Hari Kunzru has kept a low profile even though his reviewers marvel over his wildly original fiction. But with his latest novel Gods Without Men winning critical acclaim, it’s time to get to know this author whose work you may have missed!
The backdrop of Gods Without Men is the eerie desert landscape around Pinnacles National Monument in California. Baked by sunlight and shadowed by spires of rock, it’s an otherworldly place that draws people who are trying to fill the hollow places in their souls. When the book begins, we see the legendary Native American trickster Coyote mixing up some methamphetamine…and we sense that this story will be a mind-altering experience.
Then the story veers to gritty-edged reality with a cast of unusual characters, focusing mostly on a young interracial couple, Jaz and Lisa and their struggles with their severely autistic son Raj. They are worn down by the child’s tantrums and ferocious energy, and the desert landscape mirrors the slow crumbling of their marriage.
On a walk, the little boy manages to undo a stroller strap and suddenly disappears into a maze of rock. The terrified couple is browbeaten by the news media’s craving for scandal. Soon the television and the internet seethes with rumors of child neglect and even willful murder, and Jaz and Lisa are trapped in their own personal hell.
We then explore others’ tales, and glimpse the past traumas that haunt this place: a chaotic hippie commune, a gathering of UFO abduction devotees, a Native American man who steals a bi-racial child, a Mormon silver-miner driven mad by mercury poisoning, and a Franciscan priest who has delusions of remaking the local Indians.
But the keenest irony in the book emerges with the story of the Iraqi refugees who work nearby on a U.S. military base. They are paid to dress up and role-play in the desert as “primitive” fanatical villagers, when they are actually urban sophisticates who savor American culture.
Some timeless questions appear here about identity, culture, and faith, yet this novel never becomes dull or philosophical. There’s no shortage of wonder and humor in the bizarre things that happen to these characters. The novel leads us to marvel at how people feel a universal need for a higher power to overwhelm them, possess them, and bring them escape from the pains of human life.
This is Kunzru’s fourth novel, and he continues to build characters whose lives can seem absurd and illogical, but whose inner thoughts shine with wonder and irony.
Kunzru’s Anglo-Indian biracial background charges his writing with a vibrant awareness of cultural and social issues. His emotionally complex characters struggle with their own identity and vulnerability. They fall apart…and after watching their own lives crumble, they must re-create themselves in terrifying and thrilling ways.