Among them are an 18th-century Spanish missionary, a former WWII aviation engineer turned desert-cult messiah, and an incognito rock star on the run. As their stories collide and build upon one another, Gods Without Men becomes a heartfelt exploration of the search for meaning in a chaotic universe.
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Gods Without Men
By Hari Kunzru
VintageCopyright © 2013 Hari Kunzru
All right reserved.
In the time when the animals were men
In the time when the animals were men, Coyote was living in a certain place. “Haikya! I have gotten so tired of living here-aikya. I am going to go out into the desert and cook.” With this, Coyote took an RV and drove into the desert to set up a lab. He took along ten loaves of Wonder bread and fifty packets of ramen noodles. He took whiskey and enough pot to keep him going. He searched for a long time and found a good place. “Here, I will set up-aikya! There is so much room! There is no one to bother me here!”
Coyote set to work. “Oh,” he said, “haikya! I have so many tablets of pseudoephedrine! It took me so long to get! I have been driving around to those pharmacies for so long-aikya!” He crushed the pseudo until it was a fine powder. He filled a beaker with wood spirit and swirled around the powder. He poured the mixture through filter papers to get rid of the filler. Then he set it on the warmer to evaporate. But Coyote forgot to check his thermometer and the temperature rose. It got hotter and hotter. “Haikya!” he said. “I need a cigarette-aikya! I’ve done such a lot of hard work-aikya!”
He lit a cigarette. There was an explosion. He died.
Cottontail Rabbit came past and touched him on the head with his staff. Coyote sat up and rubbed his eyes. “Honored Coyote!” said Cottontail Rabbit. “Close the door of the RV. Keep it closed. Do your smoking outside.”
Coyote began to whine. “Ouch-aikya! Where are my hands-aikya? My hands have blown off.” He whined and lay down and was sad for a long time. Then Coyote got up and made himself hands out of a cholla cactus.
He began again.
He ground the pseudo. He mixed it with the solvent. He filtered and evaporated and filtered and evaporated, until he was sure all the filler was gone. Then he sat down and began scraping matchboxes to collect red phosphorus. He mixed the pseudo with his matchbox scrapings and iodine and plenty of water. Suddenly the flask began to boil. Gas started to fill the air. It got in his eyes, his fur. He howled and scratched at his face.
He choked on the poison gas and died.
Gila Monster came past and sprinkled water on him. Coyote sat up and rubbed his eyes. “Honored Coyote!” said Gila Monster. “Use a hose. Stop your flask, fill a bucket with kitty litter and run the hose down into that. The gas will be captured. Trap it and watch it bubble and boil, there in the flask. Don’t breathe at all if you can help it.”
Coyote began to whine. “Ouch-aikya! Where is my face-aikya? I have scratched my face off.” He ran down to the river and made himself a face out of mud and plastered it over the front of his head. Then he began again. He crushed the pseudo and evaporated it. He scraped the matchboxes and bubbled the flask into the bucket of kitty litter. He mixed the chemicals and cooked his mixture and filtered it and added in some Red Devil lye. He watched his thermometer. He was careful not to breathe. He cooled the mixture down and added in some camping fuel and shook it up and jumped up and down for glee when he saw the crust of crystal floating on the liquid. He started to evaporate off the solvent but was so excited that he forgot to keep his tail out of the fire. He was dancing round the lab, lighting everything on fire with his tail.
The lab burned down. He died.
Southern Fox came past and touched him on the chest with the tip of his bow. “Honored Coyote!” he said. “You must keep your tail out of it! That is the only way to cook.”
“Ouch-aikya!” whined Coyote. “My eyes, where are my eyes-aikya?” Coyote made himself eyes out of two silver dollars and started again. He crushed the pseudo. He filtered and evaporated it, he mixed and heated and bubbled the gas. He filtered and evaporated some more, and then he danced up and down. “Oh, I am clever-aikya!” said Coyote. “I am cleverer than them all-aikya!” He had in his hands a hundred grams of pure crystal.
And Coyote left that place.
That is all, thus it ends.
First time Schmidt saw the Pinnacles he knew it was the place. Three columns of rock shot up like the tentacles of some ancient creature, weathered feelers probing the sky. He ran a couple of tests, used the divining rods and the earth meter. Needle went off the scale. No question, there was power here, running along the fault line and up through the rocks: a natural antenna. The deal was done quickly. Eight hundred bucks to the old woman who owned the lot, some papers to sign at a law office in Victorville and it was his. Twenty-year lease, easy as pie. He couldn’t believe his luck.
