Archive for December 2nd, 2011

December 2, 2011

Hari Kunzru, Gods Without Men

Or: in which I manage not to refer to James Wood and “hysterical realism”. A version of this appeared in last weekend’s Sunday Guardian here.



In Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men the desert is not a featureless place. It becomes the subject of Native American myth; the setting for conflict between white men and Indian tribes; the location of a cult striving to make contact with aliens. It is the site of visions for a Mormon miner and an Aragonese friar separated by a century, and of military exercises for the U.S Army. The Pinnacles, a rock formation comprising three columns, to the priest symbolise the holy trinity and to the locals a gateway between the worlds of the living and the dead. It is, in short, the backdrop for a history of the United States, from “the time when animals were men” to the present.

If there is a central strand to this polyphonic novel it is the story of the Matharus. Jaz (Jaspinder) Matharu is the son of Punjabi immigrants who disapprove of his marriage to the Jewish-American Lisa. Despite this, the couple seem happy until the birth of their son Raj. Raj is autistic, and the attendant difficulties this brings put a strain on the relationship. Then on a trip to the Mojave Desert Raj vanishes from his stroller.

Raj is not the first vanished child in the story. In the late 1950s Joanie Roberts, a member of the Cohort guided by the Ashtar Galactic Command, cannot locate her daughter Judy among the crowds camped around the Pinnacles. Judy had last been seen talking to a strange glowing boy. In the 1920s the sight of a white-skinned glowing child walking with a Native American man leads to accusations of kidnapping and a group of white men gather to chase this man and hunt him down. There is another child involved – this particular victim is chosen in part because he has fathered a child on a white woman.

Without this background of missing children (both glowing and otherwise) the story of the Matharus is still a fully realised one. We switch between the perspectives of Jaz and Lisa, seeing them from inside and out, realising that they each have their prejudices and irrationalities. With Raj’s disappearance the couple is subjected to a media circus – complete with badly-punctuated, rage- and conspiracy-filled youtube comments, talk show hosts who complain that Lisa is insufficiently emotional*, suggestions that the parents were to blame and that the couple, being wealthy New Yorkers, are fundamentally unsympathetic. Kunzru is presumably invoking the media discourse around the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in 2007. Lisa deals with the situation by turning to spirituality. Jaz’s reactions to his son are entirely plausible within the framework of a realist narrative. Theoretically one could ignore the aliens completely.

But it would be a terrible shame to overlook the rest of the book in favour of the Matharu plot thread. Kunzru’s ability to switch registers between eighteenth century priests, twenty-first century pop stars and everything in between is truly impressive and fully on display. It’s not entirely clear what some of these characters, particularly the pop star, add to the plot. Yet the very fact that there are so many points of view adds to the presentation of the pinnacles as a sort of palimpsest of (mostly paranormal) meaning.

A minor but important aspect of the book is Jaz’s Wall Street job , which involves working with a computer programme called “Walter”. Its inventor, a Kabbalah enthusiast named Cy Bachman, claims to be searching for “the face of God”. Walter connects everything, bringing together seemingly random and unrelated events and points of data.  Even the unbelieving Jaz begins to think that these are part of a larger pattern and that he is meddling with something fundamental – he thinks he may have caused the collapse of one country’s economy, and the Wall street crash follows soon after. But are Walter’s data points really part of a larger pattern?

This stringing together of seemingly random events to create a meaningful whole might work as a metaphor for this novel. As might the act of “running the old way”, a talent possessed by Mockingbird Runner, the man chased across the desert. As he runs, his strides lengthen so that the footprints his pursuers find are impossibly far apart. But the footprints are part of a single trail. This is a book filled with people looking for patterns. And weaving all these disparate stories together are two figures; Coyote, the malevolent trickster figure of Native American legend and (as far from local as anything could get) the glowing alien child.

The Balzac quote with which Kunzru begins his book (and from which he gets his title) is apposite. In the desert there is everything and there is nothing. We make meaning, or we don’t. And so Kunzru is able to end his book by saying of the desert, which has been at the centre of multiple grand narratives that “there was nothing out there at all”. 

* For Indian readers, there’s a bit of a parallel here to some of the criticism directed at the mother in the Aarushi Talwar murder investigations.