Archives for posts with tag: cults

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.


The LeftoversOne day, without any explanation, people all over the world just disappeared. In the wake of the tragedy the citizens of Mapleton are trying to piece together their lives. Town mayor, Kevin Garvey, is trying to keep a positive outlook despite his wife leaving him to join a new cult, the Guilty Remnant, and his son ditching college to become a disciple of the self-styled prophet Holy Wayne. Even his once loving daughter, Jill, has turned against him.

As Kevin navigates his new life he finds friendship in odd places, including in Nora. Nora’s whole family (her two young children and her husband) disappeared during the Sudden Departure or ‘Rapture-like phenomenon’. She tries to grieve in peace but in a small town like Mapleton Nora becomes the subject of gossip and scandal, the enormity of her loss marking her out as different.

It’s hard when a book sounds intriguing but you don’t know what to expect from it. The Leftovers doesn’t sound like anything out there. The unexplained disappearances point to science fiction, a cult leader named Holy Wayne seems like comedy or social satire, a man dealing with his two wayward children – American family drama. Can it be all these things successfully? It’s a big risk for Tom Perrotta to take. People love to categorise but The Leftovers eludes easy definition. And I think this will stop a lot of people from giving it a chance. But please don’t let it stop you. The Leftovers is excellent.

It soon becomes clear that The Leftovers is only speculative fiction in the remotest sense. Apart from the disappearances the world is just as it was. The Rapture-like event is an inventive conceit, a jumping off point to explore loss, upheaval, the inexplicable, and the human psyche in a way that’s touching and refreshing. It’s a clever way to look at the dysfunctional American family.

The characters do some completely nutty things. Kevin’s wife, Laurie, joins a cult that requires members to take a vow of silence, chain smoke and stalk people. Jill shaves off all her hair. Kevin’s son, Tom, takes a road trip with a pregnant teenager who believes she’s carrying the son of a holy prophet. College students, calling themselves the Harvard flagellants, march through Harvard Yard whipping themselves with cat-o’-nine-tails, while yelling out their SAT scores. The Barefoot People travel around the country holding solstice gatherings where everybody takes drugs, has sex and dances. Under normal circumstances I would pronounce them all idiots and be done with them (even if I did find the stuff about bizarre cults and religions fascinating). But even if I normally wouldn’t understand at all, Perrotta makes them almost seem sane, just ordinary people trying to cope under insane circumstances. The affection he has for his characters made me feel like if everyone just had more time to adjust they could get through it. I wanted so badly for them to be all right.

The big draw is Perrotta’s writing. He knows people. He knows how they interact, their deepest desires, their greatest fears.

Without it, he would’ve become one of those lost souls you saw all over campus that winter, pale, vampiry kids who slept all day…habitually checking their phones for a message that never seemed to come.

His adroit portraits (here, of the distracted grief of young people) are always evocative and amusing.

At his local bar, the Carpe Diem, Kevin Garvey runs into Melissa, a woman he would have slept with had it not been for a touch of performance anxiety.

“Melissa.” He made an effort to match the warmth of her greeting. “It’s been a while, huh?”

“Three months,” she informed him. “At least.”

“That long?” He pretended to do the math in his head, then expelled a grunt of fake wonderment.

Perrotta perfectly captures the awkwardness of faux-polite social interactions. He’s wryly funny and terrifically insightful.

In one scene Nora feels brave enough to go Christmas shopping at the mall. Even simple tasks have changed irrevocably for those who have been left behind. Everything she does is a reminder of what she’s lost. At the mall Nora considers buying a wildly expensive massage chair, which leads her to think about the implications of actually allowing herself to feel good all the time. Grief and loss have come to define her, what would she be without it? It’s an odd interlude but, as with the rest of The Leftovers, it’s intimate, finely drawn, and it makes you think.

In another scene Nora and Kevin have an argument, and Nora storms off. And it’s exactly how it feels when you’ve had a fight with someone you really care about. Who calls first to apologise? Should you pretend you don’t even care? But it’s eating you up inside not calling, so maybe you should just call straight away. Absolutely spot on.

The Sudden Departure gives Perrotta the opportunity to explore the dark and strange in humanity but also its capacity for forgiveness and love. The Leftovers is darker than I expected, there were times when I was terrified that nothing would ever work out, but it’s tempered by glimpses of humour and hope, hope that Kevin and the rest of them, will somehow muddle through.

KrakenChina Miéville seems to be the reigning king of punky, gritty, urban fantasy. He’s critically acclaimed and pretty prolific. So I felt compelled to sample something of Miéville’s and Kraken caught my eye. I’d heard The City and the City is great but I thought I’d give the thrilling audacity of Kraken a go instead.

Kraken is set in a London where on the surface everything is ordinary, exactly like the London we know, but beneath there is a whole class of people who have knowledge of the occult. Some only inhabit this underworld but many possess what Miéville calls knacks (supernatural powers or abilities). Within alternate London, a preserved giant squid goes missing from a tank at the Natural History Museum and Billy Harrow, the museum curator responsible for preserving the squid, gets caught up in the unexplained and unnerving crime. The missing squid leads to Billy working with a special division of the police who deal with supernatural crimes (complete with a surly witch constable), then he gets swept up with the Church of God Kraken, a religion where giant squids are worshipped as god and heaven is deep beneath the sea. According to Church scripture the disappearance of the squid signifies the end of the world is fast approaching. And the rest of the occult underworld is in agreement. But just who is responsible for stealing the squid and triggering the apocalypse?

As Billy tries to uncover the criminals and stop them he discovers occult gangsters with dangerous powers (a criminarch going by the name the Tattoo takes the form of a magicked tattoo on the back of a man) and takes on shadowy figures returned from the grave (a dead mage called Grisamentum). There’s teleportation (and the philosophy and morality behind it), familiars unionising and going on strike, Ancient Egyptian myth, and people being folded like origami. Then there is the very core of Kraken – London as a living, breathing entity. London is the lifeblood of the story. The presence of a unique breed of mage/soothsayer called the Londonmancers influences so much of Kraken. The power of London is at their disposal. They can mould the city into anything, send messages through the lampposts, and glean the future from its guts.

Billy is perfect as the unlikely hero and accidental prophet. He’s new to supernatural London and completely out of his depth, making him a relatable touchstone and guide throughout the chaos. Billy’s friendship and alliance with Church of God Kraken member Dane Parnell is genuine and touching, as is Dane’s religious turmoil, as he struggles to align his actions with his beliefs.

Kraken has attitude galore. It’s an exuberant, edgy, hedonistic melding of disparate elements. Miéville is seen as the poster author for the New Weird (it’s a dark, urban, experimental new direction for fantasy writing). It’s a malleable definition, really barely a definition at all, but if this is New Weird then I’m on board. I never thought something that sounded so imposing and momentous could be this much fun. Kraken is pulsing with real pop culture references, right alongside invented magical techniques and technical terms that sound completely real (‘infolding and weightomancy’). The almost scholarly attention to detail manages to pull off being unabashedly dorky, yet undeniably cool.

Miéville’s inventiveness is dazzling. You need to appreciate the weird and bizarre and be ready for anything. Among all the apocalypse-laden novels his has to be the most unorthodox. Through the fantastic Miéville explores philosophy, belief and religion in a completely new way. Who says you can’t be deep while still having fun?