He bought a used Airstream off a lot in Barstow, towed it onto the site, and sat for a whole afternoon in a lawn chair, admiring the way the aluminum trailer reflected the light. Took him back to the Pacific, the Superforts on their hardstands at North Field. The way those bombers glittered in the sun. There was a lesson in that dazzle, showed there were worlds a person couldn’t bear to look upon directly.
He didn’t sleep at all the first night. Lying under a blanket on the ground, staring straight up, he kept his eyes open until the blacks turned purple, then gray, and the wool was frosted with little droplets of condensation like tiny diamonds. The desert smell of creosote and sage, the dome of stars. There was more action up in the sky than down on earth, but you had to drag yourself out of the city to know it. All those damn verticals cluttering your sightline, all the steel pipes and cables and so forth under your feet, jamming you up, interrupting the flows. People hadn’t fooled with the desert. It was land that let you alone.
He thought he stood a good chance. He was still young enough to take on the physical work, unencumbered by wife or family. And he had faith. Without that he’d have given up long ago, back when he was still a kid reading mail-order tracts on his lunch break, making his first tentative notes on the mysteries. Now he wanted no distractions. He didn’t bother about the good opinion of the folks in town. He was polite, passed the time of day when he went to pick up supplies at the store, but didn’t trouble himself further. Most men were fools; he’d found that out on Guam. Sons of bitches never would let him be, giving him nicknames, making childish jokes at his expense. Took all he had not to do what was on his mind, but after Lizzie he didn’t have the right, so he’d tamped down his anger and got on with fighting the war. Those saps had flown lord knew how many missions and with all those hours logged, all that chance to see, they still thought the real world was down on the ground, in the chow line, between the legs of the pinup girls they pasted over their rancid cots. Only person he met with a lick of sense was that Irish bombardier, what was his name, Mulligan or Flanagan, some Irish name, who told him of the lights he’d spotted when they were on their way to drop a load over Nagoya, green dots moving too fast to be Zeroes. Asked to borrow a book. Schmidt lent it to him, never did get it back. Kid went down with the rest of his crew a week later, ditched into the sea.
Little by little, the place came together. The trailer was hot as all hell and he was trying to work out some way to utilize the shade of the rocks when he found the prospector’s burrow. Didn’t know what it was until he asked at the bar in town. Concreted over a few years previous when they flushed the old bastard out, some story about thinking he was a German spy. Crazy as a coot he may have been, probably starving to death since there wasn’t a cent of silver or anything else on his so-called claim, but he knew how to dig. A whole room, four hundred square feet, right under the rocks. Cool in summer, insulated against the winter nights. A goddamn bunker.
After that it was all gravy. He graded an airstrip, sunk a gas tank into the dirt, threw up a cinder-block shelter and painted welcome in big white letters on the tin roof. Now he had a business. The café was never going to amount to much, but then he didn’t need it to be General Motors. He felt he could have gotten along without another living soul, but his savings weren’t going to last forever. He had another year, perhaps two, before money got tight, just about the right time for an enterprise like that to find its feet.
There weren’t too many passing aircraft. About once a week someone would land. He’d serve them coffee, fry eggs. When they asked what he was doing out there he’d say just waiting, and when they asked what for he’d say he didn’t know yet but it sure beat sitting in traffic, and that was usually enough for them. He’d never take visitors down into the bunker. After a few months the numbers increased. Pilots flying to and from the coast began to hear there was a place to refuel. He bought some chairs and Formica-top tables, laid in a stock of beer.
There were problems, of course. His generator broke down. There was a confrontation with some Indians he caught clambering about on the rocks, had to show them his shotgun. After they went away he found rock drawings up there, handprints and snakes and bighorn sheep. Another day a dust storm forced a plane down. The wind was blowing sideways across the strip at fifty miles an hour and the pilot did well to land at all—looked like it would pick up his left wing and flip him as he made his approach. Schmidt ran out to meet him, holding a bandanna over his mouth. Without thinking he took him underground, the logical place to shelter.
The pilot was a young buck, twenty-one or so, head of dark hair, little dandyish mustache. Rich kid. As he stripped off his jacket and goggles, he looked around in wonder, asked where on earth he was.
By that time the project was well advanced. Schmidt had built a vortical condenser to store and concentrate the paraphysical energies flowing through the rocks. A crystal was set into a gimbal on the tip of the tallest stack, angled toward Venus. He was developing a parallel piezoelectric system, based on his study of Tesla, but for now was sending signals using an old Morse key, with an aetheric converter to transform the physical clicks into modulations of the paraphysical carrier wave. He explained all this to the pilot, who listened intently, taking in the machinery, the piles of books and notes. He seemed impressed.
