In Hari Kunzru’s dazzling new novel, a desert is the setting, hero and villain. It isn’t the first time this landform has played such a starring role. Throughout history, deserts have had a powerful grip on the human imagination: Jesus walked one for 40 nights. Moses for 40 years. Muhammad spent his boyhood in the sand, among Bedouins. Even Coyote, the trickster god of Native American lore, darted nimbly from cactus to cactus. A desert is where bombs go up and UFOs come down, where mirages, misadventures and miracles unfold. It is siren and slayer, everything and nothing. “The desert,” wrote Balzac, “is God without men.”
Kunzru’s “Gods Without Men” is a great, sprawling narrative, as vast as the canvas on which it is written. In it, half a dozen stories play out on the gaping expanse of the Mojave Desert, where a miscellany of lost souls seeks salvation in the shadow of a three-fingered rock formation.
“First time Schmidt saw the Pinnacles he knew it was the place. Three columns of rock shot up like the tentacles of some ancient creature, weathered feelers probing the sky.” By the time the crazed war veteran runs a few tests with an earth meter and a divining rod, he has no doubt that the power is there, running along an ancient fault line. The rock is a natural antenna. In time, as Schmidt surveys that range, he will be rewarded by a vision that approaches one lonely night at astonishing speed: “It was disk-shaped, featureless but for a ring of iridescent lights round the rim, like gem stones or feline eyes. . . . It was, he thought, the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.” In short order, this ex-pilot and wife-beater digs a bunker under the rock and transforms himself into “the Guide,” the contact for an extraterrestrial power, a spiritual leader with an army of Lightworkers selling his wacky recordings and luring ever more members to his mission. They call themselves the Ashtar Galactic Command.
So far, this is a true story.
But Kunzru, an Indian-Anglo writer who has proved the wealth of his imagination in three earlier novels — “My Revolutions,” “Transmission” and “The Impressionist” — crams even more history into this highly original tale. By novel’s end, we will have traversed 250 years, a half-dozen belief systems and a global economy that reaches from Singapore to East Baltimore.
It’s quite a ride: This is a book in which monks of the 18th century trudge the Mojave with drug-sodden hippies from the Summer of Love. A book in which Native Americans poised at the twilight of a dying culture try valiantly to guard their myths from relentlessly literal-minded anthropologists. Here is where the walking wounded come to pray to Yahweh, Allah, Vishnu, Coyote, the Brothers of Light. Here are cynical veterans from World War II, hard-bitten GIs fresh from Iraq, randy communards, washed-up bankers, wasted groupies whose only thought is their next roach or a place to park their sleeping bag. Here is death, sex, and rock-and-roll. And all of it, as random as it may sound, is a fitting paean to this jittery world. As each story scrolls, characters jounce across the Mojave like tumbleweed, drawn to the Pinnacle Rocks, their lives connecting, colliding, merging, whether or not they realize it. Kunzru has written a big, unabashed salmagundi of a novel.
At the heart of it is Jaz, a brilliant young Sikh American mathematician who has a big Wall Street job; a smart, beautiful blond wife; and is living the high life in Manhattan. Jaz is a cyber-scientist for an investment bank; Lisa is a promising editor at a publishing house. All is future and possibility. Until fate presents them with an autistic son. “Raj arrived, a beautiful little person with olive skin, a mop of black hair, a big Punjabi nose and brown eyes that would have been the delight of Jaz’s life had he been able to see anything human behind them.” The boy is unpredictable, uncontrollable, wild. With the panic of their unfolding discovery — with the fear that Raj is the culmination of so many irreconcilable differences between them — the marriage begins to dissolve. Soon, Lisa is on the verge of a nervous breakdown; Jaz is about to lose his job. In an attempt to weather this gathering catastrophe, the three of them check into a seedy motel in the Mojave, drawn to the Pinnacle Rocks.
There to welcome them is Dawn, an Ashtar Galactic Command Lightworker, who has bottomed out on hard chemicals and rough sex, and survived all of it to become the motel’s manager. There, too, is a British rock star, far from home, stoned on peyote, hanging out by the pool and trying to sort through his senseless life. More walking ghosts wander in from the desert — lost innocents, cave dwellers, bullies in big trucks. But Kunzru deftly weaves in and out of time, in and out of history. So it is that the flotsam of this harsh and pitiless world is joined by flotsam that has occupied that desert for hundreds of years: monks and dreamers, itinerants and scam artists, victims and villains, and creatures that may not be of this world at all.
Then, in a sudden, unexpected twist, someone goes missing.
Kunzru may be in his early 40s, but he is wise beyond his years. He has four cunningly clever, deeply humane books to prove it. In them, he has dealt with the subtle issues of race and identity; he has taken on the hegemony of computers; he has shown how a wayward past, however buried by history, can haunt a fragile spirit. He doesn’t just pull characters from a fertile imagination. He has walked in his characters’ shoes, made tracks in every territory about which he has written. He has been an editor for Wired magazine in London, a travel correspondent for Time Out, a music critic at Wallpaper, a television commentator on technology and culture, a high-wire artist between East and West. Most important, he is a novelist in superb command of his craft, singularly equipped to join all the strands of that rich experience in a single story.
Is it any wonder that he has given us this whirling wheelwork of a novel?
Arana is a novelist, critic and former books editor of The Post. She is currently a writer at large for the paper.
Gods without men
By Hari Kunzru
Knopf. 384 pp. $26.95