his eyes, his fur. He howled and scratched at his face.
He choked on the poison gas and died.
Gila Monster came past and sprinkled water on him. Coyote sat up and rubbed his eyes. "Honored Coyote!" said Gila Monster. "Use a hose. Stop your flask, fill a bucket with kitty litter and run the hose down into that. The gas will be captured. Trap it and watch it bubble and boil, there in the flask. Don't breathe at all if you can help it."
Coyote began to whine. "Ouch-aikya! Where is my face-aikya? I have scratched my face off." He ran down to the river and made himself a face out of mud and plastered it over the front of his head. Then he began again. He crushed the pseudo and evaporated it. He scraped the matchboxes and bubbled the flask into the bucket of kitty litter. He mixed the chemicals and cooked his mixture and filtered it and added in some Red Devil lye. He watched his thermometer. He was careful not to breathe. He cooled the mixture down and added in some camping fuel and shook it up and jumped up and down for glee when he saw the crust of crystal floating on the liquid. He started to evaporate off the solvent but was so excited that he forgot to keep his tail out of the fire. He was dancing round the lab, lighting everything on fire with his tail.
The lab burned down. He died.
Southern Fox came past and touched him on the chest with the tip of his bow. "Honored Coyote!" he said. "You must keep your tail out of it! That is the only way to cook."
"Ouch-aikya!" whined Coyote. "My eyes, where are my eyes-aikya?" Coyote made himself eyes out of two silver dollars and started again. He crushed the pseudo. He filtered and evaporated it, he mixed and heated and bubbled the gas. He filtered and evaporated some more, and then he danced up and down. "Oh, I am clever-aikya!" said Coyote. "I am cleverer than them all-aikya!" He had in his hands a hundred grams of pure crystal.
Excerpted from Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru. Copyright © 2012 by Hari Kunzru. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
- Gods Without Men brings us into the consciousness of nine fictional characters, among them a hedge fund executive; a UFO cult leader; a dissolute British rock star; a homesick Iraqi teenage girl; one historical character, the eighteenth-century Spanish missionary Fray Francisco Hermenegildo Tomás Garcés; and one deity, Coyote, the trickster in many Native American traditional stories. Why does Hari Kunzru embrace such a wide and diverse cast of characters?
- Do these characters from different historical eras and different echelons of society share any of the same aspirations? What draws them to the Pinnacle Rocks?
- Which character or characters do you most identify with? Why?
- Why do you think Kunzru set this novel in the desert? Could he have told the same story in a different landscape?
- After reading Gods Without Men do you agree with Honoré de Balzac's description of the desert: "In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing... It is God without men," one of the epigraphs of this novel? Has your conception of the desert changed? Do you think "wasteland" is an appropriate synonym for "desert"?
- Dawn joins the Ashtar Galactic Command in 1970 when she is a teenager because she wants "to be part of something bigger than herself" (page 155). Does she achieve that goal? Thirty-eight years later, teenage Laila draws comfort from the Ashtar record she buys at a thrift shop. Why?
- Several characters in the novel possess arcane knowledge of mathematics, alchemy, aerodynamics, electrical engineering, or entertainment marketing that enables them to manipulate the material world in their favor, yet they don't seem satisfied with their achievements. What are the sources and consequences of their dissatisfaction?
- The character Coyote appears intermittently throughout the novel as an animal, a man, and a deity. What do his appearances herald? Are other characters comparably skilled at transforming themselves?
- Kunzru references three international conflicts in this novel - World War I, World War II, and the second Iraq War. What do the characters Deighton, Schmidt, and Laila, who had firsthand experiences of those wars, have in common?
- Lisa views Raj's disappearance as her punishment for her wild night in town. Dawn thinks she was responsible because by taking Lisa to Judy's place "she'd got her family involved. They were mixed up with Coyote, mixed up in the paths and flows" (page 343). Do you believe that either character is responsible for Raj's disappearance?