“And what message are you sending?”
Excerpted from Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru Copyright © 2013 by Hari Kunzru. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc.
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What People are Saying About This
“A beautifully written echo chamber of a novel.” —David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas
“Gorgeous and wise.” —Douglas Coupland
“A wildly ambitious novel that spans centuries." —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“A distinctly American novel worthy of comparison with the best work of Pynchon and DeLillo.” —Salon
“Kunzru can rival … any current novelist with the strength of his prose and imaginative boldness.” —The Wall Street Journal
“[A] big, innovative, questioning book…. Deeply beautiful.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Quite a ride: This is a book in which monks of the 18th century trudge the Mojave with drug-sodden hippies from the Summer of Love. A book in which Native Americans poised at the twilight of a dying culture try valiantly to guard their myths from relentlessly literal-minded anthropologists. . . . Here are cynical veterans from World War II, hard-bitten GIs fresh from Iraq, randy communards, washed-up bankers, wasted groupies whose only thought is their next roach or a place to park their sleeping bag. Here is death, sex, and rock-and-roll. And all of it, as random as it may sound, is a fitting paean to this jittery world.” —The Washington Post
“A stunning achievement. . . . Gods Without Men will undoubtedly prove to be one of the most important works of fiction published this year.” —The New York Journal of Books
“Ambitious and wonderful. . . . Rather than looking for easy answers, Kunzru suggests, we should read instead for the questions—remembering that when you travel in the desert, what looks like an oasis is usually just a mirage.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“[A] dreamscape of a novel. . . . Kunzru is a fiercely intelligent writer, who exhibits remarkable control over both his material and his impressive variety of narrative voices.” —Slate
“The clever symmetries that link the stories reveal the bleached bones of America; violence, an unending contest over the politics of meaning and faith.” —The Paris Review
“A compelling exploration of cosmic-American weirdness.” —Entertainment Weekly
“[Kunzru’s] deft descriptions of contemporary life capture attention, but what impresses at the end of this novel is its sense of history as a mosaic of endless variations on the human effort to make sense of the world.” —The Washington Times
“Gods Without Men [is] in a genre all by itself. It’s not a book easily forgotten, and it may haunt you after you’ve closed the final pages.” —Bookreporter
“The finest novel about a cult since Portis’s Masters of Atlantis.” —Time Out New York
“A powerful excavation of the frayed nerves of New Age America. Whether dealing in UFOs, Indian legends or derivative trading systems, Gods Without Men is a novel about the need for faith in a fragmented, postmodern world shorn of grand narratives and credible belief systems.” —The New York Observer
“Mind-blowing. . . . One of the most original novels I have read in years, daringly imaginative, funny and troublesome, and above all a commentary on certain kinds of lunacy that helps define the American character. . . . The ride the writer takes us on up until the final page is one hell of a hair-raising experience, almost every scene demonstrating Kunzru’s extraordinary virtuosity.” —Counterpunch
“Simultaneously simple and complex, clear and ambiguous.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Beautifully written, ambitiously conceived.” —Newsday
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Gods Without Men, Hari Kunzru’s viscerally gripping and intellectually engaging novel about the human impulse to search for meaning in a chaotic universe.
1. Gods Without Men brings us into the consciousness of nine fictional characters, among them a hedge fund executive; a UFO cult leader; a dissolute British rock star; a homesick Iraqi teenage girl; one historical character, the eighteenth-century Spanish missionary Fray Francisco Hermenegildo Tomás Garcés; and one deity, Coyote, the trickster in many Native American traditional stories. Why does Hari Kunzru embrace such a wide and diverse cast of characters?
2. Do these characters from different historical eras and different echelons of society share any of the same aspirations? What draws them to the Pinnacle Rocks?
3. Which character or characters do you most identify with? Why?
4. Why do you think Kunzru set this novel in the desert? Could he have told the same story in a different landscape?
5. After reading Gods Without Men do you agree with Honoré de Balzac’s description of the desert: “In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing . . . It is God without men,” one of the epigraphs of this novel? Has your conception of the desert changed? Do you think “wasteland” is an appropriate synonym for “desert”?
6. Dawn joins the Ashtar Galactic Command in 1970 when she is a teenager because she wants “to be part of something bigger than herself” (page 155). Does she achieve that goal? Thirty-eight years later, teenage Laila draws comfort from the Ashtar record she buys at a thrift shop. Why?
