Stories intersect in the desert in Hari Kunzru’s latest novel

GODS WITHOUT MEN
Knopf/Courtesy

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In contrast to the standard linear novel, Hari Kunzru’s “Gods Without Men” twitches back and forth between hundreds of years with characters that all relate and complement one another — even if they do not meet. This makes it a thought-provoking novel for the often distracted and difficult-to-impress modern reader.

The young New York family members Jaz, Lisa and their autistic son Raj are vacationing in the Mojave Desert when Raj disappears. Media appearances, worries and Casey Anthony-ish accusations test Jaz and Lisa’s relationship and question their love for Raj.  Although Kunzru’s insight into the couple’s emotions and changing relationship is especially complex, the alternating chapters from other characters’ perspectives do not interrupt the narrative but work in harmony, swirling like the chaos and unity of a dust storm.

These skipping chapters recall Jennifer Egan’s novel “A Visit From the Goon Squad” but feel more natural in their connections between characters. For example, an immigrant Iraqi girl struggling with the idea of cultural identity clears her mind by listening to music, and mistakenly buys a vinyl record of the alien outreach sessions from the chapter set in the 1960s. The British rock star, who happens to be the lead singer of the immigrant girl’s favorite band, went on a mind-clearing drive and ended up in the Mojave. He ends up staying in the same hotel as the Mathurus and is falsely accused of abducting the child at first. All of these accounts and more are not only to test if the reader is paying attention and recognizing these connections, but also to explore the mystery of coincidence and destiny.

The novel reads as almost fantastical, with its talk of coyote gods, telepathy and aliens. Yet it is genuine in that every person described seems to be an archetype that is proven later to be a true individual — the rebellious immigrant kid who goes against his culture, the seemingly straight-arrow reformed bad guy, the good girl who gets sucked into hippie-dom. All of their intimate stories, told out of order, are intertwined. Not so much so that it seems over-crafted by the author, but enough to realize the effects of everyday decisions.

The Pinnacle Rocks in the Mojave Desert as the common setting for all of these accounts especially enhance the mysticism of mankind. There’s the bleakness while looking into the desert and seeing nothing but more and more of the same dusty land, but there is also a calm and potential power about the nothingness that humans have not converted into something bound by rules and judgments. It’s a place where people can go insane, or where people go when they are trying to rebuild themselves. Kunzru seems to say that the desert is one of the few places where the pure soul thrives, and everything we do that makes sense in the context of society should deserve some questioning.

What prevents this book from being the author’s inaccessible string of dreams are the prose and careful character development. The first chapter intimidates the most, with descriptions of a coyote-god cooking meth in the desert and causing explosions that lead to his death and resurrection over and over again. Maybe it is a test or perhaps a warning to the reader to keep his mind available to possibilities that aren’t quite literal. The successive chapters are clear and easy to read, but without insulting the reader’s intelligence. The question of Raj’s disappearance and fate sweeps the story forward, not giving the reader a chance to close the book out of boredom.

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