At the start of Hari Kunzru’s sprawling and ambitious fourth novel, Gods Without Men (Knopf, 374 pages, $26.95), we are introduced to an aircraft engineer called Schmidt, a man obsessed with how to “connect the mysteries of technology with those of the spirit.” Taking refuge in the desert, Schmidt builds an airstrip in order to “summon the only force powerful enough to transcend communism and capitalism.” This force is not political but extraterrestrial and it doesn’t take long before a UFO lands at his amateur airport. Mr. Kunzru describes first contact between Schmidt and the extraterrestrials rather like a colonial encounter between glittering conquistadors and awe-struck, adoring natives. These Aryan aliens, all “blond hair,” translucently pale skin and “noble faces,” seem to transport Schmidt into a world of light. From this point, Gods Without Men jumps backward and forward from 1775 to the present and features (among other things) psychedelic reworkings of the Indian coyote myth, a disappearing child and a simulacrum of the war in Iraq. Unifying these disparate events are “the three pinnacles,” an unusual rock formation that acts as the organizing symbol of the novel, drawing together a compelling aggregate of dysfunctional characters and clashing belief systems.
So far, so strange, but Mr. Kunzru uses his source material well. Schmidt and his UFO landing strip is no invention. The character is based on George Van Tassel, a mechanic and flight engineer who quit his job after World War II and set out—like many would-be mystics—for the desert. He settled in the Mojave, near a place called Giant Rock, a huge boulder considered sacred by native tribes. Van Tassel was first told about the location of the rock from a prospector called Frank Critzer, a crazed German-American who excavated a small mine near the boulder and eventually died there, blowing himself up with dynamite while under siege from local police who suspected he might be a spy. Mr. Kunzru reworks this scene toward the end of the novel, exploiting the historical unknowns behind the event to good effect. Troubled by the threat of nuclear war, Van Tassel—like Mr. Kunzru’s character—built a small airstrip near the rock where he claimed he was visited by aliens. His apocalyptic ravings attracted followers and Van Tassel began to organize UFO conventions, forming a cult around his supposed ability to telepathically channel messages from what he called “Ashtar Command,” a benevolent extraterrestrial intelligence that sought to dissuade mankind from atomic Armageddon. The Ashtar Command cult still exists—it has a confusing website overloaded with pop-up ads for all sorts of New Age remedies, a Star Trek religion where outer space is heaven and aliens are angels.
It’s easy to laugh at such nonsense but Mr. Kunzru employs these factual details as an intriguing starting point for what turns out to be a powerful excavation of the frayed nerves of New Age America. Whether dealing in UFOs, Indian legends or derivative trading systems, Gods Without Men is a novel about the need for faith in a fragmented, postmodern world shorn of grand narratives and credible belief systems.
Despite its ambitious set-up, the novel takes a while to find its feet. Some of the opening sections—particularly the story of Nicky, a disillusioned and debauched British rock star who runs off into the desert because he misses his supermodel girlfriend—are indulgent and unconvincing. The narrative comes alive when we are introduced to Indian-American Jaz, his Jewish-American wife, Lisa, and their autistic son, Raj. Mr. Kunzru uses Jaz and Lisa to develop a series of thematic counterpoints that question the role of faith in shaping identity. The cult of Ashtar Command is clearly absurd, but what of Lisa’s Judaism or the pressure from Jaz’s Sikh parents? Are we to mock these first-generation migrants who worry their son will lose all connection with his ethnic self in the New World? Mr. Kunzru’s previous novels have explored the contradictions of postcolonial identity and he shows himself similarly expert at representing the tensions of immigrant America. He portrays the delicate compromises and negotiations Lisa and Jaz have had to make to balance their relationship against the more atavistic pressures of creed and culture with insight and sensitivity. Unfortunately, Raj’s profound autism upsets his parents’ cosmopolitan aspirations. Unable to accept that his condition is untreatable, Lisa turns to books about “self healing, positive visualisation” and hides her reading of New Age pamphlets from her more skeptical husband, “like an Eastern bloc dissident poring over samizdat copies of Havel or Solzhenitsyn.” Jaz is a geek turned trader who “made his living building mathematical models to predict and trade on every kind of catastrophe” but Raj’s autism—and then his mysterious disappearance near the three pinnacles—suggests that even the apparent certainties of mathematics are deceptive.
