(This review was originally published in the Washington Independent Review of Books on March 19, 2012.)
Astronaut David Bowman, after painfully decommissioning the charming rogue supercomputer HAL as they approach Jupiter’s moon Iapetus in the 1968 film 2001 A Space Odyssey, confronts a space oddity. To those of us who saw the epic movie by Stanley Kubrick eight or nine times back in the day, this is the psychedelic part—the trip, where Bowman whooshes through time, above and beyond, weaving his way through the star gate, a mysterious transition point between normal time, space and matter and who knows what. In the novel by Arthur C. Clark (from which the film was adapted), Bowman utters his last words to an uncomprehending Mission Control, “my God—it’s full of stars!”
And with those words as an epigraph, so begins British author Hari Kunzru’s marvelous time machine hall of mirrors, the intellectually voracious novel Gods Without Men. Think Close Encounters meets Voltaire meets reality TV—an entertaining battle between the Enlightenment of reason—just the facts, ma’am—and Romantic we’re-not-alone-in-the-universe mystery. It’s about knowing. And not knowing.
The novel is centered on the remote, high desert northeast of LA, the Mojave, a place of desolate mystery—a dusty motel and the Pinnacles, an immense, three-spired geologic stone formation where grizzled desert rats, misfits, UFOs and seekers have been drawn for centuries. Jaz and Lisa Matharu, he a young, brilliant financial engineer and mathematician of Sikh heritage having trouble coming to grips with the take-no-prisoners amoral ways of Wall Street in pre-crisis 2008, she a secular Jew with no use for superstition or mystical hoo-ha, are on a repair-the-marriage family vacation trip to the desert. An off-road attempt to rekindle marital magic. They turn their backs for a moment and their six year-old, autistic son Raj, the primary source of family stress, disappears. The marriage crumbles. National media attention ensues, headlines and, ultimately, suspicion. This is the core narrative thread—what happened to Raj?
It is Sam Shepard territory, or that of country rocker Gram Parsons (truckers, cowboy angels, crystal meth, overdose death, a seedy desert motel in Joshua Tree)—or as Balzac wrote, “In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing…It is God without men.” Unknowable. Fearful. Chaotic—completely against the cerebral grain of New York-rational Jaz or Lisa, though both begin to unravel and change. Besides the story of Raj’s disappearance—did he wander off, was he taken by coyotes or was he abducted by drug addicts or maybe even by aliens, the space people worshiped by the oddball Ashtar Galactic Command commune—Kunzru injects this waste land with echoing tales woven together over many years, all in this place. Tales of shape-shifting trickster Coyote, a lone, sun-addled Spanish friar of 1775, a Sixties hippie chick commune survivor, a British rocker of 2008 on the lam from reality and a World War I-damaged anthropologist of 1920 studying the tribes in the Land of the Dead, are all finely networked by a skein of luminous connections, littered with allusions and legend, Kabbalah reminiscent of Eliot, Pynchon or Gaddis.
Kunzru beautifully captures the voice, tone and melody of each time and place, from the diary of the Spanish friar to today’s Park Slope, Brooklyn to Nicky, the pale and scrawny British popstar. Like Coyote, Kunzru’s prose assumes many shapes—he do the desert in different voices. Here’s Nicky on the road to the motel California:
“LA faded away into a thankless dead landscape. You couldn’t call it desert, really. It was waste ground, the city’s backyard, a dump for all the ugly things it didn’t want to have to look at. Warehouses and processing plants. Pylon, pipelines. Broken things. Junk. There were whole junk towns, San this and San that, fuck all to them except concrete boxes to live in, concrete lots in front of concrete malls for all the little junk people to go and buy things.”
Then, in a haunting chapter set in 2008 Wall Street, Jaz is having qualms about his firm’s creation of a vast mathematical system of everything, a powerful computer model designed to scoop the global market. Like the mad 18th century French philosophes, all can be known. Entropy can be tamed. The system, known as Walter, has already made big profits in trial runs, trashing one or two insignificant world markets. Jaz’s boss, Cy Bachmann, is gearing up for the big time, undaunted, though he too shows signs of the mystic. Cy says:
“‘We’re juxtaposing things, listening for echoes…we’re hunting for jokes…parapraxis. Cosmic slips of the tongue. They’re the key to the locked door. They’ll help us discover it.’
‘The face of God. What else would we be looking for.’”
In a Borgesian move, Cy then shows Jaz and Lisa, his 16th century Antwerp copy of The Zohar, Luria’s Tree of Life, founding documents of the modern Kabbalah. Lisa is enthralled. Jaz is horrified. Cy says:
“For a Kabbalist, the world is made of signs. That’s not some postmodern metaphor—it’s meant literally. The Torah existed before the creation of the world and all creation emanates from its mystical letters.”
Echoing back to the Galactic Ashtar loons in the desert, their signs and portents, the high elect of Wall Street and the low preterite intersect. Everything is woven together.
Kunzru, however, does not allow the novel to descend into obscure arcana. The story clips along, bouncing from century to century, year to year. The cold reality of 21st century life, however, always flows close beneath the rocks and stones, near the surface:
“Soon Coyote’s crystal was running all over the desert, into every trailer and jackrabbit homestead, turning the people into hungry ghosts: mouths the size of a needles’ eye, stomachs like mountains; nothing could ever fill them up. Meth soaked its way along highways and train tracks, through drains and power-lines and TV cables, into the very fabric of the houses where the tweakers lived. Meth in the air vents, in the furniture, caking the walls of the microwaves where they cooked their children’s food.”
Dave Bowman, that 2001 astronaut, ends up in a bizarre Louis XIV-style hotel room, baffling audiences—mystifying, unknowable. Similarly, Hari Kunzru’s cerebral and knowing novel, like all fine fiction, in the end, is about not knowing.