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Hari Kunzru: Gods Without Men

I don’t know what happened in the UK in 2011 (or, rather, 2009-2010 when, presumably these books were written), but several well-known British writers published books that were definitely below their usual standard. A L Kennedy and Graham Swift were two examples and here is another one. Kunzru has taken a group of rocks in California he calls the Pinnacles, though presumably based on the rocks in the Mojave Valley> near the town of Needles. These rocks were visited by Fray Francisco Garcés in the 1770s and we get two reports of his. The rest of the novel is the stories of fictitious characters from 1871 to the present day (i.e. 2008 and 2009) who have some association with these rocks.

Some of the characters are Native Americans (presumably from the Chemehuevi Tribe) and they consider this land to be holy. Indeed, there seems to be a sort of Valhalla nearby, where dead warriors go but try to escape by tricking the living to come in and take their place. We also meet Coyote, a trickster from Native American mythology, who will appear throughout the story at all periods. Other characters are those who believe that this is a place where humans can communicate with extraterrestrials (much is made of its proximity to Area 51, though Area 51 is well over a 100 miles distant from Needles), both as regards connections with the UFO phenomenon and the top secret military base. We see various people”communicating” with extraterrestrials and others who are led to believe that such communication takes place. Linked to this phenomenon, it is also a place where various hippies, exponents of free love and drug-users congregate, often to the disgust of the locals, who drive them out, legally and illegally, from time to time. There are two other groups there. Firstly, there is the military base, which is very secure and also used as a training area for recruits going to fight in Iraq. Secondly, there is a group of Iraqis, living in a mock Iraqi village, whose role is to help the trainees learn how to deal with Iraqis in a real village. All the Iraqis are given specific roles, e.g. pro- or anti-US, and have to act these out. The fake insurgents, however, are played by US soldiers. Last and possibly least, there is Nick Capaldi, a singer from a modern English rock band who has fled L.A. and his band in a fit of anger because his girlfriend, a model, has broken off with him and he is now hiding out in the desert.

While all these stories link in to one another and are told gradually, with various characters disappearing and reappearing later, there is one main story, set in 2008 and 2009. It concerns Jaz (short for Jaswinder) Matharu, his wife Lisa and their son Raj. Jaz is of Sikh origin but born and bred in the United States. Indeed, he has only visited India once, for three weeks, and he did not like it. Lisa is a Jewish-American, from a rich family. Both proclaim that their religion is not important to them (neither practise, at least initially). However, both try to insinuate their religion and cultural background into Raj’s upbringing and this is one of the more interesting sub-plots. Jaz is a very successful mathematician, working with a top Wall Street firm. Most recently he has been working on a computer model called Walter which predicts and links various trends – often nothing to do with finance – with financial trends. If it is successful – and, initially, it seems to be – it will enable his firm to successfully predict and capitalise on financial movements. Jaz and Lisa were enjoying life and doing very well till Raj was born. Raj has turned out to be autistic. He is now four and very difficult, unable to communicate and prone to violent tempers. This has put considerable strain on them, on their marriage and on Jaz’s job. They are all three on holiday near the Pinnacles, in the hope that his will help Raj. It does not appear to be doing so.

While we follow all these stories, a key event takes place. Jaz, Lisa and Raj are out walking near the Pinnacles and suddenly Raj disappears. They are unable to find him and nor are the police. This story is clearly influenced by the story of the disappearance of Madeline McCann, though differs in several details. Inevitably, some of the other stories will interact with Raj’s disappearance. The effect on Jaz and Lisa and their families, as well as on other characters is a key part of this book. But it doesn’t really work. The connections seem forced and, in some cases, are irrelevant. Indeed, it seems that Kunzru visited Needles and tried to cram all the Needles stories – the extraterrestrials, Native American myths, hippies, wasted English rock stars, top secret military base, redneck locals and other assorted oddities into a variation of the McCann story. You cannot really do that in a novel or, rather, to do so, you have to be very skilled, a James Joyce or a Thomas Pynchon, for example, and Kunzru, frankly, is not that good a novelist. Perhaps the second decade of the century is not working out for British writers or perhaps Kunzru should go back to doing good satire and pastiche and leave the novel of multiple converging plots to other nationalities.

Publishing history

First published 2011 by Hamish Hamilton