July 29, 2011 10:02 pm

Gods Without Men

A child disappears in Hari Kunzru’s skilful reworking of Mojave myth
An illustration of a shadow looking on to a set of boulders

The literary skills of Hari Kunzru are evident throughout this complex and disturbing novel. He takes pains with historical accuracy, writes beautifully constructed sentences, does not pander to a dumbed-down reading public, never settles for the carelessly selected phrase but almost unerringly gets the correct word for the situation, as “arrastre”, “luchador”, “scrying stone” and, most importantly, “bardo”, a word from The Tibetan Book of the Dead referencing the intermediate transition between life and death, the place between this world and the next.

The novel’s events occur in a specific geographical place, three pinnacle rocks in the Mojave desert. Deserts, beloved of eremites, have figured in literature as important places for atonement, redemption, finding the Way, reflection on the self, exoticism, as symbols of loss and extreme suffering, as paradigms for solitude and disconnection. All of these elements exist in Gods Without Men.

Kunzru prefaces the novel with three epigrams that lead us into the heart of the matter, particularly the telling line “Dans le désert, voyez-vous, il y a tout, et il n’y a rien ... c’est Dieu sans les hommes” from Balzac’s odd short story “Une Passion dans le Désert”. In Balzac’s orientalist story, written when European writers were embracing Arabian Nights motifs, a French soldier lost in the Egyptian desert has an intense and peculiar relationship with a female panther. One implication is that unbelievable situations occur in deserts.

Kunzru presents the reader with a number of beleaguered characters: Padre Francisco Garcés in 1776 following an old Indian trade route along the Mojave river; Schmidt, a post-second world war veteran loner with an interest in paraphysical energies; Nicky, a Brit rock star in the throes of a peyote high and self-identity crisis; a hippie enclave (Dawn, Joanie, Judy, Wolf, Coyote et al) with their own sets of disappearances and reappearances – a group that over time evolves from old Schmidt’s warped visions into the Ashtar Galactic Command Chapter; Nephi Parr, a racist Mormon miner suffering from a bad conscience and mercury poisoning; an anthropologist, known as Skin-Peeled-Open, gathering information on a desert Indian tribe and a catalyst for ethnic friction.

The central family, around whom the story revolves, is Punjabi computer-model adept Jaz who has broken from his traditional family, his American Jewish wife Lisa and their violently disruptive four-year-old autistic son, Raj. A powerful influence on Jaz is his boss, Bachman, whose all-inclusive model of the world is edging towards a search for “the face of God”. These characters are all linked to the pinnacles of the Mojave.

The critical event is the sudden and seemingly impossible disappearance of Raj and the emotional and mental disintegration of his parents when faced with not only the inexplicable but their own private guilts. Some of Kunzru’s most compelling commentary on contemporary human behaviour is caught in the vicious semi-literate internet chat of the American public on the child’s disappearance; here is coyote enjoying his work.

Non-Indians often think of Native American mythological stories as quaint folktale fodder for children’s books but, because the stories are rooted in intense observation of natural phenomena, they give meaning to the world in ways that western fiction rarely can. Tribes across the continent created mythically endowed landscapes through stories, and the pinnacles in Kunzru’s Mojave belong to this world.

South-western and Mojave desert tribes shared common tales of coyote, the trickster. We think coyote is something of a comic figure (thanks to Wile E Coyote cartoons) but, for those ancients who made the stories, he is also malevolent and spiteful. Kunzru gives him to us in the first pages of this novel in the form of the folktale coyote as a desert meth-maker – a brilliant crossover literary feat that successfully presents a contemporary and savage evil in a traditional Native American story structure, psychologically compelling. This character later reappears as a malignant creature destroying people with his fearful drug.

One of Kunzru’s stories told mid-novel concerns Coyote looking for his friends. He is told by his penis to go to the Three-Finger Rocks, find Yucca Woman weaving a basket and slip between the interstices of the devil’s claw strands and he will be between the living world and the world of the dead. Eventually he falls in with the dead until he himself can trick another into taking his place. Coyote’s constant exclamation of “Aikya!” is interesting, as this is the name of a real-life international foundation created in part to help autistic children. And although Coyote appears as a force for evil, his cry may be a directive for healing, reinforcing his double-sided character. Careful readers will find Kunzru himself is something of a trickster.

Although the book is strong and mostly interesting, the weak structure of non-linear time periods and characters may confuse some readers, and the 1960s and 1970s depictions of the hippie group seem clichéd. In recent years there has been a tendency in literature to sanctify hippies as kindly types and this novel is an exception only with the characters of Wolf and Coyote. Kunzru pulls everything together in a way that almost solves the puzzles he has set up, though the responsibility for satisfying explanations, whether logical, mystical or other, falls on the reader.

Annie Proulx lives and writes in Wyoming

Gods Without Men, by Hari Kunzru, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£12.99, 400 pages

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