When Hari Kunzru, the British son of an Indian and an English parent, was asked about his literary influences, two of the first three he mentioned were American: Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. After three earlier novels and a book of stories, Kunzru has, in Gods Without Men, written a distinctly American novel worthy of comparison with the best work of these two forefathers. In its almost 400 pages of disparate but connected narratives, Gods Without Men resembles a compact Mason & Dixon or a condensed Underworld, both of which deal in part with the mythic American West. Like Pynchon and DeLillo, and like Kunzru’s accomplished British contemporaries David Mitchell and Tom McCarthy, Kunzru is an anthropological novelist, a writer who presents individual psychology and current society through the long and wide lenses of cultural systems — religious, historical, political, technological — as they are affected by a particular physical environment. In Gods Without Men, it is the Mojave Desert and its Trona Pinnacles, unusual stone pillars that attract, in Kunzru’s telling, contemporary tourists, twentieth-century UFOlogists and hippies, earlier historical characters, and ancient Native Americans.
At the end of Kunzru’s first novel, the widely praised The Impressionist, early-twentieth-century British anthropologists disappear while studying a remote African tribe. In Gods Without Men, a Harvard-educated anthropologist named Deighton travels in 1920 to the Mojave to record the languishing language of a local tribe, eventually goes mad, and disappears. The failures of Kunzru’s scientists don’t deter the author from his anthropological approach. Each disappearance is just one more unknown — perhaps a meta-unknown — to which the ethnovelist applies Clifford Geertz’s “thick description”: Kunzru’s field knowledge, theoretical imagination, and linguistic expertise.
Besides, Kunzru seems obsessed with disappearance. Two major characters in his second novel, The Transmission, vanish at its end. The protagonist/narrator of his third book, My Revolutions, is a political activist who reappears after twenty years underground. The plot of Gods Without Men revolves around the disappearance of a severely autistic four-year-old boy, Raj, while his parents — Lisa and Jaz Matharu — are visiting the Pinnacles in 2008. Perhaps Raj has escaped from his stroller and wandered into the desert; maybe he has been abducted.
Raj is missing for weeks, then months. While deftly keeping readers in suspense, Kunzru traces the parents’ fear, guilt, anger, and mutual conflicts, all exacerbated by the media frenzy that surrounds them. Television reporters desperate for a solution within their expiring news cycle waylay the Matharus. Know-nothing bloggers accuse them of killing Raj or connect his disappearance with hateful conspiracies. One of the most active literary users of social media, Kunzru has the fantasies and styles of the blogosphere down cold. Insulted and even assaulted, the Matharus try to disappear from public sight, but they can’t hide because public appeals may help return their son. In desperation, Lisa, formerly a book editor, turns back to her Jewish upbringing and to mystical texts for solace. Jaz, a former student of quantum physics who applies his knowledge to stock trading, resists the superstitions of his Sikh parents but forgets about quantum uncertainty and wonders if Raj may have been abducted by the space aliens that earlier groups who gathered at the Pinnacles attempted to reach.
Both parents engage in what Kunzru several times refers to as “magical thinking.” Although his presentation of the Matharus is psychologically acute, Kunzru’s achievement in Gods Without Men — what places him with Pynchon and DeLillo — is moving beyond a personal, emotion-bending story that might be told on a daytime talk show to collect and invent earlier narratives of magical thinking involving the Pinnacles, narratives that create a selective but unique and fascinating history of god-struck America. These narratives are in dated chapters that regularly alternate with the Matharu story, which proceeds chronologically. The “alternate” chapters do not, but I’ll describe them in chronological order because, like anthropologists unearthing disturbed levels of a site, readers are meant, I think, to eventually reconstruct a timeline that connects all the novel’s shards into a chronicle of spiritual need.
Kunzru strokes into several chapters Native American myths about the Pinnacles as a borderland between the living and the dead, along with legends about preternatural characters. Two chapters purport to be an eighteenth-century report on the explorations of a Catholic priest to whom an angel appeared at the Pinnacles. One Nephi Parr, a hyper-religious but rogue Mormon who kills heretics near the Pinnacles, believes in 1871 that angelic airships are waiting for the saved. After the anthropologist Deighton loses his young wife to a Native American in 1920, he dreams or hallucinates an otherworldly child’s kidnap, an illusion that precipitates a murder on the rocks. An airplane mechanic named Schmidt, who watched the Enola Gay take off, goes in 1947 to the Pinnacles to expiate his sin and to found a cult based on communication with extraterrestrials, a cult that an emotionally deprived Washington housewife named Joanie joins in a 1958 chapter. In the high sixties, the Pinnacles morphs into a sex, drugs, and rock and roll commune that hopes to reach the spirit realm through technologically amplified music.
