Feb/Mar 2012

Rocky Horror Show

A troubled couple search for their missing son and elusive truths in Hari Kunzru's desert-set novel

Christopher Sorrentino


Looming in the background of Hari Kunzru’s novel Gods Without Men are the Pinnacle Rocks, presumably modeled on California’s Trona Pinnacles, stone formations climbing from the bed of a dry lake in Death Valley and familiar to both hikers and couch potatoes (the spires regularly appear in television programs and car commercials). From its encampment near the site, Gods Without Men sweeps back and forth through time—from the deliberately anachronistic “time when the animals were men” to the present day, coming to rest at several points in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.

At the foreground is the twenty-first- century story of Jaz Matharu, a first-generation American Sikh, and his wife, Lisa, a thoroughly assimilated Jewish girl from Long Island. The mix poses some tricky problems, but Jaz and Lisa have pretty successfully insulated themselves from them, mostly with money: Jaz, an MIT-trained mathematician, makes a lot of it working on Wall Street. But the burden of caring for their profoundly autistic four-year-old son, Raj, has strained the marriage and widened cultural divides between the two that have never been completely bridged. And now Jaz is having career-jeopardizing moral misgivings about “Walter,” the Baudrillardian, possibly sentient trading model that he has been helping to develop at work and that may be causing the chaos erupting in world financial markets. During a kind of emergency vacation in California, the troubled family stops at a motel near the Pinnacles. Jaz and Lisa argue. Lisa disappears overnight. After her return, the trio gamely makes a day trip out to the Pinnacles, where Raj vanishes without a trace when the adults leave him briefly unattended. Jaz and Lisa are plunged into an emotional nightmare that’s exacerbated by the media—which determine that Lisa displays insufficient grief to make for sympathetic TV—and consequently amplified by the Internet, whose denizens draw the conclusion that the couple is guilty of murdering their child. Then Raj abruptly reappears, apparently miraculously cured of his disorder.

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The Trona Pinnacles, in California's Death Valley.

As Gods Without Men would have it, such mystifying occurrences have been taking place at the Pinnacles for centuries. The Matharus’ story alternates with several separate narratives in which the site figures as the locus of the unexplained: An eighteenth-century Franciscan missionary encounters “an angel in the form of a man, who conversed with him and revealed certain mysteries.” After World War II a former airplane mechanic, Schmidt, experiences a close encounter there and establishes a UFO cult, the Command, creating a piecemeal theology aiming “to connect the mysteries of technology with those of the spirit.” Nephi Parr, a nineteenth-century Mormon outcast who views the Pinnacles as “the place of death and generation, the very cradle of the Secret,” is haunted by visions of “an air-ship” that signal the coming of “the Angel Moroni and the gods of many worlds.” Deighton, an ethnographer studying the culture of the Mojave in 1920, witnesses something that shakes his intellectualized grasp of Indian beliefs.

Is the explanation for these doings rooted in Native American myth? In Christian belief? In alien visitations? Is the site the portal to the bardo, where those between death and rebirth wait in a state of suspension? Is it where ordinary rules governing behavior and perception are null? Or is it just buzzing with bad vibes from centuries of misbehavior by settlers of European descent seeking to exploit the land and/or its aboriginal inhabitants? We are offered the opportunity to examine each of these possibilities in turn, to consider them alternatively and in conjunction with each other.

The more concise question might be: What is the timeless, mysterious agency connecting each of the plotlines in Gods Without Men? A glib answer: the narrative armature of the book. This is possibly unfair—but Kunzru asks for it, a little, and it’s not entirely untrue. To peel away the leaves of the artichoke that he cultivates around the conceit at the heart of his book is to expose many of the redundancies of the “ambitious novel,” at least as this entity is presently defined, and while the array of working parts is impressive, they’re also slightly shopworn. Nonlinear, braided story lines? Check. Dependence upon free indirect narration to combine deep interiority with a slightly ironic distance from the characters while retaining the ability to shift to a more omniscient perspective? Check. At least one plotline that assimilates the language of a specialized field? Check. Abundant use of parody and pastiche? Check. Mordant view of contemporary life, arch awareness of media and mediated existence, pop anthropologist’s eye for trends and enthusiasms? Check, check, and check. These are useful tools, among which countless writers have browsed to construct engrossing, witty, and intelligent books. And, indeed, their massed deployment does indicate “ambition,” if only in the sense that the resulting book often assumes an appearance of Gordian complexity.

