Gods+Without+MenI can see why my cover of Gods Without Men sports a blurb from David ‘Cloud Atlas’ Mitchell, both men have crafted novels made up of interlocking stories spanning generations, although Hari Kunzru has joined his stories more conventionally than Mitchell did in Cloud Atlas. All Kunzru’s action is linked by his focal Mojave desert setting, characters from earlier time frames appear decades later and plot points from decades past set up those of the future.

When Gods Without Men opened with a twisted fable from a time when animals were men, about Coyote cooking crystal in an RV in the desert, I knew I was in for a ride. A book so damn cool it hurts.

The story of Jaz and Lisa and their autistic young son, Raj, is what anchors Kunzru’s novel. Their plight is so incredibly, viscerally painful to read. Raj doesn’t speak at all, doesn’t express love and throws violent temper tantrums. It’s left Jaz and Lisa’s marriage in ruins. Their lives are hard enough, between taking care of Raj, and conflict between Jaz’s Indian immigrant family and white, Jewish Lisa, when Raj disappears near the desert rock formation known as the Pinnacles. Somewhat curiously in tandem to Raj’s disappearance is Jaz’s work on Wall Street, right before the global financial crisis in 2008, helping to develop a mysterious predictive trading model.

At the same time British rock star Nicky escapes to the desert to take drugs and have a bit of a mental breakdown, his life briefly intersecting with Jaz’s.

And Iraqi teenager Laila is recruited to take part in a training exercise for the military, preparing American troops for the war in Iraq. In one of the very rare moments of humour, a soldier dressed as an Iraqi insurgent who has lost his dishdasha wears a Little Mermaid beach towel wrapped around his waist instead.

There are appearances by Spanish Conquistadors. Deighton and his wife Eliza turn up in the 1920s Mojave collecting Native American tales, language and history.

In the fifties, sixties and seventies the desert near the Pinnacle Rocks is home to an alien-worshipping cult, whose members are dedicated to assisting the Ashtar Galactic Command. This was a favourite of mine; I always get a kick out of reading about the unusual. Kunzru gives us an alien spin on the counterculture, hippy vibe of the 1960s and seventies.

Gods Without Men is the kind of book where questions are left unanswered, leaving this reader unsettled, and several of the characters unhinged. I guess I was left unsatisfied at the end. Kunzru builds to a crescendo, then nothingness. I’m not naive enough to that a novel like Gods Without Men will finish neatly or happily. It deals with the mystical, the alien and the inexplicable. Many scenes feature a strange glowing boy but this is no science fiction. Kunzru has no obligation to provide answers, no need for logic.

I wouldn’t read Gods Without Men looking for anything as prosaic as beginning, middle or end, it’s snippets or sketches of moments in characters’ lives. Kunzru’s writing and storytelling style starts off pretty conventionally. It felt to me that, as Gods Without Men progresses, his writing becomes more fluid, experimental and freewheeling, almost as if the pressure and insanity of the story were crumbling its very structure. Which brings me back to Cloud Atlas, a book I loved. David Mitchell – fairly conventional storytelling made majestic with an experimental twist. Hari Kunzru – experimental storytelling done a tad too conventionally, making me yearn for a real ending. If only it’d been a little nuttier. Something like Thomas Pynchon. I’ll admit I’ve only read The Crying of Lot 49, a great book that I appreciated for its brevity. A bizarre, pseudo-mystery, with more questions than answers, suits that length.

Gods Without Men is incredibly impressive, with bravura storytelling. Kunzru weaves the characters’ stories deftly and eloquently but I couldn’t see any of them getting a reprieve from their demons. His fourth novel is a strangely readable, epic and detailed tale of religion, worship and madness. You just need to be in the right mood.

Advertisements