[30 May 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to have an experience reading a book that was almost like taking some kind of trip on peyote (though not that I would know firsthand), British-born but New York City-based author Hari Kunzru has delivered just that with his fourth novel Gods Without Men. It’s one of those books whose plot is sketchy and hard to describe, as it pushes the boundaries of time and is comprised of different stories from varying narrative viewpoints. It is, in short, a mindbender.
It starts out in 1947, then flashes forward to 2008, then flips back to 1778, then goes back to 2008, and then on it goes. It’s a book that delves into Native American folklore, New Age mysticism and religious spirituality of a variety of faiths. It’s also a book about UFOs.
Put another way, Gods Without Men is vaguely reminiscent of the comic book writings of Grant Morrison of The Invisibles fame: there’s a lot going on within the covers of this novel, and it’s as deliriously trippy and expanding as anything Morrison has put to paper. The novel also even fleetingly recalls the out-there nature of the 1980 Ken Russell movie Altered States. That makes seemingly writing about Gods Without Men a difficult task: scraping out plot elements won’t do it much justice, as it’s one of those novels that you experience in a Holocaust of emotion more than anything else.
Indeed, if you’re looking for something to scramble your brain cells, Gods Without Men is just the right book for you. How deliriously strange is this novel? Well, there’s the telling of a Native American tale at one point about mid-way through in which a coyote has a frank conversation—about death and other worlds—with his penis. And, no, I’m not making this up.
For grounding, Gods Without Men largely revolves around one particular setting: an outcropping of three rocks that point skyward, called the Pinnacles, found (only in Kunzru’s fiction) in California’s Mojave Desert. It’s from this location and the surrounding vicinity that much of the narrative unspools: the story of a washed-up British rock star trying to sort out some personal business, the tales of an almost Charles Manson-like UFO cult that lives out in the desert, the narrative of a real-life Spanish monk transcribing his encounters with the Native peoples, the travails of a hideously scarred ethnographer / anthropologist and his wife, the personal recounting of one teenaged Iraqi girl’s experiences living in an American simulation of her home country for Marines training purposes and, in what’s the novel’s main story arc, the bickering of a New York couple on vacation with their four-year-old autistic son.
There’s a lot going on in Gods Without Men, and one could argue that perhaps it’s just too much. Kunzru is painting words on a very broad canvas here, and the stories seemingly go on and barely interlock with each other except in only fleeting ways. In fact, we’re introduced to characters and given a significant backstory on them, only to watch as they either disappear entirely or recede into the background of the story like a desert mirage. At other times, readers might have to flip backwards in the text to recall a minor character that is introduced in the early goings that makes a seemingly significant reappearance near the novel’s end.
In fact, Gods Without Men could have had some 100 pages of its nearly 370 page length excised without much of import happening to the narrative. On the other hand, this is a book that could have easily gone on and on and on and on for infinity. It’s, as noted, a bit of a brainwash.
Kunzru seemingly uses his fictitious Californian backdrop – which is very finely lavished, considering that portions of the novel were written in hotel rooms scattered across the American Southwest – to make a broader point about whether or not humans are truly alone in their existence, whether or not there’s some kind of higher power or little green men floating above us with curious eyes. However, the author doesn’t really go anywhere with this notion: the novel even ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, making it seem as though the story really is unfinished. That makes Gods Without Men simply a novel that a reader can get lost in and turn off his or her brain reading, and just come along for the ride, which is admittedly a little bit bumpy.
There are sections of the novel – including a very technical explanation of one character’s massaging of the world’s financial markets through the use of computer models – that are yawn-inducing and dry, and then there are other segments that are thrilling and fascinating – such as the aforementioned story of a young girl living on a naval base dedicated to training American troops – and feel far too short. And thanks to the story’s scrambling of temporal space, it’s often really hard to get a bearing on what’s really happening to whom and when.
This basically leaves Gods Without Men as one of those books whose sole purpose is not to enlighten or illuminate, but to leave the reader feeling lost and disoriented. This, though, is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the reader is up for the challenge and is willing to pay the fare for some messed up shenanigans. However, as a statement of bold import, Gods Without Men is a little on the lacking side.
Still, for what it is, Gods Without Men is an unusual read, and one that will have readers gleefully moving forward, even during some of the stale bits, to find out just what happens to this very large cast of strange and diverse characters, which is oddly appealing considering that many of them are unlikable in some way, shape or form. There are a number of thematic motifs – ranging from missing children, to destructive fires, to marital strife – that will leave readers trying to connect the dots and see how things fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. In that sense, the novel is very engagingly constructed, and there’s a palpable sense of density that gives the book added dimension and weight, even if it is ultimately a novel about, in the most Seinfeldian manner, nothing.
Gods Without Men might make a case for being the strangest and weirdest novel to be released this year (though it came out in Great Britain in the late summer of 2011), and that might be enough for curious readers to want to take a look. Ultimately, I’m not disappointed that I read it, but I do come away from it a little unsatisfied in that some of its larger mysteries are seemingly unresolved. That might be the point of Kunzru’s exercise, but with some of its story threads left dangling and any sort of lack of narrative closure, Gods Without Men becomes a curio at best: one of those books that just wants to mess with the reader.
Illicit drug intake while reading might be mandatory for some to best enjoy this, though it’s not necessary. The novel will be enough of a trip in and of itself for many of us, including me.