But is Gods Without Men as complicated as it would like to seem? In its temporal shifts, multiple narrative lines, and large cast of characters, it is tempting to see an elaborateness that serves as its own justification. At the very least, the novel represents an expansion upon themes with which Kunzru has long concerned himself.

Kunzru won me over with his previous books, which probingly consider the problem of people who, alienated by circumstance or choice from the cultures in which they find themselves, take on reassuring but precarious identities that are shored up through equal measures of fantasy, denial, and self-deception. Arjun Mehta, of Transmission (2005), is so invested in his version of himself as an Amrikan success story that he unleashes a computer virus in a vain attempt to rescue his downsized tech job and unwittingly becomes an international cyberterrorist; Michael Frame, of My Revolutions (2007), finds that his well-established life as a low-key suburbanite married to an entrepreneur instantly dissolves upon the reappearance of a former comrade with knowledge of his past as Chris Carver, a violent radical.

But Gods Without Men differs from those earlier books in more than its scope; it is ambitious. The action in these earlier books is centrifugal: As the central characters are confronted with the fraudulence of their self-conceptions, those whose lives fall within the radius of their actions find their own realities crumbling also. The novels work well, sometimes brilliantly, but the dots are easy to follow. While the characters in Gods Without Men are similarly confined by or unsure of their places in the world, the larger scheme and stuttered time frames force the narrative to work centripetally, as all narrative lines converge upon a single point, at the Pinnacles, forcing us to trace the connection from multiple sources. The very question of “time frames” is a red herring: It’s strongly implied that the various occurrences in the book are coterminous, coextensive, that their relationship in Kunzru’s imagined universe is outside of time and uncertainly located in space. Earlier, I asked what agency connected these things; even if the rumblings of the book’s machinery suggest that the tropes of the contemporary novel, working in concert, will produce an answer, Gods Without Men’s true ambitions have less to do with the ingeniousness of its contrivance than with the receptive reader’s willingness to accept Kunzru’s challenge to draw his own conclusions.

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There is noise here—principally from characters and subplots crowded into the foreground along with the story of Jaz, Lisa, and Raj—which mostly offers Kunzru the opportunity to compose set pieces that don’t seem fully integrated into the whole: Nicky, an English rock star who winds up at the same motel as Jaz and Lisa after going AWOL from an inertial LA recording session, and who briefly becomes a suspect in Raj’s disappearance; Laila, a teenaged Iraqi refugee who enters the novel in a rather rote pass-the-baton manner (she recognizes Nicky), and who agrees to assume a role as Rafah, “a country girl” who has lived her whole life in “Wadi al-Hamam,” a fake Iraqi village constructed in the desert so that Marine Corps troops can simulate interactions with possibly hostile locals prior to deployment overseas; Dawn, the motel owner and former member of the Command, who looks after Lisa when she becomes drunk during her flight from Jaz and the motel. It isn’t that these characters don’t fit, but they seem to have been built to serve a purpose and then retrofitted to trail their respective backstories behind them, as if depth were a prerequisite for any character’s inclusion in a novel.

Such depth, almost documentary in its extent, is the novel’s principal flaw. Call it rampant Franzenism, but boy oh boy do we learn a lot about everyone, particularly Jaz and Lisa, from what bugged them in high school to what sort of restaurant a certain kind of young, upmarket Brooklynite might patronize. Apart from being overly exhaustive, the effort to align the minutiae of these invented lives with a verifiable “reality”—to establish, in effect, narrative causation—juxtaposes uneasily with the novel’s faith in its numinous, unknowable aspects, faith it asks us to share.

That faith is, to be sure, the more important burden the novel bears. Kunzru’s stroke of genius is in refusing to “explain” such unknowable things beyond establishing that for nearly everyone who undergoes an unaccountable experience, a system of belief is at hand to frame it and provide reassuring context. Whether that belief is Catholic, Mormon, Kabbalistic, Native American, or UFOlogical ultimately is unimportant—as the Franciscan writes in a “redacted” excerpt from his diary that closes the book, “that which is infinite is known only to itself and cannot be contained in the mind of man.” For Jaz and Lisa, who adopt provisional beliefs on the basis of convenience, or suspicion, there is no reassurance: When they return to the desert in search of answers, it reflects only their own vacancy back at them.

Christopher Sorrentino is the author of the novel Trance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005). His most recent book is a critical assessment of the film Death Wish (Soft Skull Press, 2010).

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