The Mojave Desert presents a challenge: it does not bend to human will nor does it aid those attempting to tame or explore its landscape. The desert holds its secrets close. This harsh, mysterious place serves as the primary setting in God Without Men, a unique translit novel of interconnected stories by Hari Kunzru.
The chapters leap several hundred years forward and backwards between storylines with clean breaks and few transitions. Readers are introduced to characters through this disjointed structure, such as Laila, a depressed Iraqi immigrant who escaped to the United States only to end up on a military base helping Marines train for the war against her homeland. There is also Nicky Capaldi, an arrogant addict and rock star, and Dawn, a woman whose youth was spent in a cult bent on discovering extraterrestrial life. At first, their connection to one another is not easy to discern, yet their lives seem to cross in the same place -- Pinnacle Rock, an eerie rock formation whose energy seems to repel and draw in them all.
While readers become acquainted with these numerous characters, the main storyline surrounds the Matharu family. Jaz and Lisa are a married couple on the rocks; their different backgrounds (Jaz is first-generation Indian American and Lisa is Jewish) combined with the stress from raising their son Raj, a young boy with autism, seems to have drained their enthusiasm and interest in one another. The family decides to vacation in the Mojave desert in California, but the trip rapidly unravels when Raj mysteriously disappears and Raj’s parents are thrown under intense public scrutiny. Many characters and plot lines are entwined with the Matharus by an almost supernatural happenstance, reinforcing the idea that we live in an integrative, interconnected world. Collisions between characters keep the plot moving and suspenseful, if confusing at times. An incredible twist occurs when the case seems to run cold, but no further spoilers will be given in this review.
Photo of the Author by Michael Lionstar
Raj Matharu’s disappearance and strange transformation is slowly fleshed out, but does not connect with other side stories until the middle of the novel, several pages too many for less patient readers. The build-up is worth the wait, but may be a structural weakness to the work. However, detectives might find this arrangement to be a strength, allowing one to collect clues and delve into the stories across time for answers.
Gods Without Men pushes already dense topics to deeper, more personal and metaphysical realms. Kunzru’s characters are multilayered beings filled with doubts, arrogance, hopes, and personality. Their internal struggles, desperate acts, and vibrancy parallel the physicality of the Mojave Desert, with its grittiness, unending horizon, and the radiant coloration at sunrise. For example, a disenchanted rockstar threatens to commit suicide to a long-distant, indifferent lover, and his only selfless actions result in near imprisonment. Jaz Matharu is a mathematical mastermind, but is insecure about his marriage to Lisa. He maintains a painful over-awareness of their different cultures and often feels undeserving and uninteresting to her. Yearning, lost souls like cult-members Dawn and Judy live on the verge of salvation and simultaneous self-destruction under the lure of a hippie commune found by a religious cult.
Sometimes Gods Without Men is intellectual, and at times, base -- flashes of genitalia, defecation, and crass language are intermittent with detailed narration. His characters explore heavy topics like autism, parenting style, multiculturalism, drugs, racism, ethnic identity, homophobia, murder, and misogyny, and lighter fare like art history, sexual promiscuity, aliens, and celebrity lifestyles. Kunzru’s breadth of knowledge and easy, matter-of-fact style is compelling and honest, leaving Gods Without Men as a refreshing addition to anyone’s summer reading list.
Rachel Pong is a freelance writer who writes about literature, technology, and lifestyle topics. She graduated summa cum laude with a master of arts degree in Counseling. Her blog is Chi Speak.
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