There is a moment in Hari Kunzru’s dizzying novel Gods Without Men that is absolutely, profoundly true. A moment that encapsulates everything great about this big American story that takes place between 1775 and 2009. Jaswinder, a young financial trader, is at a weekend getaway with his wife, his boss, and some coworkers. Jaswinder—who is most often referred to Jaz in Gods Without Men—has just learned his boss is not only gay but also with a man some decades his senior. Jaz’s Jewish wife is enjoying the couple, their collection of rare art, beautiful antiques, wine, their engrossing conversation full of wit and high-flung ideals. But Jaz, a poor kid from Baltimore who eschewed any social privilege to study-study-study, only with the hope of attending MIT, can’t bear the realization that those around him—his boss + the elderly lover, his wife—have nothing in common with him.
Why did a woman like that even want to be with him? What did she see? Nothing, at least not anymore. She’d obviously finally worked out the truth. That’s what it felt like. Palling around with his boss, making little remarks, talking all that intellectual Jew shit.
And there it was. The very bottom. A few drinks and out it came, a little diarrheic trickle of hate. Queers and Jews: he was no better than his uncles. A couple of years of college, a veneer of culture, but still just a boor, a frightened village boy with a chip on his shoulder.
Jaz’s resounding, defining epiphany comes with a thud. In a book that attempts, more than any other I’ve read in recent years, to encapsulate the American experience—methamphetamine, Twitter, American imperialism, the financial crisis, etc.—the most powerful moment of truth is a scene that refutes our country’s Seal, e pluribus unum. One government, yes. One president, yes. That that would extend to social situations wasn’t a concern for congress in 1782, and it doesn’t hold true in 2008, when Jaz finds himself drinking vodka on the beach, wondering how his ties to his uncles in the Punjab—whom he had long resented—had stayed hidden so long, how he can feel anything but ostracized in a Jewish, gay-friendly environment.
Gods Without Men is by any measure a serious accomplishment. Kunzru’s prose is clear—a necessity in a book that features multiple desert vignettes across such a vast period of time. Most importantly, however, Kunzru’s command and control of the story is remarkable (as evidenced by the thud-epiphany Jaz experiences on the beach).
Jaz and Lisa Matharu, along with son Raj, are at the heart of Gods Without Men. Raj’s autism has all but destroyed their marriage—their shared dreams of brownstone walk-ups, Sunday brunches, dinner parties dashed by the reality of Raj’s condition. In search of some tranquility, the two travel to Phoenix, flying to LA and driving through the desert. Chased out of hotels less willing to put up with Raj’s loud fits, the Matharus settle on a rundown motel in the western stretch of the Mojave Desert.
There they encounter various characters — Nicky Capaldi, an English rock star fleeing LA and the pressures of stardom, the motel’s owner Dawn, an ex-cult member. In various chapters, Kunzru introduces us to the back-stories of Capaldi and Dawn, how they came to be near the Matharus, and how their intertwine with the “Pinnacle Rocks.” (Some reviewers have pointed out that Kunzru’s Pinnacles are the Trona Pinnacles.)
Beyond Capaldi and Dawn, we learn about the Ashtar Galactic Command (the aforementioned cult), its many members, and their experiences with UFOs. We track the Command from its origins to its demise, run off the rails by a leadership consumed with LSD and casual sex.
We learn about a fake Iraqi village constructed by the US army (for training purposes) called Wadi al-Hamam. US veterans teach soon-to-be-shipped-off soldiers how to conduct a war abroad without losing the “hearts and minds” of the population. Iraqi immigrants populate the village, each assigned roles: imam, mayor, insurgent, etc.
Others: a WWI veteran turned linguist who avenges his wife’s adultery by leading a hunt for her Native American lover, an eighteenth-century Spanish missionary who has a spiritual experience of sorts in the desert.
In each vignette is mystique. Sometimes death. Children disappear. What’s reinforced piece by piece is the feeling that the desert can be a wondrous place, sometimes wondrously awful.
For the Matharus, it is awful. After Jaz and Lisa fight, the two go out to the desert for a few minutes, leaving Raj behind in a stroller near their car. When they return, Raj is gone, setting off a media firestorm not unlike the one depicted in Emma Donoghue’s Room. (Some variables are different, obviously, but the whole personal grief-as-media sport thing is present.)
Miraculously — and I’d include a spoiler warning here if it weren’t for the fact that my ARC included this tidbit in the jacket copy — Raj turns up, unharmed, weeks later, after a period of severe grief that tests the strength of the Matharus’ marriage. But not only is Raj unharmed, his symptoms are, seemingly, gone. He begins to speak and behave. He no longer throws tantrums. He seems, actually, quite gifted.
Developments that lead Jaz to ask the question that everyone in Gods Without Men asks: Holy shit, what is out in that desert?
A lesser writer than Kunzru may have bungled the path taken in Gods Without Men. But the book is evidence of some exquisitely tactile skill. There’s a lot here. (I wish the Wadi al-Hamam story was, itself, a book. I’d read it.) And it’s kind of messy. But it’s worth the plundering.
If only because Gods Without Men is about different kinds of truth, all of which transcend time and place. There are hereditary truths, like Jaz’s realization that no matter how far from his upbringing he may feel, he still carries with him many family prejudices.
But then there are the truths people seek. Like, what’s out there? And can we find it in the desert? Truths people may never find, but won’t stop the looking for.