Gods Without Men, by Hari Kunzru
As a teenager I had a copy of the Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. I read it over and over. I loved the Norse gods particularly; tales of Thor sleeping in a strange five chambered hall and waking only to learn he had spent the night in a giant’s glove, of Loki’s envy for Baldur and how it led to the death of the most beautiful of the gods.
In myth the ordinary and extraordinary mix without comment. Gregory of Tours starts his History of the Franks at the beginning, with Adam and Eve and the fall of man, and proceeds from there to then-current events mixing the miraculous and the prosaic without distinction.
Today myths are often read crudely literally – as no more than pre-scientific attempts to explain the world in the absence of better analytic tools. There’s an element of that of course, but myths are profoundly comfortable with ambiguity. A thing can be true without ever having happened; the myth of Icarus still speaks to us even though it never looked likely, not even to the Greeks, that we’d one day find his remains.
Gods without Men is a work of contemporary US mythology; an exploration of true things that mostly never happened. It opens in the myth-time when animals were men, with Coyote driving out into the desert to cook up some meth. It’s a discomfiting opening, one that left me unsure quite what I was reading, so it was almost with relief that I reached the second chapter set in 1947 with an aircraft engineer named Schmidt setting off into the Mojave desert to live as a recluse and concentrate on his life’s work, contacting the benevolent aliens he believes will come down in their saucers and set the world to rights.
From there Gods travels back and forwards in time: to 2008 when Sikh-American Jaz and his Jewish-American wife Lisa travel out to the desert on a desperately needed family holiday, their marriage strained by the arrival of their severely autistic child; to 1778 and details of a (real life) Franciscan missionary and his attempts to convert the indigenous peoples of the area; back to 2008 where an English rock-star is staying at the same motel as Jaz and Lisa while he hides out from his band’s disastrous attempt to make their great-American-album; then 1958 and a teenager tempted by the contactee-cult commune that’s springing up not far from her dreary home town.
It sounds chaotic, but if you trust Kunzru (and you should) it starts to come together. The common character is the desert itself and a rock formation named the Pinnacles that looks like three fingers reaching into the air – a shape so distinctive that it seems almost meaningful.
Slowly, the different periods start to fit together. Schmidt in 1947 makes his camp near the Pinnacles and attracts followers, who become the UFO-contactee cult of the 1950s and in later chapters from ’69 through ’71 take a darker turn down the hippy trail. In 1920 an ethnologist studies a dwindling tribe of native Americans living near the Pinnacles, desperate to preserve their culture from being entirely lost but unable to see it clearly through his own prejudices and assumptions. His story leads to disaster, but connects through to the contactees and ultimately to Jaz and Lisa and their own disastrous trip into the desert on their misconceived family break.
Everything in this novel seems to be linked to everything else, but that doesn’t mean any of it is meaningful. We’re dealing here with “the fiction of the essential comprehensibility of the world.”
The core narrative, or perhaps simply the strongest, follows Jaz and Lisa. Jaz is a mathematician working in Wall Street for a computer trading desk. His boss, Bachman, has created a new program that analyses endless oceans of data and finds seemingly unconnected correlations enabling arbitrage trades at near the speed of light (all that really exists by the way). Jaz however has grown concerned that the program may be too sophisticated, and that as it trades it no longer merely analyses the world but may in fact be changing it.
For Bachman though, the program is about much more than just making money. It’s a method for mapping the world. He believes that the correlations it finds are meaningful, not mere inevitable coincidences arising out of a vast dataset:
‘We’re hunting for jokes.’ Bachman spoke slowly, as if to a child. ‘Parapraxes. Cosmic slips of the tongue. They’re the key to the locked door. They’ll help us discover it.’ ‘Discover what?’ ‘The face of God. What else would we be looking for?’
Communication and comprehension are key themes here. Jaz and Lisa can’t communicate with their child or understand him, and the strain of coping with a kid who never smiles and seems to hate being hugged has led to them being almost as inaccessible to each other as their son is to each of them.
Schmidt and the contactees who follow him are trying to commune with higher intelligences that they believe will save the Earth; Bachman thinks he can find meaning through an algorithm; the rock star takes peyote in the desert trying to get in touch with the inspiration that’s eluding him. Each character is faced with something vast and unknowable, and each tries to make sense of a world that doesn’t so much resist their attempts as simply not notice them. The title is a reference to a Balzac quote, that the desert is god without men, and here the desert is full of human attempts to impose meaning and empty of any of its own.
