[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Gods Without Men, by Hari Kunzru, has at its center a mystery: what happened to the autistic child of Jaz and Lisa Matharu who went missing in the Mojave Desert. To get to that point though, as well to its subsequent effects, we’re treated to a kaleidoscopic history of the area in which young Raj disappeared, a barren place whose flat landscape is marked by a rock formation known as The Pinnacles, which seems to draw to itself those seeking something beyond what they’ve found in their lives, a sort of lodestone for the lost. Though perhaps that description works for all of us in this world.
In the late 1700s, a Spanish Friar has a vision at the Pinnacle; 100 years later, a Mormon miner also has visions, though of a different sort. In the early 1900s, a linguist tries to document the language and stories of the local Native Americans, leaves his wife behind. After World War II an engineer name Schmidt starts camping out at the Pinnacles waiting for aliens. Later the camp transforms into a cult waiting for UFOs and still later the cult turns creepy and violent. Raj goes missing in 2008 and later that year part of the desert is transformed into a fake Iraqi village for US soldiers to train in.
The history chapters are interspersed with the story of Jaz, Lisa, and Raj. Their story also flashes back in time to before they knew each other, how they met, their subsequent marriage, Jazz taking a job on Wall Street, and the birth of Raj. Once Raj goes missing, the story continues with the media circus that follows, and the impact the disappearance has on Jaz and Lisa. Meanwhile, some of the characters from the earlier storylines appear in the contemporary one while new ones are added to the mix.
About halfway through the book, a Wall Street colleague of Jazz’s describes a Jewish belief that the world is shattered and everyone’s job is to collect the various pieces and put them back together:
There’s a tradition that says the world has shattered, that what once was whole and beautiful is now just scattered fragments. Much is irreparable, but a few of these fragments contain faint traces of the former state of things, and if you find them and uncover the sparks hidden inside, perhaps at last you’ll piece together the fallen world.
The colleague does this via a software-modeling program called Walter, which looks for connections throughout the world. The author does it through these interlocked chapters and characters that drift one another across each other’s lives, emphasizing the interconnectedness of it all — of lives, of wants and needs, of space and time. He also employs several plot points or themes that echo down through the various times — a missing child, an infidelity. If there is a guide to this all, it’s an unreliable one, a trickster one — the Native American Coyote, who appears in various guises throughout — sometimes as a Native American tale modified to the present, sometimes as merely an auditory note — a howl off to the side, sometimes in the form of one of the commune people named, well, Coyote.
If this all sounds a bit vague and abstract and unsettled, it is. On one level. The world is a mystery and if there is an agenda to the universe, it does a pretty good job of enshrouding it. But beyond the philosophical and mystical wonderings, Gods Without Men offers up a sharp portrayal of characters and of the modern world. The scenes set in the Potemkin Iraqi village set up by the U.S. military are biting in their view of that war even as the portrayal of a young girl caught between two worlds — here and Iraq, childhood and adulthood — is spot on. One of my favorite characters in Gods Without Men is a British rock star who finds himself hilariously caught up in Raj’s disappearance. Despite a lack of page time (and he could have done with more in my mind), he is as fully fleshed as any of the main characters, and also adds a nice wallop of grounded humor to the story.
Gods Without Men, like most of its characters, wanders around, and the reader as well, like most of the characters, will find him/herself perhaps as balked at finding “the meaning.” But, I’d argue, that would seem to be the point. Gods Without Men is a thoughtful book with a compelling storyline (Raj’s disappearance) and a host of well-drawn characters (Lisa is unfortunately the weakest character, and often unlikable as well).
It also might even have aliens. Or time travel. Possibly teleportation. A god or two. Or maybe not.
If you don’t mind being left with more questions than answers, if you can find beauty in mystery, and don’t mind the occasional peek into the abyss, Gods Without Men is the book for you. It was one of my favorite reads of the past several months and is certainly in my top 15 or so for the year. Highly recommended.