Published in 2011, Gods Without Men is a multi-timed, multifaceted story of a stretch of desert that seems to draw mysterious forces to it. In the 1700’s a Franciscan Friar attempts to bring Christianity to scattered tribes of local Indians. The area that the friar operates from is near three pinnacles of rock which, to the friar, seem to represent the Holy Trinity.
In the 1800’s a prospector comes to the same area to dig for silver and to uncover a different truth. Truth about lights in the sky and what they mean. He wants to communicate with Gods more ancient than the friar’s God.
Another man and his wife are studying a local Indian tribe. He is trying to learn their history and their ancient stories. He leaves his wife to collect these stories and she falls in love with one of the braves in the tribe.
In the 1940’s another man is drawn to the silver mine. He transmits signals aimed at the sky. His message is “welcome.” He waits for someone or something to arrive, drawn by his peaceful transmission.
In the 1970’s a group of UFO worshipping hippies build a commune at the site. They develop their own “new” religion and it deals with the terrors of nuclear devastation and help from celestial bodies and power that can be channelled at the site.
In 2008 a young English rock musician is in LA. Becoming disillusioned with the direction that his band is heading, he does a runner. High on drugs, he steals one of his manager’s guns and drives through the desert until he reaches the area of the three pinnacles.
A young Punjabi man and his family arrive at the same time as the musician. The young man’s family is coming apart, mainly because of their extremely autistic son. They wind up staying in the same hotel as the awol musician. A hotel that is on its last legs, but one that is so full of vacancies that the young family won’t have to move on because of complaints about their son.
While visiting the rocks, the young family’s autistic son goes missing. This “special” place in the desert is descended upon by waves of media vans, reporters, and police. Despite searching for weeks, all traces of the boy have vanished and the searchers end up empty-handed.
Hari Kunzru weaves these stories and their time periods masterfully. Each timeline and its occupants effect and touch one another. It is though all times are occurring at once. The thread that seems to pull all these together is the presence of a force or power that is not of this world. Someone once said of Alfred Hitchcock that he was an enigma wrapped in a mystery (or vice versa) and that is what Hari has done with his novel.
At 283 pages it is not a long novel, but it is involved and intricate. Each time period, which Hari intertwines and overlaps with no chronological order, serves to cloud the issue of what is actually out there at the three rock towers.
It seems that most of Kunzru’s cast of characters are drawn to the area in search of something bigger than life; a force that either comes from outer space or from the Indian spirit world or from another dimension.
In 2008 a young Iraqi girl and her brother live with their uncle and aunt at the edge of this desert. The girl and her uncle are hired to help train military personnel at a simulated Iraqi village. It is while she is there participating in the training exercise that she finds something that will change a lot of people’s lives.
Hari Kunzru has been compared to Kurt Vonnegut as well as other eclectic modern writers. But it is Vonnegut that he most resembles in his writing style. Not to say that he is emulating “Father” Kurt, but that his story telling is slightly reminiscent of the great writer’s own.
The book, despite moving forward and backward in time, flows smoothly and finishes on a note that would make Hitchcock proud. Like the film ending of The Birds, you are left with a sense of time suspended waiting for the dust to settle before the events speed back up and continue on their odd path.
Gods Without Men is a curious blend of science fiction, folklore, fantasy and even, to a degree, mystery. By the time I finished the book, I felt like I should immediately turn back to the first page and read it again. I felt that I might have missed something; missed some vital clue as to why the book ended the way it did. I felt the need to see if Kunzru did indeed mean for the book to end this way.
Despite my confusion at the end of the book, I thoroughly enjoyed the journey that Kunzru took me on. Or perhaps I should say journeys, because the cast of players each had a journey to undertake and without these separate jaunts, the main storyline would not have existed.
I would have to say that Gods Without Men is a 5 out of 5 stars for just the journeys alone.