One of the novel’s most interesting diversions explores Jaz’s work with Cy Bachman, a messianic hedge fund manager who has developed a modeling system called Walter. Like an advanced version of the cosmic communication systems built by the hippies at Ashtar Command, Walter is more than just a computer. It is a system “trained not simply to exploit some temporary price disparity, but to identify and track entirely ad hoc constellations of five, six, seven variables, brief but dazzling phenomena, lightning flashes of correlation”—an attempt, in fact, at a “theory of everything.” Mr. Kunzru has a lot of fun with this idea and soon the Walter program is shorting the Honduran economy and plotting the Dow Jones against “phases of Saturn.” Showing how complex derivative trading systems push mathematical theory into the realms of superstition, Mr. Kunzru undermines our present faith in the free market and reveals the irrational motivations behind ostensibly logical economic models.
Although Lisa looks to unusual diets and New Age therapies to alleviate her son’s condition, she is outraged when she finds Raj wearing a Punjabi charm to him given by her mother-in-law. Upset, she charges off into the desert, precipitating a chain of events that ends with Raj’s disappearance and a Madeleine McCann-style ordeal-by-media for his parents. Although these scenes are credible and the parents’ pain is well drawn, it is hard for the reader to really care what happens to Raj. His miraculous return (which by now the reader can anticipate) is given a further twist as Mr. Kunzru pushes his parents’ already shattered belief systems beyond the breaking point. Hailing Raj’s return as a miracle, Lisa embraces her Judaism and becomes an editor “for a small imprint that specialized in esoteric and mystical books.” In contrast, Jaz is consumed with the fear that his son has been replaced by an alien double. As he takes his family on a final, terrifying quest for a truth that never comes, so his wife reflects on the “blacks and Latinos” she would see reading their Bibles on their way to work: “She’d always felt—not above, exactly, but far away from such people. Now she wished she had her own dog-eared familiar book, something she could clutch in her hand as they made their terrible journey.” Again, the need for a tangible faith manifests itself in a world overwhelmed by uncertainty.
Around this central narrative Mr. Kunzru weaves an array of competing stories, turning the novel into a kaleidoscope of clashing perspectives. We have the slow decline of the UFO community as peace and love turns into drugs and despair. There are shades of Leslie Silko and Cormac McCarthy in the story of an ethnographers’ attempt to record Indian legends, while his wife’s infidelity with one of her subjects ends in a bloody showdown in the mysterious zone of the pinnacle. In one of the most compelling chapters, an Iraqi girl, eager to embrace American pop culture, finds herself living in a mock Iraqi village built in the desert for the purpose of counterinsurgency training. She must perform a disturbing simulation of the war she fled: “When violence was on the menu the villagers had to wear special harnesses over the traditional clothing, so the laser guns could register hits.” The unreality of the set-up and the absurdity of the enterprise allow Mr. Kunzru to quietly satirize another faith—the veracity and credibility of American foreign policy.
Juggling all these different strands Mr. Kunzru maintains pace and excitement but sometimes at the expense of style. The need to manage so much material frequently leads him to summarize, and many characters are insufficiently developed, their perspectives somewhat flattened by the rather slick, overarching narrative voice. Mr. Kunzru shows how despair, dysfunction and boredom drive people to embrace the absurdity of Ashtar Command, but the distance between character and point of view prevents us from really understanding the deeper, psychological attractions. Other ideas blur together as the UFOs are gradually eclipsed by Indian myths and mysterious glowing boys. Are these lost children alien intruders or reflections of the character’s own desire to believe in something? In the end, the different plot strands never quite cohere and we are left hanging, waiting for an answer. But by now we know this is the point and such openness is something to admire rather than criticize. In a world full of clashing ideologies, Mr. Kunzru shows that all we have left is uncertainty. Gods Without Men stands out as a courageous attempt to engage with the complexities of faith and doubt in our postmodern world.