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Gods Without Men

by Hari Kunzru

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Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru
© Knopf
Knopf, March 2012

Hari Kunzru's (My Revolutions, Transmission) novel Gods Without Men is the story of Jaz and Lisa Matharu, a New York couple whose lives descend into turmoil when, while on a family vacation in California, their severely autistic son Raj vanishes into the Mojave Desert. But while Gods Without Men revolves loosely around the Matharu's tragedy, the novel is much larger. Its locus is Pinnacle Rocks, a formation of spires rising up from the desert floor, "connecting earth and sky," and it reaches across two and a half centuries of disparate narrative surrounding the mystical pull of these rock formations on a diverse cast of characters.

It's 1947.

Schmidt has seen terrible things, done terrible things. His only desire is to extricate himself from the human race and live penitently. So he withdraws his savings and withdraws himself. In his ‘38 Ford pickup, Schmidt heads into the desert, into a cave beneath three rock spires rising up like fingers out of the desert floor, from which he sends a nightly message of love into the cosmos. A message that is answered.

It's 2008.

British rock star, Nicky Capaldi, has gone off the map. He's fed up with his band mates, and he's fed up with Noah, his California hippie aristocracy geezer of a producer. And this whole trip to L.A. during which they were meant to record their "America" album ("What was he going to do, write a song about palm trees? About lawn sprinklers? Bikram yoga?"), in which they were failing miserably. Nicky, with a baggy full of hallucinogens and a loaded pistol, jumps into a Camero and drives off into the desert.
It's 1778.

Fray Garces is a Franciscan friar, sent from Spain and God Almighty to direct the Mision San Xavier del Bac where he proselytizes to four hundred Indians in the shadow of "three vast spires of stone, Father, Son and holy Spirit rising up out of the desert floor," where Fray Garces meets what he can only imagine is an angel, or a flying priest.

It's 1958.

And Joanie Roberts finds herself at the center of the Ashtar Galactic Command's celebration at Pinnacle Rocks, where The Guide, the former Dr. Schmidt, the story of whose contact and communication with our extraterrestrial visitors is nothing short of legend within the the inner (and even outer) circles of the "saucer people" community in their exhortations to the Space Brothers.

These and other threads, other characters from other times - Deighton, an ethnologist in the 1920s whose research with the local tribes runs him afoul of the Bureau of Indian Affairs liason and the local sherrif; Laila, an Iraqi teenager who finds herself employed as a character in an American military simulation in the Mojave Desert - are each a free-standing story of individual lives, individuals seeking answers to the same questions as filtered through their own specifics of time and space. These Kunzru expertly weaves together into a single tapestry of story, whose effect is enchanting.
Gods Without Men, with its nonlinear narrative traverses and its puzzle-like qualities, has drawn comparisons to similarly structured works including Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Like these authors, Kunzru's ability to switch between narrative voices while maintaining authenticity with each of them is fantastic and his storytelling is riveting. Gods Without Men will doubtlessly be one of my favorite novels this year.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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