Archives for posts with tag: Native Americans

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 round houseIn 1988 thirteen-year-old Joe Coutts learns that his mother, Geraldine, has been brutally raped near the old round house on their North Dakota reservation. Geraldine tries to carry on but plunges into a deep depression. She knows who is responsible for her attack but for some reason refuses to talk about it. Despite Geraldine’s fears, Joe and his father, Bazil, try to find the culprit. But crimes committed near Indian reservations have their own unique set of difficulties. Is it a case for tribal police, state troopers, or local officers? Where a crime is committed can make all the difference to how justice is sought. Geraldine knows her attack took place near the round house but she was blindfolded, she never saw exactly where she was. This ambiguity allows countless criminals to get away on technicalities, and sometimes the only justice anyone can get is vengeance.

The Round House calls to mind To Kill a Mockingbird, Jasper Jones, and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter – small town life, a bygone era, a search for justice and truth, and the painful process of being inducted into the adult world. That’s not to say The Round House is derivative, it just evokes a timeless feeling. I guess ‘coming-of-age’ would be the trite way to put it.

The Indian reservation setting and Louise Erdrich’s potent prose make The Round House unique. Erdrich, herself, is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Her embrace of her Indian ancestry has given her the insight to produce a rich, fully realised portrait of reservation life – jokes about rez steak sandwiches (baloney on white bread), pow wows, traditional Indian costumes, old Indian stories about the wiindogoo (if a human resorts to cannibalism to stay alive they will be possessed by the spirit of a wiindigoo, forever craving human flesh). Erdrich writes powerfully about the injustices as well – rape, racism, Native Americans being forced off their land and dying of smallpox.

I felt Joe’s pain, frustration and confusion after his mother’s rape. He just wants his mother to come back to him, for life to be how it was. Joe is convinced that his family will never have peace until her attacker is caught. Both of Joe’s parents are responsible for upholding law and order within their community – Joe’s father is a tribal judge, his mother works for the tribal council, collecting information needed to register people as Native American. Yet, in Joe’s mind, neither are doing what’s needed to find Geraldine’s rapist. So Joe takes the responsibility on himself. Bazil is a moral, wise man, doing what he can as a judge to uphold the law, despite finding the way to justice barricaded at every turn. Now, Joe’s father has transformed from his hero to a joke, dispensing justice to hotdog thieves and violators of parking restrictions. The vividness of the emotion Erdrich conjures up is formidable, and all in keeping with the feelings of a thirteen-year-old boy facing extraordinary circumstances.

Erdrich writes from Joe’s perspective. He’s writing down his memories of that time, as a grown man. Joe slips in references to his future wife and his career as a lawyer, so you know he doesn’t let his experiences ruin his future. And I’m glad. I don’t know that I could’ve read The Round House not knowing whether his mother’s tragic assault would cause him to unravel as well.

The Round House comes out strong, the horror of Geraldine’s attack commands your attention but there are slow parts. Some of my favourite books (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, American Gods, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) have unrelated asides and contemplative portions – slow parts, for those that aren’t fans – that I either loved for their languorous pace or barely noticed because I was enjoying myself so much. The Round House wasn’t up to that level for me, I noticed it drag sometimes. But at its best it’s excellent.

Erdrich’s writing subtly claws at you, tearing you up inside. It’s so restrained in its devastation. Right alongside Joe’s bleak pursuit of vengeance is a portrait of ordinary boyhood – getting drunk, riding bikes, running from irate adults, falling in love. I barely realised how dark it was or how much I worried for Joe. Then it hit me, Joe’s life was never going to be the same again.