All of these chapters about believers or would-be believers share the appeal of Pynchon’s crank characters and his scrupulosity about details of milieu, dialect, technology, and time-stamped paranoia. Kunzru even tips his hat to the master of invented history when Schmidt, attempting to transcend the earth, burns to death in a structure that resembles a gravity-defying rocket.
In the present of 2008, a British rocker fleeing his failing band in Los Angeles stays at the same motel as the Matharus and is, because of the coincidence, briefly suspected of abducting Raj. A local Iraqi teenager named Laila also has her own chapter that describes her work “simulating” an Iraqi in a Potemkin village built to train Marines on a nearby base. A man called Coyote, a refugee from the hippie commune and an avatar of the Native American trickster, now finds the desert a good place to cook and use crystal meth. In these chapters Kunzru channels DeLillo’s ability to throw the voices of pop culture, marginal politics, and the criminal underground, as if the family trauma of White Noise alternated with chapters from Great Jones Street, Libra, and Running Dog.
Raj is only one of several characters who disappear in or from the Mojave. But what has most significantly disappeared from the desert in Gods Without Men is connection with transcendence. In the contemporary chapters, the desert is a tourist attraction for the Matharus, a getaway for the musician, a job for Laila, and a hideaway for Coyote. When Raj disappears, Kunzru shows how the magical thinking of Lisa and Jaz resembles and may be influenced by the myths, manias, and delusions of the American past, as well as the Homo sapiens past. But the Matharus’ responses lack the fanatic passion and the transcendental ambition displayed, sometimes destructively, by earlier desert denizens. The Matharus’ “moderation” may allow them to survive while other characters disappear. But the novel is still haunted by the Satan problem of Paradise Lost, the Ahab problem of Moby-Dick: the self-destructive obsessives are more interesting fictional creations than the survivors.
A colleague of Jaz’s named Cy Bachman (a cybernetic composer of sorts) has created a computer program called Walter into which Jaz feeds incredibly heterogeneous data sets to predict the stock market and, according to Bachman, to discover “the face of God.” The program eventually ruins the trading firm, and the face of God refuses to magically appear. An up-to-the-nanosecond delusion, the program implies that Kunzru’s title, taken from Balzac, is a fiction: there are no gods without men to create them. But, in a witty turn, the program also provides a model for this fiction into which Kunzru pulls together disparate characters and various eras to represent the actions of men (and women) without gods.
Obeying the principle of recursion in the Walter program, Kunzru has Laila buy an old record album that has the same cover as the novel and, careful readers will note, includes references to details in Gods Without Men:
Cocooned inside her headphones, her eyes tight shut, she felt as if was inside a capsule, heading out into space.
There was a howling sound, like a dog. There was a child’s voice, calling out a word, perhaps a name. There were horse’s hooves, an engine, a man coughing, bare feet running across sand. There was gunfire.
A whole world.
Not really a “whole” world, of course, any more than Gods Without Men is a “whole” world. By planting the invented album within his fabricated book, Kunzru wryly admits the irony of using fiction to examine humans’ desire for a supreme fiction.
The world without God, according to Bachman’s Kabbala, is broken, scattered. Gods Without Men is appropriately fractured, multiple lives from different times in the same approximate space. Two more explicitly anthropological novels that feature Native American belief systems in the West — Leslie Silko’s Ceremony and Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home — are even more fragmented in form and style but also more hopeful about the recovery of transcendence. Although Kunzru is as large-hearted as these writers of magic realism, as sympathetic to humans’ need to fill the absence symbolized by the desert, he is skeptical of magic in any form.
The Pinnacles appeared when the Mojave’s lakes disappeared. Three of the formations may look to some like fingers, but the stones are only stones, possible signposts for humans in an empty land but not signs pointing to the divine. Perhaps even the Matharus realize this, for the last words of their final chapter are “There was nothing out there at all.” Even at the end of Gods Without Men there is no end of profound questions as Kunzru, like Joyce’s famous fingernail-paring artist-God, disappears.