Hari Kunzru’s mind-blowing novel, Gods Without Men, charts the lives of quacks and charlatans, serious and devout thinkers, hippies and drop-outs, innocent bystanders—all drawn into an extraterrestrial search, beginning in 1775 and concluding in 2009, though not in chronological order. It’s 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 help define the American character. The writer—Indian but born in England and the author of three earlier widely-praised novels—has spent only a limited time in the United States, but I’d say that he understands America better than many of our most highly-touted novelists. I have a problem with the story’s resolution, but the ride that 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.
The opening sequence introduces the novel’s irreverent tone: “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!”
The oral quality of the beginning embodies both the mythic past and the contemporary world, with the trickster Coyote going into empty territory where he believes he will be left alone and suffer no interference from the government. Coyote will not only cook his food but—as we later discover—cook up a batch of meth for profit as well as for getting high. The open space throughout Kunzru’s narrative is the Mojave Desert, in southern California, a barren place where long before fringe groups and hippies and assorted cults set up their attempts to make contact with extraterrestrials it was truly uncharted space.
That attempt at contact with UFOs takes part of the narration to 1947, after World War II, when Schmidt, an ex-flight aircraft engineer, sets up his own site to save the world from what he believes will be a cataclysmic end because of the use of the bomb at the conclusion of the war and increasing tension from the Cold War. “The world seemed to be sliding toward some terrible new evil. The spiritual promise of energy had been perverted: instead of abolishing poverty and hunger, atomic power would turn the planet into a waste land.” Later, Kunzru writes of him, “He would heal the wound. His intention was to summon the only force powerful enough to transcend communism and capitalism and halt the cascade of destructive energies.”
Back in the twenties, an anthropologist named Deighton had lived in the same area, collecting coyote folklore and making a general nuisance of himself with the native peoples. His activities and those of much later invaders of the area in the 1970s provoked the arrival of hippy groups, flower children who set up shop for the Ashar Galactic Command center in order to make contact with flying saucers sighted in the area. Much of the space given to these groups is out of the news, including agitation between the various hippy groups and the residents in near-by towns. Their credibility is increased by the disappearance of numerous people (mostly children) and the assumption that they’ve been carried off to other planets. Sometimes the atmosphere of the communes at the Pinnacle rocks in the Mojave takes on the aura of a circus.
“An old couple in home-made clothes were offering free vegetarian food to passers-by. The man had straw sandals. Joanie ate a little muffin-type thing, which was apparently made out of beans. As she chewed her snack, she stopped to look at a stall selling books on all manner of tantalizing subjects—number vibration, psychic healing, mineral therapy, astrophysics, mental calisthenics, yoga, the dimensions of Solomon Temple, telepathic communication… Apparently there had been not one but sixteen crucified saviors since the dawn of time, and most of the Bible was copied from ancient Irish druids. The stall’s owner was rhapsodizing to a small crowd about the importance of the Pinnacle Convention. Such powerful energies! He felt as if he’d been transported to another dimension. There was an angel on his shoulder, a being of light and love.” Anything to make a buck.
The center of the novel—the story given most space—concerns a young married couple, Lisa and Jaz, who have a three-year-old autistic child, named Raj. Lisa is Jewish; Jaz (that’s his nick name) is Indian, and their life in New York City was one of happiness and joy until the birth of their autistic child. Kunzru’s sensitive account of their marriage and its breakdown because of the tensions growing from Raj’s demands on them and their full-time attempts to cope with him is heart-wrenching. Once decent and loving adults face a problem so overwhelming that it threatens to destroy them as well as their child. “Jaz made his living building mathematical models to predict and trade on every kind of catastrophe.” There are hints that Jaz’s models may unleash a worldwide economic collapse. During a vacation in California, near the Pinnacle rocks in the desert (an attempt for Lisa and Jaz to renew their bonds to one another), Raj disappears, utterly vanishes with no trace.
Has Raj been snatched out of his stroller by some demented woman who longs for a child for herself? Devoured by a coyote? Fallen into a crack into the ground? Or—and this is the connecting thread to many of the other parts of this complex narrative—whisked away by extraterrestrials? Whatever, the tension between Jaz and Lisa which was bad before ratchets into overdrive once Raj is gone. Jaz especially feels guilty because he knows he wanted something to happen to the boy; Lisa because she asks herself how she could have let Raj out of her sight. As the police, the community, and the media enter the scene, something even worse happens when the parents are assumed to have murdered their own child.
This is where Gods without Men shows the United States at its worst, at absolute rock bottom, when innocent parents become the victims of unsympathetic media hounds and self-righteous individuals who wave their hands under the rubric of holier-than-thou. I am in awe of Kunzru’s ability to get under our skin, to probe into the dark side of the American psyche—still rooted in its Puritan foundations—that too often assumes the worst in people instead of giving them a chance to deal with every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of a child.
To say more about this astonishing book would be unfair to the reader. Gods without Men (or perhaps just as accurately) men without gods, men with no true faith in anything except money, captures the dark side of American fringe groups, the abuse of high finance, the hypocritical self-righteous—in short, the excesses of a dangerous few who have the ability to bring our whole system crashing down.
Gods Without Men
Knopf, 384 pp., $26.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.