Gods Without Men

Hari Kunzru is very cool.

I know that makes me sound like a thirteen-year-old. I’ve heard him talk at a couple of events now, and each time, he makes me feel like I’m a few years below him at school, and he’s off doing incredibly cool things – like road trips across the Mojave desert – which he talks about in an understated, this-is-totally-normal-and-ever-so-slightly-amusing-and-ironic way.

It also makes me feel a bit like how I felt when I used to meet my older brother’s friends. They all smoked and listened to loud music and smelled a bit funny. Not that Hari Kunzru smells funny, but I hope you see what I mean. He makes me wish I were bigger and cooler and more like him.

When he made a joke that I got, or mentioned  someone I’d heard of, I felt quite special. When he talked about Reyner Banham, for instance, I found myself nodding emphatically, hoping he’d see that I knew who he was, hoping that he might think I was cool too.

But obviously the annoying flip-side is that rather than seeming equally cool and impressive to Hari Kunzru, I seemed like an overexcitable younger sister. When I asked him to sign my copy of his book, he looked at me with a slightly incredulous expression, as though he couldn’t quite believe that I was a grownup and still acting like such an excited little girl. (Incidentally, it’s the same expression that my fiancé often employs.)

Anyway, I suppose it’s no surprise that I think his book is very cool. It is also strange, and brilliant.

Essentially, it’s a collection of stories that take place in the Mojave Desert; in each story something significant and mysterious happens near the Pinnacle Rocks. The different stories take place over a wide span of years, from 1775 to 2009, and we dip in and out of them – so we might get 10 pages of 1871 followed by 11 of 2008.

Perhaps this sounds frustrating, and certainly some of the reviews have hinted at this. When he was talking about the book, Kunzru described it as a ‘prism’. He said he was taking one idea and refracting it through these different stories. This is the idea that David Mitchell’s endorsement picks up on:

A beautifully written echo chamber of a novel

Yes, it is a book of echoes, but I think ‘echo chamber’ is the wrong image for it. There is nothing enclosed or chamber-like about the Mojave desert. Rather it is a huge openness, vast and unknowable. A place where echoes pass into infinity.

Reading these different stories interspersed with each other can be slightly frustrating. Some stories are undoubtedly more interesting than others. In the way that each week I find myself longing for the next episode of The Hour, desperate to know what happens next, keen to spend more time with the characters – so in Gods Without Men, it’s a shame to be dragged away from Jaz, Lisa and their autistic son Raj, just when things are getting exciting.

But as the stories develop, the links between them grow evident. Yes, the Pinnacles are there in all of them, but some of the same characters pop up too. And it becomes clear that there’s a point to all these stories, that Hari Kunzru has something to say, he isn’t just entertaining us with some tall tales.

Some reviewers have voiced a certain frustration with what they perceive to be the underlying theme to the book. The Observer terms this ‘the inscrutable interconnectedness of the universe’. Frankly, if it did all boil down to some New Age hippy idea of everything being connected man, then, well that would be pretty irritating.

But I think Hari Kunru’s being cleverer than they realise. I think what he’s doing is taking various beliefs – aliens, God, coyotes (to name a few) – and showing them to be sanitising masks for a nastier reality.

Let’s take aliens, for instance, as I think he deals with this strand with particular panache.

In 1958 Joanie attends a very hippyish conference about aliens, calling itself the Ashtar Galactic Command. So far, so weird. We come back to this strand in 1969 when Dawn, a teenager who works in a store becomes interested in this same Ashtar Galactic Command, which has, since 1958, grown into a commune near the Pinnacle Rocks. In 1970 Dawn joins the camp.

Until this point, Kunzru invites us to suspend our disbelief. Maybe these people are on to something. Maybe there are aliens. Though, he does give us occasional welcome moments of cynicicm, flashes of reality, such as:

It was obvious that Oriana was extraterrestrial, or at least had some extraterrestrial blood, though Joanie had heard one or two people say cattily that she was just French Canadian.

But once Dawn joins the alien-believing commune, meeting the full disapproval of the town, the reality is revealed:

Of course everything the good old boys at Mulligan’s thought was going on up at the rocks really was, and more besides. It took a while for Dawn to cotton on to why people who were sometimes so talkative could spend whole days lying silently in the dome or trudging naked circles on the dry lake. At least some of the money for food and building materials was coming from the drug runs being made to LA and San Francisco, which seemed to be almost a full-time occupation for many of the Children of Light …

… Further on down the line she found out nothing came for free. She was a starchild, a love-giver, but it was easier to shine your light on some people than others. After Billy there was Guru Bob and then Floyd, who she didn’t really want to go with, because he had a skin condition, but it was hard to deny someone without generating negativity and giving aid to the Dark Forces. Then one night Mountain told her Clark wanted to see her. She knew what was coming. He’d let her know in small ways that she owed him, and though he was supposed to be with Maa, he liked to get laid and was persistent and paranoid about rejection and sooner or later everyone had to give it up just to get some peace.

Dawn can see the sordidness, but reflects:

None of the bad stuff mattered. Not when you were in contact with beings from other stars

It is brilliantly, cleverly written. We are made aware of what’s going on, and are saddened by how the system has taken advantage of an impressionable young girl.

The alien story develops over the years. Dawn is sent to LA to recruit new followers for the Ashtar Galactic Command. This means she is made to prostitute herself along Sunset Boulevard. By 1971, filled with these new recruits, the Command degenerates yet further, following a philosophy of ‘armed love’; it isn’t long before one young recruit is shot dead.

Yet through it all, Dawn believes in aliens, in the battle between starchildren and Dark Forces. And this belief excuses, for her, the terrible things that she finds herself doing.

Kunzru hasn’t written Gods Without Men to make a case for the inexplicable interconnectedness of everything. He has written it to scrutinise various systems of belief, to show how easy it is to use them to excuse things. He has shown how desperately people want to latch on to a belief, to find a meaning behind what is, really, random, grim and absolutely normal.

Near the very end of the novel, Jaz, Lisa and Raj go back to the Pinnacle Rocks:

Ahead of them lay only a vast emptiness, an absence. There was nothing out there at all.

In Gods Without Men, Kunzru has created a virtuoso polyphony which asks, again and again, what would men be without their gods?

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