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.
This review was originally published in March 2012, and has been updated for the January 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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