7. Several characters in the novel possess arcane knowledge of mathematics, alchemy, aerodynamics, electrical engineering, or entertainment marketing that enables them to manipulate the material world in their favor, yet they don’t seem satisfied with their achievements. What are the sources and consequences of their dissatisfaction?
8. The character Coyote appears intermittently throughout the novel as an animal, a man, and a deity. What do his appearances herald? Are other characters comparably skilled at transforming themselves?
9. Kunzru references three international conflicts in this novel—World War I, World War II, and the second Iraq War. What do the characters Deighton, Schmidt, and Laila, who had firsthand experiences of those wars, have in common?
10. Lisa views Raj’s disappearance as her punishment for her wild night in town. Dawn thinks she was responsible because by taking Lisa to Judy’s place “she’d got her family involved. They were mixed up with Coyote, mixed up in the paths and flows” (page 343). Do you believe that either character is responsible for Raj’s disappearance?
11. Does the little glowing boy Laila finds in the desert at night (page 297) bear any relation to the “glow boy” (page 64) Joanie’s daughter, Judy, was seen playing with before she disappeared in 1958?
12. Why do you think Lisa is able to gratefully accept her son’s seemingly miraculous return and his recovery from autism, whereas Jaz cannot bear not knowing what happened to his son and is frightened by Raj’s changed behavior, believing the boy who was returned to them is not Raj; “It’s as if—as if something is wearing his skin” (page 357)?
13. Toward the end of the novel, Lisa believes she has learned a lesson: “true knowledge is the knowledge of limits, the understanding that at the heart of the world . . . is a mystery into which we are not meant to penetrate. . . . Now she could call it God . . . confident that though the world was unknowable, it had a meaning, and that meaning would keep her safe and set her free” (page 345). Does Jaz experience his own epiphany at the end of the novel when he stands holding hands with Lisa and Raj looking out over the desert?
14. Why does the novel begin and end with an explosion? At the end of the novel, do you gain a clearer understanding of what Coyote was up to in the first chapter?
15. Do you think Kunzru’s postmodernist storytelling technique of presenting the reader with pieces of a puzzle without providing explicit explanations of how the pieces fit together is appropriate for a novel that explores the search for pattern and meaning? Would the story be more or less realistic if he had limited himself to traditional forms of storytelling?
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Hari Kunzru
As Tom LeClair wrote in the Barnes & Noble Review in 2012, Hari Kunzru might be described as "an anthropological novelist" a writer who employs "the long and wide lenses of cultural systems" to achieve deep focus on both the inner lives of his characters and the complex, multifaceted societies in which they make their way. His widely praised fiction from his picaresque debut, The Impressionist, in which a young man's ethnic indeterminacy gives him access to multiple slices of Indian and British society in the early twentieth century, to the afterlives of '60s radicals portrayed in My Revolutions, to the 2012 novel Gods Without Men, in which a Mojave Desert setting provides a numinous backdrop for a generation- spanning quilt of stories about Americans seeking idiosyncratic paths to the divine is as keenly attuned to the overtones of place and moment as it is to the hearts of individuals who, in varying degrees, find themselves in or out of step with the music in the air.
That stereophonic attention to interior and exterior melodies has never been more apparent than in a haunting, hard-to-classify new digital work titled Twice Upon a Time, in which memoir, image, music, and "found" sound combine in a triple exposure: a city's life, a writer's consciousness, and a musician's aural world. Arriving in Manhattan from the United Kingdom in 2008, the novelist sought a spiritual "guide" through the heady and sometimes overwhelming environment of his new home. The figure Kunzru chose was the legendary avant-garde musician and inventor Moondog (1916–99), whose idiosyncratic "snaketime" compositions brought luminaries like Charlie Parker and Philip Glass into his orbit.
I spoke a few weeks ago with Hari Kunzru about this unique project, its multiple inspirations, and how Twice Upon a Time relates to the questions that animate his fiction. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. Bill Tipper
The Barnes & Noble Review: How do you think about Twice Upon a Time? Is it a book? Is it an essay? Do you care?
Hari Kunzru: First, I think it's an essay of some kind. It started life as a purely textual thing. I wrote a version of it as an essay for a music magazine in the U.K. when I first came to New York in 2008. I'd written it in this very segmented, chopped-up, quite impressionistic way. Then, when the Atavist project became possible. I realized that was perfect for the delivery on a multi- media device. I don't know. Do we still use the word "multi- media"? I mean, it seems slightly like the '90s...
