Gods Without Men, Hari Kunzru (2011)


I am a big fan of Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist (reviewed in January 2012), but I do remember things taking quite a while to fall into place, for my question of “where is this all going?” to be answered, and spectacularly at that. Patience is not my strongest asset (ie, I don’t possess any) as an all-round person, let alone as a reader, so I found myself asking the same questions about how the multiple strands might eventually tie together in Gods Without Men. This is an intriguing novel, clever and broad, but ultimately perplexing and deeply strange. 

The blurb on the back of my paperback edition reads, simply: “In a remote town, near a rock formation known as the Pinnacles, lives intertwine, stories echo, and the universal search for meaning and connection continues.” And that just about sums it up. The novel jumps between the 1940s, the late 2000s, the 1950s, 60s and ’70s, and the 1770s, all set in the Californian desert, with the bulk of the narrative centering on events in 2008. This all seems a bit gratuitous at first, a structuring device to settle on for want of better structure. And I do still think this is partly true, but as the various strands over the centuries and the decades came together, it proved less jarring. The core of the story, though, revolves around a young family from New York, Sikh second-generation immigrant dad Jaz, his Jewish wife Lisa, and their four year old, autistic son, Raj. Because of the multiple narratives, it’s likely that not all readers would consider this the central story. It is, certainly, one of them though.

Raj’s developmental problems have put enormous strains upon his parents, both personally and as a couple. Tensions arising from their different cultural backgrounds had lain dormant until the stress of having an unwell child brings them to the surface. On a family holiday to California, their relationship becomes explosive, and shortly afterwards Raj mysteriously disappears out in the desert. I won’t give away the rest of the plot, but what transpires is that the desert is a weird, ancient place with stories and pulls that most people cannot hope to understand. All they can do is interact with it on the terms that it allows. 

I have limited knowledge of American literature, and I suspect that this kept much of the novel inaccessible to me. Kunzru is a British Indian writer, not American, but Gods Without Men is so firmly rooted in its place, the Californian desert, that I can’t help but feel there must be a lot of intertextuality going on with the literature of the western US, or at least the films and music of it. I would be interested in hearing anyone’s thoughts on this.

The part that was familiar to me, though, was that recounting Jaz’s second-generation Punjabi immigrant angst:

“This was how you did it. Work hard; keep away from the blacks; remit money home for weddings, farm equipment, new brick-built houses whose second or even third storeys would rise up over the fields to show the neighbours that such and such a family had a son in Amrika or UK. Wherever in the world you happened to be, in London or New York or Vancouver or Singapore or Baltimore MD–you really lived in apna Punjab, an international franchise, a mustard field of the mind. All the great cities were just workhouses in which you toiled for dollars, their tall buildings and parks and art galleries less real than the sentimental desi phantasm you pulled round yourself like an electric blanket against the cold.” (p. 53)

Jaz grew up in Baltimore, but his large extended family clung to their Indian origins, disapproving of his marriage to a white Jewish girl, and his decision to shave his beard and cut his hair. Jaz’s feelings towards his family become frustrated in his early adulthood, and quite venomous later on. After Raj goes missing, they suggest that it is a blessing, a chance for he and Lisa to try again for a “normal” child. Despite Jaz’s own ambivalent feelings towards his son, he is disgusted by their attitude. 

Kunzru’s Wikipedia page (authoritative as it is!) states that he is fascinated with UFOs, and this is one of the threads running through Gods Without Men, centered on a 1960s new age hippy cult. But it also says that at a young age he rejected religion. This surprised me, as the ending felt like some kind of religious revelation, a post-modern meditation on the fine line between religion and spirituality. Yet, it could also be interpreted as a statement on the power of humans and nature and the landscape, as they are and as it is, rather than a suggestion that we were put here by anyone. Alien or god.

(London: Penguin, 2012. Paperback)


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Travel writer at www.wildernessmetropolis.com. Editor, writer, traveller, reader, literary critic.

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