Books: In the Desert, Lose All and Find Yourself

August 9, 2012

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.