BNR: That seems awfully Latinate. I think I would call this an eBook or a digital book.
HK: Yeah I realized that firstly I wanted to have a proper audio component in it, and I went about making various sorts of field recordings around the city and I had a collection of photographs I'd built up over several years. Ever since I've been here, I've photographed graffiti and fliers and anything with small messages, like the sort of subconscious of the city bubbling up in whatever form. So those seemed like they were germane to the same project. So I gave all that material to the designers, and the resulting artifact is still a primarily textual thing, but it is properly multi-stranded.
BNR: It has a palimpsestic character there's a layering of images, which encourages one to peer through these different layers, like looking at a building and looking also at the graffiti that someone has put across what might be an interesting wall. So you have to apprehend both at once.
HK: I like the idea that you can kind of put things side- by-side and sort of jumble things up, fragments of text, and that they can start to speak to each other, and they can give some kind of flavor of the experience of passing through a city space.
None of this is new. You can think of Dos Passos: these are techniques that are at least a century old. But they do give a flavor of what it's like existing in a city, because you are getting snatches of conversation, you're getting kind of fleeting impressions as vehicles go past you experience various kinds of speed and slowness.
BNR: One of the first things that struck me about this book is your description of a very late night, 1 a.m. in the morning, in the East Village in Manhattan, and it's hot, and you say, "I have to go out," and you go out into this nightscape of New York. I was immediately struck with the sense that this is one of the quintessential "new resident" experiences of the city. Had you only recently arrived in New York at that point?
HK: Very recently. It was all very new to me then. I had visited the city before, but this is the first couple of months of me actually have a door-key to an apartment. It was more disorientating than I was expecting. I'm very used to cities. I grew up in London. So all that side of things was not a problem. But there was some weird stuff about New York. I had not understood how humid it is in the summer, and my apartment is a ground floor place with a stoop right next to it. It was the only stoop on the block that was inviting for people to sit down on. So all night people would make calls on this stoop, or sit and have conversations, and they're right by my head.
I would get these fragments of conversation, and I would occasionally wake up and sit bolt upright, and think someone was trying to get into the apartment. All of this meant that I was quite jangled and I was quite broken up and fragmented anyway. I was awake at strange times, and I was kind of aware that there was all this buzzing life around me. But I didn't really know anybody at that point. I had this period of a couple of months, at the height of the sticky weather, where I was experiencing a very strange, often kind of semi-conscious version of the city. I started keeping this diary that turned into that piece at around that time, partly because I wasn't really quite capable of writing anything more sustained and more flowing. I could get down notes and impressions, and bits and pieces, but just that.
BNR: That sense of fragmentary and overly multiple sound and smell and heat impressions wind up also coalescing into a sense that this may be everyone's jumble. You write, "Some Jazz musicians are conducting a discreet free-blowing session, begging the question, can a free blowing session ever really be discreet? This feels that way, despite being basically very loud, feels clandestine." These open secrets being out all around you is something that haunts this narrative.
HK: All cities are layered in the sense that there are layers of subcultures. I did a stage event with Teju Cole and Katie Kitamura over the weekend for the Downtown Literary Festival, and we were supposed to talk about the city. We all came to this thing that you can't really write sort of top-down, panoptical version of any city. You can tell your city, and it might be completely different from the city that belongs to the person who is straphanging next to you on the subway. You have your geography. You have your markers. You have your sense of place. That's not necessarily completely shared, even though you are physically occupying the same space. I like that multiplicity about cities. I like the excess of information. I don't think I'd do very well being a kind of writer who was in a country cottage filled with just silence to deal with.
New York is a walking city. It's a street city with a proper street life, like London or like Paris or various European cities, and unlike the kind of car-based cities of the Western United States, where that's how you're moving through it. That's what I'm familiar with, and that's one reason I was drawn to come and live here. But at a walking pace, you can kind of stumble on sort of weird little subcultures, whether that's a community garden in the site of some burned-down building in the Alphabet City, or, yeah, a bunch of jazz musicians.
BNR: And the walking city is a city that you are constantly hearing.
BNR: Whereas, when you're in your car, you're in a bubble, cut off. One of the things that really is a theme throughout this whole short book is your engagement with and sometimes your frustration with the sound of New York.
HK: Initially, there are sounds that are cutting through my sleep. The fire engine sirens I think are always an order of magnitude louder than their equivalent in London.
