Gods Without Men: A Novel by Hari Kunzru (New York: Random House, 2012. 386pp)

Hari Kunzru (b. 1969) is a British novelist and journalist. He is most known for his novels The Impressionist, Transmission and My Revolutions. He holds a MA in Philosophy and Literature from Warwick University. He currently lives in East London.

The Beauty of the Desert

Dans le désert, voyez-vous, il y a tout, et it n’y a rien…c’est Dieu sans les hommes” (8).

Translated: “In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing…It is God without men” This quote summarizes the feeling of the novel. Kunzru sets Gods Without Men in the desert, and if you’ve ever spent time in one, you may understand why. Sitting alone in a desert, any desert—especially at night, it is easy to let your mind wander, to start to ponder the meaning of it all. There is something unequivocally poignant about the desert, something that makes you realize how small you are.

A Kaleidoscope of Characters

Gods Without Men brings the reader into the consciousness of several characters, spanning several timelines. The reader befriends a dissolute British rocker, a hedge fund executive, a UFO cultist, a homesick Iraqi teenager, and the historical character Honoré de Balzac, whose quote is above. Included in the list of characters is also a deity, Coyote, who is a prankster popular in many Native American Tales. Using this kaleidoscope of characters, Kunzru illustrates that both the universe and a narrative isn’t all about one individual, but rather about many. Juxtaposing the large cast against the desert, he certainly makes his point.

A Family Vacation

The Pinnacles (Photo by Tony Hoffarth)

The main characters, however, are Jaz and Lisa Matharu and their autistic, four-year-old son, Raj. The couple leaves their New York City home in the hopes of a vacation to the Mojave desert aiding their troubles. Jaz, especially, is in need of reprieve, as he has begun to have fantasies of casually killing their son. Fed up with his autism, endless bouts of screaming, and irritability, he’s reached the end of his rope.

“He picked him up and slung him under one arm like a parcel. Raj began to scream properly, the full amplified monotone. For a moment Jaz fantasized about throwing him into the pool, watching him sink to the bottom. His angry face disappearing under the rippling water, the silence afterward” (63-64).

While looking at the rock formation, Pinnacles, Raj disappears. The pinnacles have been known to exhibit strange phenomena, which is why religious zealots, UFO cultists, and Native Americans all paid close attention to the place.  

Somewhat miraculously, their son returns, after a long and chaotic search. The media begins paying attention to this little part of the desert, causing considerable hell to the now reunited family. Raj, however, somehow has recovered from his autism upon his return. Jaz can’t bear to not know what happened to his son and why he is better; he doesn’t believe it, and suspects foul-play. He wonders if Raj was abducted by aliens, or worse, something supernatural.

“‘I can’t put a finger on it. It’s as if—as if something’s wearing his skin’” (365).

Lisa however, is just happy to have her son back.

“The lesson she’d learned (this was another part of the work, to see what had happened as a lesson, as something from which she could gain, instead of a wound that went almost to the bond and would probably never heal) was that knowledge, true knowledge, is the knowledge of limits, the understanding that at the heart of the world, behind or beyond or above or below, is a mystery into which we are not meant to penetrate” (353).

A Larger Narrative

Photo by Kevin Dooley

Kunzru embraces a wide and diverse cast of characters in order to further the point that the focus isn’t the characters but rather the setting. Like an ancillary character says in the novel, the goal is

“to be part of something bigger than [oneself]” (161).

The narrative of a family losing and regaining a son is only augmented by the cast of characters. It shows that the anchor of the story is the Mojave, not the characters themselves.

Overall, I found the book to be exhilarating. At first, I found the large cast of characters to be incredibly confusing. But, once Gods Without Men got rolling, so to speak, the larger narrative was fascinating. It certainly helped that the backdrop of the desert was always consistent. Kunzru does a marvelous job of transporting you to The Pinnacles, and the vast expanse of the desert. He gives the reader an amazing experience, perhaps forcing them to ponder the meaning of it all. If you’re a fan of Jennifer Egan, or novels of the sort, you simply need to read Gods Without Men.

Verdict: 4 out of 5
What do you think? Did you enjoy the novel, or did you find the plethora of characters to be too confusing? Do you enjoy the desert? Does it make you feel small? Share your thoughts below.

Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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