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Thursday, August 9, 2012

Review: 'Gods Without Men'

By Hari Kunzru
Literary fiction
March 2012
Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 978-0307957115                                                                                      

"Only connect," as E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End, to "live in fragments no more" is a wish that's appears to be a plea against the fractured, chaotic and constantly in motion life in the 21st century First World. Hari Kunzru's fourth novel, Gods Without Men, is written in fragments of different times and places, but there are slender threads connecting them to each other. Whether the reader makes those connections and feels the fabric of a novel depends on the reader. And we all know we readers are not cut from the same cloth.

The novel is about both the trickster known as Coyote and the world of humans, those foible-filled creatures. In a way, Gods Without Men is as much a myth as novel, in that Coyote has set up and been caught in a trap in which humans are involved. During diferent eras, there is the inference that if one creature escapes, another must take its place (there is a similar story in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell that ended up being surprisingly poignant).

But that is the underpinning of the various stories contained within Kunzru's book. The main narratives are of a modern New York couple whose autistic son disappears for a few months while they are out West strolling around the Three Pinnacles rock formation out in the midst of the desert, a group in the late 1950s who seek wisdom from an alien race and a commune seeking wisdom from drugs as much as the aliens. There are connections between these stories, and a few others, that are not forced but which give few hints of how it all might tie together.

The main characters in all of these narratives are well-rounded portraits with compelling storylines. Jaz Matharu is a second-generation American who has given up Sikh ways and used his mad math skills to help develop a financial market software program, Walter, that would recognize 2001: A Space Odyssey's Hal as kin. His wife, Lisa, is a lapsed Jew who gives up her publishing job after it's apparent their son, Raj, suffers from serious autism. Kunzru is adept at letting the reader see how they both got to the ratty desert motel where they stay just before Raj disappears. Kunzru also does both characters the service of letting the reader see their lives from their individual points of view. Neither is the villian. Neither is without fault. And it would be fascinating to discover what happens to them after the novel closes. The sections where they are in limbo when Raj disappears are haunting.

Another child goes missing in the late 1950s. Joanie is searching for life to mean something when she discovers the writings of a pseudo-scientific crackpot who thinks he is communicating with more intelligent beings from outer space. She becomes part of a group following him, living out in the desert near the Three Pinnacles. Joanie, an innocent, loses track of her young daughter, Judy.

Years later, in the late 1960s and early 70s, Joanie, Judy (with definite ties to Raj's story) and Dawn, a girl from town, all end up at the commune near Three Pinnacles which took the place of the earlier group seeking wisdom from the stars. They've got a wild man, Coyote, who may or may not be the trickster. But he's definitely a snake in the garden figure. As with the other narratives, Dawn's story would make a complete novel on its own. Seeing her at different stages of her life only reinforces this feeling.

Another story is woven into the narrative of how Raj comes back that does not quite have the feel of a complete story but one that is among the most moving in the novel. Laila is a young woman who has come from Iraq to California and then to the Three Pinnacles area to live in a constructed village. It was built by the military to be a fake Iraq for troops on their way over. Laila's story has everything -- a haven of childhood bliss, fear, secrecy, war, tragic loss and escape without the sense of a fresh, new beginning. But within the narrative, she has a role to play that puts her own story in the background. On the surface, there is enough about Laila that her tale holds together.

However, Kunzru weaves hints into her story that show it could have been a sprawling epic on its own, telling the stories of Iraquis in various parts of society back home and here, as well as their life in a strange land and the people they encounter. When a soldier lets Laila wear night goggles to watch an evening training, the reality of what most of us have only seen on the news comes into clear focus.

Reading this section was like a sucker punch, especially with the pressures Laila also faces from her older relatives that have taken in her and her brother. They're strangers here in ways that not even the white men trying to fit in with the tribes they encounter in other parts of the book are. Jaz has something of the same problem. He doesn't feel he fits in anywhere any longer, certainly not with his traditional-bound family and not with Lisa, even though both feel grief and guilt over their son's disappearance.

The individual pieces in the novel, and the connection of various characters either looking beyond themselves for wisdom or having a search forced on them as they weave in and out of time, is worth reading. But the stories of strangers not at home in their worlds could have been an even stronger tale, one not relying on tricks or the trickster.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

FTC discloser: An ARC of the novel was provided by the publisher.

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