- Does the little glowing boy Laila finds in the desert at night (page 297) bear any relation to the "glow boy" (page 64) Joanie's daughter, Judy, was seen playing with before she disappeared in 1958?
- Why do you think Lisa is able to gratefully accept her son's seemingly miraculous return and his recovery from autism, whereas Jaz cannot bear not knowing what happened to his son and is frightened by Raj's changed behavior, believing the boy who was returned to them is not Raj; "It's as if - as if something is wearing his skin" (page 357)?
- Toward the end of the novel, Lisa believes she has learned a lesson: "true knowledge is the knowledge of limits, the understanding that at the heart of the world... is a mystery into which we are not meant to penetrate.... Now she could call it God... confident that though the world was unknowable, it had a meaning, and that meaning would keep her safe and set her free" (page 345). Does Jaz experience his own epiphany at the end of the novel when he stands holding hands with Lisa and Raj looking out over the desert?
- Why does the novel begin and end with an explosion? At the end of the novel, do you gain a clearer understanding of what Coyote was up to in the first chapter?
- Do you think Kunzru's postmodernist storytelling technique of presenting the reader with pieces of a puzzle without providing explicit explanations of how the pieces fit together is appropriate for a novel that explores the search for pattern and meaning? Would the story be more or less realistic if he had limited himself to traditional forms of storytelling?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
What could a UFO hippie cult, a British rock star, a Spanish Franciscan priest, the son of a Sikh, and his autistic son have in common? The Mojave Desert, for one thing. A search for meaning that connects the earthbound physical plane with the spiritual, for another. In his fourth novel, Hari Kunzru confronts head-on the quandaries of modern life while walking a fine line between irony and authentic emotion, between seriousness and lightheartedness, without missing a step.
He opens with a piece of flash fiction involving Coyote, Trickster of the World, attempting to make crystal meth. With a little help from his friends Cottontail Rabbit, Gila Monster and Southern Fox, Coyote succeeds. Just as the author succeeds in purveying a recipe for meth right there in his novel. Dangerous!
Jumping frenetically around in time with incidents from 1947 to 2008 to 1778 to 1958 to 1969 to 2008 to 1920 and so on, Kunzru reveals the power of a god-like force, emanating from a rock formation called The Pinnacles, to a variety of characters. These characters share the quality of existing outside of what is seen as normal or mainstream.
When any author goes after the Big Ideas he or she has to anchor the story somewhere. Kunzru anchors his by means of these characters. Jaz Matharu, a math whiz, successful beyond his wildest dreams in terms of income and marriage, carries with him the fatal flaw of personal uncertainty and the Achilles heel of his origins. An American-born son of Sikh immigrants, Jaz marries Lisa, a stunning beauty of white American liberal sentiments, and together they produce the autistic Raj. By the age of four, the child has ruined the idyllic love and life of this New York City couple, driving a deep wedge between their cultural differences. The cult members, the rock star, the priest and other characters frame the story. Though we have seen such types in other novels, each one is uniquely suited to his role.
The desert itself serves as another anchor. Even readers who have never experienced the searing desolate miles of the Southwestern American desert will feel its eerie majesty and sense the unease found there. While on vacation in the Mojave, Jaz and his wife intersect with the history and characters already introduced in the story. When little Raj disappears in the midst of his parents' marital meltdown, the power and disquiet of the location become the forces that will either destroy or save their family. I found it fitting that Kunzru leaves us wondering which effect these forces have in the final chapter.
If you like a good family saga about people working out their issues, you will probably hate this book. If you like a neatly wrapped up story with a hopeful ending, Gods Without Men might not be for you. On the other hand, if you look around your surroundings and read the financial, political and war-related news wondering what is really going on with people, Gods Without Men will provide a big dose of entertainment and a new way of looking at our current times.
Reviewed by Judy Krueger
Starred Review. Kunzru's 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.
