Deep in the Mojave Desert wastelands of Southeastern California is a vast dried lake bed, a leftover from prehistoric times when a salt sea covered the area. Most would pass it by as no more than a landmark as explorers, hunters or pioneers made their way through the inhospitable terrain. The blazing white salt bed offers no water or shade, save the three rock pinnacles reaching skyward from its center. These fingers of stone have been variously described, depending on the viewer, as the Holy Trinity, an antenna to other gods, or to spaceships. Beneath the pinnacles is a small cave that enticed the more adventurous to explore its dark recess.
"Kunzru breaks every formulaic rule in the book, putting GODS WITHOUT MEN in a genre all by itself. It’s not a book easily forgotten, and it may haunt you after you’ve closed the final pages."
GODS WITHOUT MEN is, in a very literal sense, a trip. Author Hari Kunzru takes us on a hopscotch journey from the post-World War II UFO craze, to the 18th-century pilgrimage of a Franciscan priest, to a World War I veteran who seeks communion with the gods. We meet a 21st-century burnt-out rock star and a nuevo-riche hedge fund manager and his family. We spend time in a 1960s hippie commune replete with LSD, peyote buttons, gurus and transcendentalists. The 19th-century silver miner, his brain fried by mercury poisoning from brewing his amalgam of chemicals to extract precious metals from his mining claim, is not far removed from the meth cookers and tweakers of modern times. The only continuing character throughout the novel is the famed trickster Coyote in the form of an ageless man, who survives all adversity to seduce seekers to join him through the ages.
While driving through the west on vacation, a well-to-do young Manhattan couple and their four-year-old autistic son check into a run-down motel in a windswept trailer town near the Pinnacles. Jaz and Lisa Matharuhave been repeatedly asked to leave much nicer accommodations on their cross-country trip because of Raj’s disruptive behavior. The motel, operated by an aging hippy in the raggedy trailer town near the Pinnacles, is nearly empty, except for a burned-out rock star seeking anonymity, who looks more like a homeless person than a tabloid celebrity. Jaz and Lisa decide to visit a nearby national monument, which is what the Pinnacles have become by 2008. The shadowy past of the rock formation and the surrounding town has avoided publicity for the bizarre incidents occurring over the years, probably because of its isolation. Even the people who have been affected by the mysterious power that has drawn them to this desolate place have quietly subsided into history. A Marine base has grown up on the outskirts of town, whose main attraction is now a diner shaped like a flying saucer --- a remnant of the UFO craze of the 1940s.
Raj’s parents decide to explore the Pinnacles at the National Monument. Raj, napping in his stroller, is parked under a tree while Jaz and Lisa stroll to the top to check out the view. When they look back, the stroller is empty and Raj is gone --- vanished without a trace. He is not the first to have disappeared as if in thin air from the Pinnacles, but these incidents were long ago when child abductions were not the fodder of the modern media. It is not a spoiler to let the reader know that Raj returns after a few months --- unhurt, but completely changed. He has no memory of what happened or where he has been.
This book first hit the bestseller list in the United Kingdom in 2011 and is now debuting in the United States. Hari Kunzru’s vivid writing and complicated plotting is not the stuff of pop literature. It’s a bit like watching a story play out on several different channels on television --- as if you are surfing through the story, picking up pieces of information that will ultimately fit together. GODS WITHOUT MEN is a challenging but satisfying read. Its award-winning status and provocative content may find it becoming a popular discussion piece for reading groups and college writing classes.
Kunzru breaks every formulaic rule in the book, putting GODS WITHOUT MEN in a genre all by itself. It’s not a book easily forgotten, and it may haunt you after you’ve closed the final pages. Although it’s a work of fiction, the location of the rock formation and mystical experience described was chronicled by a Franciscan friar in 1778 on a mission to convert the savages.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on March 15, 2012
Gods Without Men