Also, just people talking in the street. I speak about that in the book. The manners of people meeting in the street are subtly different or maybe not so subtly different in New York. People are much more willing to open conversations with strangers. Which is something that I initially found disconcerting, and then found was kind of brilliant. You can just fall into a conversation with somebody while you're both waiting for the light to change. Now, when I go back to London, I'm the slightly strange guy who is talking more than people are coming with in line at the store or whatever. I've picked it up from here. It's what's natural and polite and friendly to do here, and I enjoy the fact that people would expect to be able to open a conversation, and would be surprised if you didn't at least respond with a few words.
There's also the shouting in the street, which is definitely a slightly different thing. Everywhere in the world now has that same thing where you're not sure whether the person coming towards you is schizophrenic or just speaking into an earpiece. People are kind of talking very loudly to themselves. But there is a sort of species of New York sort of emoting, a kind of a poetic apostrophizing of the heavens that you get quite a lot of people doing here. Maybe it's slightly going, as it becomes a little bit more sort of buttoned-up, polite place. But the remnants of the old-school East Village when I first came here consisted of a lot of people who quite liked to shout in the cars for one reason or another!
BNR: You've had a long fascination with music, and in particular with people who create electronic and experimental music. That's somewhat in the background here music, and not just music in the sense of tunes, but music in the sense of any consciously produced sound is on your mind a lot.
HK: Yes. And because of that, I've always had this interest in studio music and music where it's legitimate to layer a lot of quite different kinds of sounds on top of each other. I came up through the sort of rave-techno thing. When I was in my twenties, I spent a lot of time in raves and in clubs and warehouses and what-have-you, which is one reason why I think the top end of my hearing has gone. A decade of having your head stuck in the basement has just destroyed that.
There's sort of rave joke that you see the guy at seven in the morning who is sort of grooving along to the sound of an air- conditioner or an engine. Just any repetitious industrial sound has that sort of potential to suddenly turn into a beat. But there's a sort of grain of truth in that. If you do walk around a city, as I have done, wearing microphones, what you're actually hearing yourself has been fed through the device, and you have a slightly enhanced, hyper-version of the audio of the city, you pick up all sorts of quite musical fragments, things that aren't necessarily music per se, but that are tonal or rhythmic.
By doing that, you also make your hearing a priority rather than your vision. For obvious reasons, we tend to look where we're going when we're negotiating a busy city street, so your eyes are always the dominant sense. But if you're wearing these microphones in your ears, then suddenly your hearing takes over, and you become incredibly aware of moving from one kind of audio space to another.
BNR: So you were wearing binaural microphones, which means you've got literally a microphone clipped to each ear, so you're recording the sound as a person hears it.
HK: Yes. That means that for the playback, for the person listening to it with their headphones on, you can tell when the person making the recording shifts their head around. It feels like being placed inside somebody else's head. You're conscious about their breathing and footsteps... It is quite pleasingly like being in another body, or in your own body when you were making the recording. When I play back these things, I'm aware when I turn around to look at something and where I'm facing with respect to a particular sound source.
Initially I made this piece as a text-only piece. But in order to deepen it, and as a way of kind of going back and finding out what had changed in the city and in myself in the intervening years since I wrote the first version, I decided to make these recordings. I visited all the places that I had been to that I had mentioned in the first draft of it, and recorded sound there. Some of it was just simple stuff, like getting out at the Second Avenue subway, walking through Tompkins Square, getting a coffee and then going home.
But even in something as banal as that, you suddenly become aware of very different things. There is a moment somewhere in that neighborhood where I pass down a street with a tree full of birds, and the birds become incredibly loud in the recording. I mean, it was an enveloping, powerful sort of sound. A remarkable natural sound when you've been listening to a lot of car engines and what-have-you before, and things like that...
Sometimes you pick up fragments of conversation that you weren't aware of while you experienced them. That's another interesting aspect of this, that there are...on the recording, the mikes have picked up things that you didn't pick up when you were hearing it. I would annotate these things just so I would what know I was listening back to, by announcing where I was. So at one point, I just say, "Tompkins Square," and someone walks past me and says, "Huh, dunno where you are!" I hadn't heard that.
HK: People are very aware of you pointing a camera at them,and will query you and be self-conscious, but if you're just a guy who is wearing what looks like kind of earbud headphones and you're facing away from them, people will carry on speaking. You end up with this sort of intimacy of eavesdropping there are things I was hearing back on the recordings that I wasn't aware that I was hearing the first time.
