Thursday, March 15, 2012

Book Review: Gods Without Men, by Hari Kunzru

If you have read any reviews of Hari Kunzru's fourth novel, Gods Without Men, then you already know that it consists of a number of overlapping stories, each of which takes place near a rock formation in the Mojave Desert known as "The Pinnacles."  Some of the stories are as old as Indian legend.  Others are more recent, including the central story, that of  a hedge fund quant who travels to the desert with his wife and his autistic son as the global financial markets begin to crash.

Significantly, the stories have more in common than simply the setting.  Characters from one story re-appear in other stories.  And so do various happenings, including killings, alien sightings, and disappearing children.  Good and bad occur, but the white hot desert is implacable.

Given the novel's structure, several reviewers have linked this novel to David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, although I think the similarity is superficial at best.  While Kunzru moves between voices, he doesn't shift between genres, and the concerns that he highlights are more metaphysical than metaliterary.  (The better comparison would be to Mitchell's earlier novel, Ghostwritten.)

At first, it felt to me that Kunzru had something profound he wanted to share about human searching and interconnectedness -- something that perhaps he felt could not be said directly, but would only be revealed by piecing together the book's scattered coincidences.  But as the book progressed, I unfortunately concluded that Kunzru was playing the same trick as the X-Files television series -- simply laying down an ever expanding series of connections so that it feels like there is some central truth at the core (if only the audience is intelligent enough to understand) when in fact there is none. 

But nevertheless, oh boy Kunzru can write.  Even with all of the dovetailing, many of the stories feel historically perfect, such as that of Francisco Garces, a Franciscan friar who leads the mission at San Xavier del Bac.  In the other tales, however, Kunzru simply lets his imagination fly such as in the tale of the renegage Mormon vigilante, Nephi Parr.  Here, Kunzru veers into Cormac McCarthy territory as Parr begins to feel the effects of mercury poisoning :
As he rode he raised his hand to his face and saw the bones glowing inside it and a coyote howled and the sun shone through the palm of his hand like glass.  And by this he knew his body was shrugging off its animal nature it and it would soon come time to make the crossing. Oh God, he whispered, hear the words of my mouth; and the whole jumble of his life wheeled round him, bare running feet cut bloody by winter stubble, a cutlass and a fiery wheel and a camel and a steamboat bolted together on the floodplain of the Colorado.
The writing is equally strong as Kunzru describes UFO cults, Iraqi immigrants, and hedge fund software.  If nothing else, Gods Without Men is a page turner:  I finished the 370 pages in just a few sittings.  If you've read it, let us know what you think! 

Related posts:
Gods Without Men, by Hari Kunzru


  1. I like your review too. Thanks for visiting my blog.

  2. I absolutely loved this book. It look me a while to really get into it, but once I did, it was a propulsive ride, one that kept me up past my bedtime because I just didn't want to put the kindle down without having completed a section. An excellent, insightful writer.

    While I understand what you're saying about the stories hinting at a connection between things in the manner of the X-Files (I have my own thoughts on that series, mainly that series like this and Lost need to tease around without revealing a larger meaning in order to keep people coming back week after week), I think that the lack of a "central truth at the core" is the point: it's almost as if the book should have been named Men without Gods. That to me was the most powerful thing about the ending of the Jax/Lisa storyline: the entire book you've had these people searching for something to believe in, only to find out that nothing is out there. Or at least it's nothing that they're prepared to receive! I find Kunzru's ambiguity here fascinating - in one respect he seems to be saying that there are indeed gods that are living among us, but with the exception of the sections where we directly see Coyote, all of the interfaces between the physical and ethereal realms could be seen as the result of wishful thinking, drugs, mercury poisoning, hallucinations, etc.

    Anyways, it's a book that sticking with me. So much so that I'll type up my thoughts on the novel shortly. Good stuff!