Although I’d been looking forward to reading Hari Kunzru’s fourth novel, Gods Without Men, from about the time I first heard of it (when it was being called The Pinnacles, imho a better title), it took a review in the Guardian to really start to get me giddy. The reviewer Theo Tait wrote:
Gods Without Men, Hari Kunzru’s rather extraordinary fourth novel, has the countercultural, mind-expanding feel of a late-1960s US campus hit – something by Kurt Vonnegut or Thomas Pynchon or Tom Wolfe.
If you follow Mr Tait’s advice and you approach Gods Without Men expecting Kunzru’s take on Vonnegut, Pynchon or even Wolfe, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Let me explain why.
I was going to say that the novel opens with a Neil Gaiman-esque preamble concerning a character called Coyote who could have stumbled out of Anansi Boys if Gaiman had been watching Breaking Bad at the time – but this isn’t strictly speaking true. The novels opens with three epigrams, two of which are not in English. This is a curious thing. Is Kunzru saying, I expect my readers to be familiar in other languages? Is Kunzru saying, I expect my readers to toddle off and use Babelfish to translate the point of what I’m attempting to get across? Howsoever you cut it, there is something mildly superior about the failure to translate.
From the get-go, a familiarity with and appreciation for David Mitchell (who praises the book, on the cover, for being ‘a beautifully written echo chamber of a novel’) will set you in good stead because what we have here (in this echo chamber) are a number of narratives, a number of narrators, not all of which follow a steady linear progression. The central narrative – if we can say that without betraying our bourgeois predilection for a beginning, a middle and an end – concerns a group of people who coincide at a motel in the Californian desert: Nicky, the frontman for a British rock band who appear to be in trouble, drafting in a Beck-manque to get them back on the tracks; and Jaz, Lisa and their autistic son Raj, a couple whose marriage is in poor shape thanks to the pressures placed upon them by the problematic child. Following a bad day and night for the married couple, Raj seemingly disappears in the middle of the desert and Jaz and Lisa find themselves subjected to an unravelling that isn’t a million miles away from what (we imagine) the McCann’s experienced in the wake of Madeleine’s disappearance some years ago.
But there is more to Gods Without Men than this. There is, to paraphrase Theo Tait, that ‘counter-cultural mind-expanding feel’. They key element of this is a storyline that runs between 1947 and 1971, told by a few different characters, centring on a trio of rocks out in the desert known as the Pinnacles. A group springs up devoted to the teachings of the Ashtar Galactic Command whose role is to try and heal the world one easily influenced barmpot at a time. Joanie, one of the inner circle, loses her daughter in 1958, only to have her returned to her some years later (perhaps), having revealed that she was abducted by the Ashtar Galactic Command themselves. Between 1958 and 1971, the commune experiences an arc somewhat akin to TC Boyle’s Drop City (in that it’s all about free love and dropping out until it’s all about drug dealing and domestic violence). The abducted daughter becomes an older woman who eventually owns the motel that Nicky, Jaz, Lisa and Raj stay in.
But there is more to Gods Without Men than even this: each chapter of Gods Without Men is titled with a year. Inbetween the two narratives outlined above are non-sequential chapters (from as far back as 1778) offering glimpses into how the Pinnacles came to be the way they came to be. These include Juan Arnulfo de Flores y Rojas (writing to His Excellency Teodoro Francisco de Croix, Commandante General of the Internal Provinces of the North), a man called Deighton who has a small subplot of his own, trying to learn from Indians, losing his wife, enacting a sordid revenge, a racist guy called Nephi Parr and a young Iraqi refugee busy recreating her home for the American military.
Now. Gods Without Men is undoubtedly busy but there is a sense in which the busyness is being used to mask the fact that Kunzru is not Pynchon. Kunzru is keen to bring his readers along with him, for one thing. Kunzru is also a little too straitlaced for another. Kunzru is not Pynchon. Kunzru is channelling David Mitchell more than he is channelling Pynchon. David Mitchell with a smidge of the freewheeling aspect of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. The competing narratives are also somewhat distracting and, at times, irritating. Look at me spinning plates, he seems to be saying. Look at me spinning plates out of order! Whooooooooooh! Not only am I spinning a lot of plates – look at me, look at me – I’m spinning them in a non-chronological order! Whoooooooooooh…. But Hari, a small child pipes up (a child you might remember from that crowd of sycophants who surrounded the emperor that day): what are you doing it all for? Why don’t you just tell a story?
So. ‘A rather extraordinary fourth novel’? Not quite. It’s a better novel than My Revolutions but it doesn’t hit the same heights as either The Impressionist or Transmission. What this is, in fact, is a novel that looks at the stars rather than inhabiting them, a novel that seems to have looked through the window at the science fiction section of the bookstore without actually picking any science fiction up, what this is, in the end, is something of a mixed bag.
Any Cop?: There are highs, undoubtedly (particularly in the conclusions that Jaz arrives at towards the close of the book), just as there are lows – and this has been borne out by the reviews. For every Theo Tait there are a handful of naysayers. We take no pleasure in joining the naysayers. But Gods Without Men doesn’t really do it for us…