It's a strange thing, what you're conscious of and what was actually around you. And I like to hear the sort of auditory territory which I mention in the book. Spaces defined by the limits of hearing are quite interesting. And those territories that we have are quite tiny when we're people walking through a city. We can restrict them by playing a soundtrack in an iPod, or we can kind of expand them by shouting. There are various ways of defining a space through sound.
BNR: You talk about how we now reflexively, many of us, put that cloud of sound around ourselves as we move through the city. So you can get your own personal soundtrack or your own personal radio station that's sort of bounding your experience in this different way. Whereas the idea of walking around with the microphones in your ears, and people will make an assumption that you, in fact, could hear less.
HK: Absolutely. They think you're in your own little world, but you're actually very outwardly focused. That's an interesting sort of a reversal. There's also the thing about leakage of sound out of headphones and leakage of the world into the sort of space that you're trying to make with your headphones. One weird thing is playing these old Moondog pieces from the 1950s which incorporate sounds of trolley cars and foghorns from tugs on the Hudson and so on, playing those through headphones while I'm walking around downtown somewhere, through headphones that are closed, but aren't isolating instead of being perfectly isolated you get a kind of strange layering, where the 1950s city is being superimposed on a present-day city. Sometimes you can't tell what's one thing and what's another.
That's there in the full audio version of the book, in that my recordings are layered in with the Moondog things. I've had the experiencing, kind of playing through it, and not being sure whether what I'm actually hearing is coming from the headphones or from the street outside the room I'm sitting in. I love that disorientation.
BNR: If this story has a central character besides yourself, it's Moondog, who was an avant-garde composer. Can you talk a little bit about Moondog and how he came to be your guide to New York as you describe him?
HK: I was aware of his music in the way that a lot of people found him, through this sort of avant-garde music scene. The major fact of his life is his blindness. He was blinded in an accident when he was sixteen. That meant that, as somebody who was living in Midtown Manhattan, and his work for many years was to stand on a streetcorner on Sixth Avenue and play music and sell tracts that he'd written about very eccentric subjects his views on history or the United Nations or the Federal Reserve... It meant that he was navigating the city purely by sound. That is interesting to me, the idea that he doesn't have the major tool that most people have to navigate the city, so he had attitudes that were purely defined by sound.
Also, as I mention in the book, my younger brother is blind. So being able to see and not being able to see is a strong dynamic in our family, and my ability to see very much defined me maybe in a way that, if everybody is sighted in your family, it doesn't come up. So blindness has had a personal aspect to me as well.
But Moondog made music from what he heard around him, and especially early he uses a lot of city sound. But he's not an improviser he's somebody who wrote out his pieces, and he was very interested in canon and fugue and very formal kinds of composition, which are mechanical, in a way. When you listen to a piece of Bach, there's a sort of vision of a clockwork universe in there. There's the perfection of how the thing is resolving and kind of flying in...those lines are flying in and out of each other. That's the kind of basis of his music. Later on in life, after he left New York, after he'd sort of had more access to studios and such, he became celebrated by a lot of major musicians. He made things that sound much more like canon and fugue.
BNR: He has this whole identity as a kind of street performer... I don't know if he would have considered what he did on the street at all performance. He has an identity as an advocate for his views out there on the street. But his body of work is extensive and much of it quite beautiful, even by the standards of more conventional jazz, for example.
HK: Absolutely. He resisted the idea of him as a street musician, because he felt it sort of belittled what he did. But he had the other aspect of his life, with his sort of rejection of consumer society. He made his own clothes and he had this sort of Viking outfit...
BNR: We should pause over that for a moment. When you first see a picture of Moondog...
HK: It's incredibly startling. I mean, there's a dude in a horned helmet. He's a very tall man who is standing around on a street corner looking like something that he's just had imported in from the ninth century. That's kind of how he thought of himself. A lot of his writing is to do with the pre-Christian origins of Europe. I think he had probably some slightly unsavory views about race as well. But he was into his roots as a man of Northern European stock.
BNR: Although one of the most plangent things that he ever wrote was "Bird's Lament."
HK: Right. And he was hooked up with all these jazz guys. I don't think he was any sort of very serious racist, but he had, I think, some kind of funny notions about origins and purity maybe. But he is so thoroughly against the grain, so thoroughly himself in the face of the city, that paradoxically, he becomes a particularly New York kind of eccentric of a sort that the city really cherishes, and may be kind of an endangered species right now as gentrification takes hold, and there are fewer footholds for people who aren't spending all their time working to make rent. He was so floridly himself, standing on his corner with all the kind of hustle and bustle and the passing-by. There's something heroic about that. There's something that's heroic about the whole persona that he created, and I think that deepens your feeling about his music as well.
