“Gods Without Men” is an oddly discombobulating novel that traverses time and space and yet remains firmly rooted in one spot in the Mojave desert, the Pinnacles. The novel juxtaposes the stories of an 18th century friar, a Mormon miner in the 19th century, a World War Two vet who believes in UFOS, a young girl in thrall of a cult that worships extra-terrestrials, an anthropologist documenting Native cultures who in a fit of jealousy unleashes an angry white mob on the Native community, and a Sikh American mathematician and his Jewish wife with an autistic son, a doped out British rock star, and a young Iraqi girl working on a military simulation project in the middle of the desert. All of these narratives are linked to the rock formation the Pinnacles, which resembles three spires and where the characters in all these stories have had some spiritual experience that opens up an understanding of the Divine.
The main plot story that anchors the novel in 2008 and 2009 is that of Jaz Matharu and his wife Lisa. Jaz is a second generation Sikh American who has moved away from his religious traditions and assimilated into American culture. His wife is an American Jew with a secular upbringing and the couple, for all their secularism, still hold strongly to some aspects of their respective religious cultures. They have an autistic son and their narrative examines the agonies of raising an autistic child and the toll it takes on the couple’s relationships with each other. Jaz is a mathematician who creates a program for predicting financial trades that allows his employer to manipulate global stock and currency markets for enormous profit. His work might have caused the Honduran economy to collapse and may have influenced the Wall street crash of 2008. Jaz and Lisa take a vacation to the desert with their son and he mysteriously disappears. After several days of searching, police investigations, intense media scrutiny, and Lisa’s emotional breakdown, the couple return to New York. Several months later, their son is miraculously found in a secure military facility by the Iraqi girl role—playing in military simulation exercises. The couple discover after the child is returned that he is recovering from his autism and making significant developmental gains. While Lisa accepts this as a miracle, Jaz is tormented by questions and is persuaded that his son is not quite who they think he is. While the novel ends ambiguously, the juxtapositioning of all these stories suggests that some chosen people have experienced God in the area of the Pinnacles and glimpsed another world. For the Spanish friar of the 18th century that was a Christian God, for the 19th century Mormon, the Angel Moroni, for Schmidt in the 1940s that was intelligent life from another planet, for the anthropologist it was a Native American mythical figure. We never know what Raj may or may not have experienced and we could either embrace Jaz’s paranoia or Lisa’s mysticism to explain the disappearance.
Kunzru’s narrative is riveting and intellectually demanding for the reader. The novel plays with the reader’s desire to interpret and question what happens and whether there is extra-terrestrial life and/or mystical experiences. The reader, depending on his/her religious and scientific sensibility, is likely to find some spiritual experiences more credible than others, but Kunzru’s narrative doesn’t allow for certitudes, isms, or singlular interpretations. The reader is left with more questions than those he/she began with.
Hari Kunzru reads for Seattle Arts and Lectures at Benaroya Hall on October 23. For details, please go to www.lectures.org.