Books

Watch the Skies: Hari Kunzru's 'Gods Without Men'

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.


Gods Without Men

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Length: 369 pages
Author: Hari Kunzru
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-03
Amazon

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.

6

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

Music

Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.