BNR: I don't mean to be overly literal about this, because this book is certainly not a polemic in any way. But do you feel that we're recreating the city as an environment that has less room for these kinds of heroic acts of self-creation, this kind of creativity in its purest form?
HK: I think that's undoubtedly true. New York kind of cherishes these things and these people after the fact, even if it doesn't look after them terribly well at the time. The economics of the contemporary city mean that, you know, Downtown is gone. Downtown is now a very controlled and locked-down space, rather than the sort of wild, gap-filled space that it once was. Creativity and bohemianism and whatever are still around in New York, at least for the moment, but I think one probably has to leave Lower Manhattan in order to find it in any serious form.
The question of gentrification is one that we should look at seriously. It's not just a question of preserving eccentrics or artists or whatever as a kind of exotic fauna, but there is a question about the sort of mix of the city in general, as there are things that make cities healthy that have to do with rich people and poor people and various people of various kinds occupying the same space. I think New York, you have to ask how far it's going to go away from that without losing its identity.
BNR: One thing I'm struck by from that remark is its relation to your novel Gods Without Men, which was really an exploration, in a sense, of eccentricity at the visionary level as a fundamental aspect of the American character, the seeking of a transcendental, transformational experience. What, in your view, is the connection between the themes that you're exploring in that novel and the stuff that's animating your interest in this piece?
HK: I feel there's various ways. One is, in a way, the Moondog material and the Gods Without Men material were happening for me at exactly the same time. When the city was getting to be too much, I left for the desert, I mean, in a completely straightforward way. Both of those spaces are for me very important in trying to understand where it was I'd moved to, what I was now joining in with in a country that I had chosen to participate in.
You're right, in that the stuff in Gods About Men, about the West, and about the idea of the Frontier as maybe a kind of psychic frontier as well as a physical one, as being constantly pushed westwards until it gets to the sea, and a confrontation between the individual and an overwhelming space, so a kind of a space so empty that it becomes metaphysical. These things seem bound up to me in America's self-conception, and that's fundamentally different from Europe. You exist in Europe as a space that has been crissed and crossed for thousands of years, and there's always already something there. Whereas the notion, correct or not... When you get into things about Native people, it becomes a bit problematic. But the notion of empty space or the notion of uncolonized space seemed important.
Then there's the city as the meeting place, the democratic, Walt Whitman–type meeting place of all the peoples of the world who have decided to cram themselves on a tiny island and try and get along. Another fundamentally mythical American-ness is there.
Both of those ideas excite me, and I have great respect for them, and I always try to understand those by writing about them. But the connection for me really is horizontality and verticality. Manhattan is an experience of vertical. You look up. As everybody knows, you can tell the tourists in Midtown by the fact that they're cricking their necks up in a way that nobody else... It's because that's what's startling. It's very startling, as a newcomer to the city, to cross one of the avenues and look uptown, and see that kind of receding into infinity between the towers. Against that, you have the vast horizontal openness of desert spaces They seem to be two sides of the same coin.
BNR: And they are both environments that sort of seem ripe for transformations for the individual, and there's both an allure and a threat to that.
HK: Yeah. You can lose yourself in different ways. You can be overwhelmed by the vastness of the desert. It can kind of feel like it's crushing you completely. And I suppose the city, too. You can feel that your individual life and your various little courtesies are so incidental to everybody around you. The horror of New York is that you can kind of step over the homeless person without thinking twice. People are very willing to block other people out of their lives if they think it's appropriate. There's very little self-consciousness about isolating themselves using money to not have to share space when they don't want to. You want to be in the VIP Room, you know, metaphorically or literally. That's what you use cash for in New York, is to buy space and to buy exclusivity.
BNR: So you're kind of rejumbling New York. Everybody is trying to sort themselves out into private spaces, and in a way, this remix of things has the effect of saying, "let's be back in the streets" in some way.
HK: I think that's valuable about cities. That's something that I hope, that this is a way of pointing out that there is a glory in shared space. Very often, there's a kind of creeping assumption that private is always better than shared in any aspect of life. Especially here. You're having to use public transport, or you're having to be in a public space to take your leisure in a park or on a shared beach or whatever it is. It would be better if you were on your private island. But actually, you miss a great deal of the glory of life by isolating yourself. As I said, this isn't a polemic piece, really. But I do think there is something noble about sharing the streets with other people.
May 22, 2014