The Desert of Magical Thinking

Gods Without Men

In his first novel Hari Kunzru gave us a chameleon, a boy who could disappear into other identities and cross the social boundaries of India and England. Now in his fourth novel, Gods Without Men, he offers a coyote, an American Indian trickster at the crossroads between this world and the next, who makes children disappear.

The main story follows Jaz and Lisa—a Wall Street banker with roots in India, and his Jewish American wife—as they struggle to raise an autistic son, Raj, who subsequently vanishes in the Mojave Desert. A reporter wonders if the child may have been carried off by a coyote, which, in the hodgepodge mythology of Gods Without Men, is both totally wrong and somehow right. The rest of the book loops through time, from 1920 to 1778 to 1871 and beyond, weaving together the history of a unique spot in the desert where strange energies collide.

The desert, for Kunzru, is a junkyard of symbolism: a place of obscurity and self-discovery, a playground and a laboratory, a hostile landscape and a utopia, “the secret place, the womb of the mystery” and “the crossing-place, the sky hole between this land and the Land of the Dead.” He fills the Mojave with indigenous tribes, UFO worshipers, Spanish Catholic priests, Marines, rock stars, sheriffs, drifters, and sightseers from New York City. Kunzru wants the desert to represent emptiness, but his flood of characters gives the opposite impression.

What links these burnouts and seekers is a tendency to look at the unknown and see something mystical. What we consider the unknown is always changing. In 1958 it’s atomic weapons. In 1775 it’s Christian miracles. In 1969 it’s drugs and television waves. In 2008 it’s computers and financial models. All of Kunzru’s characters are searching for a way to “connect the mysteries of technology with those of the spirit.”

The weaving doesn’t always work. Many of the minor characters—a Mormon miner, an Iraqi girl on a U.S. Marine base, a deep-thinking financial guru who seems to be plagiarized from Don DeLillo—feel both inadequately developed and undeserving of Kunzru’s full attention. Their stories illustrate the nature of that spot in the desert—for centuries a doorway between life and death, between earth and outer space—but only Jaz and Lisa can advance the philosophical dilemma at the heart of the book.

Gods Without Men alternate covers

And their dilemma is a doozy. Gods Without Men may sound like the most limited of Kunzru’s novels—everyone is stranded in a godforsaken desert—but it’s the most ambitious by far, with a complicated internal structure and a sweeping theme. It all comes down to trapdoors. When Raj disappears, it’s like he fell through a trapdoor, with sudden and traumatic consequences for his family. The desert is a kind of trapdoor—an empty space, but also a threshold to a new world. And the dramatic “answer” to Kunzru’s novel—the most plausible explanation for the mystical or alien occurrences in the Mojave—is built into an early part of the story, where a key piece is missing.

Sooner or later a hole will open up in your life, a sudden emptiness that you can’t explain. How you plug the hole defines who you are. When their son drops out of their lives, Jaz tries to be logical while Lisa becomes more religious. Rationalism and mysticism: Kunzru seems determined to discredit both responses, or at least suggest that one is no better than the other, and that their shortcomings illustrate “the fiction of the essential comprehensibility of the world.” In a twist, the news media sensationalizes Raj’s disappearance, showing how everyone—even viewers at home—insists on finding a way to explain the unexplainable.

Up to the final, tense scenes, it’s unclear how Kunzru will resolve his own big questions. But simply by posing them he has written a novel that’s urgent and true.

- Brian Hurley

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Filed under book review, Hooray Fiction!, review

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