Starred Review. Working a subject that might easily have invited a heavy hand, Kunzru instead delivers a lively and frequently thrilling version of the quest novel.
Starred Review. At first somewhat slow as the various stories are laid out, this extraordinary novel by the estimable Kunzru (My Revolutions) gathers momentum, power, and a fierce clarity to deliver a rich panorama while detailing our mutual antagonisms and deepest spiritual needs (met, perhaps, with "a vast emptiness, an absence"). Highly recommended.
Starred Review. 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 Daily Telegraph (UK)
Sometimes dizzying, sometimes puzzling, always enjoyable, Gods Without Men is one of the best novels of the year.
Financial Times (UK)
The literary skills of Hari Kunzru are evident throughout this complex and disturbing novel.
The Independent (UK)
Compulsively readable, skillfully orchestrated, Kunzru's American odyssey brings a new note into his underlying preoccupation with human identity. Faced with the immanence of a big 'other' - alien, natural, druggy or godly - of what transformations, let alone lives, are humans capable?
The Guardian (UK)
A countercultural mind-expanding quest... As a virtuoso performance, changing gears and styles every 20 pages or so, encompassing 18th-century friars and Hoxton hipsters, it will appeal to fans of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas... Extraordinary.
Daily Mail (UK)
Kunzru's lively fourth novel tackles its big themes without ever becoming ponderous or heavy-going... Involving, thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining.
The Mojave Desert is located primarily in Southern California but extends into parts of Utah, Nevada and Arizona. It encompasses Death Valley, Joshua Tree National Park as well as communities such as Barstow and 29 Palms. Interstates 14 and 40 penetrate into and cross the desert.
Nearly 12,000 years ago, once the Pleistocene glaciers receded, Paleo Indians occupied what we now call the Mojave Desert. According to the US National Park Service, "The Chemehuevi lived on prickly pear, mesquite and roasted agave blooms and hunted deer and bighorn sheep." As the region became more arid, various native tribes such as Shoshone, Southern Paiute and Mojave moved in.
When Spanish explorers arrived in the late 16th Century in search of gold and silver, "the Mojaves were the largest concentration of people in the Southwest." By the 1700s, Franciscan missions were being established on the California coast, and people such as Father Francisco Garces (who is also a character in the novel) traveled through the desert, visiting and living with the inland Mojave Indians. Incidentally, he left the only surviving written record concerning their way of life.
In the 1800s, explorers, trappers and traders from a young America led by men such as Jedediah Smith and James Ohio Pattie arrived in Mojave territory, which resulted in a fair amount of violence. By the mid-1800s, the United States annexed much of the southwest from Mexico, including Arizona, "and with it began encroachment by the US Army." Though the Indians did not recognize any outside ownership of their lands, roads and railroads were built as miners and wagon trains of settlers moved into the area. By the end of the century, natives had been confined to reservations and were controlled by the Office of Indian Affairs.
The 1900s brought increased mining and homesteading. A railroad built from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles became the Union Pacific. In 1916, Route 66 was built alongside the railroad. Military bases were established from 1940 to 1960. During the 1960s, interstates were built. These decades saw dramatic increases in population as the gaming industry, military presence, and suburbs expanded.
UFOs and their connection with the Mojave Desert began in 1947 with a sighting by US Air Force personnel on July 8 at the Muroc Air Base (now Edwards AFB), located on the borders of three California counties at the edges of the Mojave Desert. The sightings led to a joint investigation by Army Air Force Intelligence and the FBI. The Roswell, New Mexico UFO Incident, concerning the recovery of an object thought to be the remains of an extra-terrestrial spacecraft, complete with alien occupants, sparked interest, controversy and conspiracy theories that continue to this day. Both events gave rise to various UFO religions and cults, large and small, based on the belief that humanity will be saved by aliens who will educate humans about a better way to live.
Map by Cepha
By Judy Krueger