In 1920 a witness sees a Native American with a white boy out in the desert, leading to a manhunt and savage interracial violence. In 2008 a child goes missing, triggering a national media and internet frenzy, but months later is discovered near a fake-Iraqi troop-training village in the Mojave desert (another true thing), but with no clue as to how it could possibly get there. Are these events linked? Another child goes missing in the fifties, a contactee’s daughter, who turns up years later unharmed and claiming to channel alien intelligences.
Did the child in 2008 travel in time? Was it hidden in the land of the dead only to return to the land of the living as mysteriously as it vanished? Was the child in the fifties taken by aliens to be made an interstellar messiah? Or alternatively, did the child in 2008 get kidnapped by a childless couple living in the desert and released once they realised it wasn’t “normal”? Did the girl in the 1950s just die in a fire, replaced years later by an imposter “discovered” by the cult’s leader so as to help him control his followers? The novel doesn’t tell us. Things happen and we all try to make sense of what facts there are as seems best to us.
This is my second Kunzru, after his My Revolutions (which I loved). It’s almost 500 pages and needs to be given how much is packed in here, but it’s a light and intriguing read which managed the interesting trick of being philosophically dense and yet something of a page-turner.
The characters vary in depth. Some, the English rock star or Schmidt are lightly drawn since they exist more as catalysts or people caught in the narrative than as central figures. Others, like Lisa and Joanie (a local teenager who joins the contactee cult) have much more depth and are convincingly and messily real.
Jaz however stands out as perhaps the best creation in the book. He’s in many ways a classic second-generation immigrant caught between the culture he grew up in and his parent’s culture transplanted from a place he’s barely seen and that has no resonance for him. When his parents realise Jaz is bright enough to have a shot at MIT they align the entire family around his potential future (“His mother and sisters moved around like ground technicians on an immigrant moon-shot.”). When he gets there he cuts his hair in contravention of Sikh-tradition and marries a white girl, his family struggling to comprehend his choices or even to talk to him about them.
Jaz becomes an immigrant of sorts himself as he leaves behind his past as a geeky outsider-kid and relocates to Brooklyn, takes a job in Wall Street, shops in Whole Foods. Jaz is living the American dream, or was until the world deposited a deeply damaged child on his lap instead of the perfect family he expected.
Above all though, Gods is a novel of place. I read this as a break from my #TBR20 while on a driving holiday in the US, and you can tell Kunzru put in time on those roads, seeing for himself the desolate parts of America where the scale of the landscape and the sheer breadth of the sky almost stuns you, and where you find towns nobody would ever detour to see:
Soon the only signs of life were rows of giant white wind turbines and billboards advertising casino resorts. An outlet mall rose up at the roadside like a mirage. Then nothing. Miles of rock and scrubby bushes.
Cars sped along the highway, pulled in and out of the parking lot, disgorging more meaningless forms. Later she found herself driving through town, past plate-glass storefronts. Computer supplies. Weight Loss Club. She turned on to a side street, then another. Cracked concrete and chainlink fences. A collection of self-storage units fronted by desiccated palms. A community whose landmarks were laundromats and 7-Elevens, trailer parks for the unlucky and for the slightly luckier, subdivisions of low, mean-looking ranches, bunkers with double garages and dead brown lawns strewn with children’s toys.
I’ve already written more than I really wanted to for this review, and that’s even with my skipping entire characters and situations which lead to other perspectives on the text (one review I saw thought the entire book an allegory about the Iraq war, which I think is a misreading but there’s a lot here on that topic that I’ve not even touched on). The more I write however, the more connections I see. Now it strikes me that Jaz’s inability to understand his wife or his son has parallels with his own family’s inability to understand him. Maybe that’s intentional, or maybe this is just a large book and it contains echoes that seem meaningful but are just patterns in the noise.
I’ll end then by returning to the beginning: Coyote driving into the desert. Later, one of the hippy-contactees is named Coyote and still lives in the area decades later in the 2000s when he may or may not be involved with the missing child. Coyotes crop up at other points too, the trickster-spirit appearing in many guises through the book. Or possibly not, coyotes are native to the area and one person’s divine apparition is another’s coincidence.