34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Multi-layered story that distracts from an excellent story at its heart
Quite literally at the heart of Hari Kunzru's latest novel stands not a person, but strange geographical feature in the California desert - three large rocks known as "The Pinnacles". If you've ever looked at a feature of the landscape and wonder what it has meant to those who have gone before, then you will find a similar stance here. Kunzru's episodic narrative takes in...
Published on October 27, 2011 by Ripple
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Too Much and Not Enough
What an annoying, unsatisfying book. Kunzru wastes our time setting up a premise, or several premises - and then lacks the courage or imagination to resolve any of the questions he raises. I might flatter the author by hypothesizing that the absence of an ending or an explanation is itself the point: that the human condition is to spend our lives wandering in the...
Published on April 18, 2012 by A reader
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34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Multi-layered story that distracts from an excellent story at its heart,
Quite literally at the heart of Hari Kunzru's latest novel stands not a person, but strange geographical feature in the California desert - three large rocks known as "The Pinnacles". If you've ever looked at a feature of the landscape and wonder what it has meant to those who have gone before, then you will find a similar stance here. Kunzru's episodic narrative takes in various points in time from 1775 to 2009 all of which centre around this rock structure which has had different meanings for different generations. There are echoes of the past in each new version, but no more than that.
It's hugely ambitious, and much more so that the other Kunzru novels that I have read, although it shares with his other books the playful but insightful writing style. He's a writer that has a real feel for human nature. However, for me, it doesn't quite succeed in rising to its ambition. It leaps back and forward in time frame from chapter to chapter in a manner that is disorienting and I couldn't help wondering if it would have been more effective presented as discrete short stories that shared a similar stimulus - which is effectively what it is.
Where I was most frustrated though was in the imbalance of the weight and emotional connection to the different threads. By far the dominant thread surrounds the disappearance of an autistic son of a wealthy New York couple set in 2008. The story covers both the father and mother's side and the lead up to the disappearance and the subsequent media furore. It's frighteningly realistic and disturbing with real emotional heart. The problem as far at the book is concerned is that it is such a terrifically well told story that I started to yearn to return to these events when Kunzru wants to draw the reader back to another time.
The other main theme was, for me, less engaging. "The Pinnacles" became a focus for the hippy movement in the 1970s and a cult of extra-terrestrial worshipers gathered there. While this element of the book has more in terms of threads to the past and the present day, I was never emotionally engaged in the characters or their plight. It's just a weaker story than the child abduction thread.
Amongst the other elements to the book are a Spanish report from the 1770s about the progress of the missionary attempts to bring Christianity to the native American tribes in the area, the meaning of the rocks to the native American tribes and, once more in the recent past, the story of an English rockstar fleeing his debauched life and, briefly, a young Iraqi girl's role in a local marine camp where she role plays a middle east village for military training.
These last two threads are also potentially interesting but never really get played out to their full extent. Yes there are themes of displacement and abduction throughout, and there are some generational links of the families involved, but that aside, the sense I had was of a story broadening out without ever quite coming back together again.
If you are looking for a multi-layered, complex novel, then Kunzru's engaging writing makes this a good choice - in the hands of a lesser writer this could have been an unholy mess - but my overriding sense was one of frustration that the focus kept drifting from what would have made fascinating stories in their own right which was slightly disappointing.
29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book to be savoured and enjoyed..,
Beautifully written, this novel takes us on a journey through time, where we meet a diverse cast of characters all of whose lives are affected in some way by the location in which they find themselves, the empty and mysterious Californian desert.
Each of the various tales is lovingly told and our sympathy is demanded for, and easily given to, each of the characters: from the original Native American inhabitants, to the new-age followers of the UFO cult of the Ashtar Galactic Command, right up to the lost and lonely rock star of today. And our main sympathies lie with the young couple, Jaz and Lisa, whose autistic son, Raj, mysteriously disappears during a trip to the desert - a disappearance that echoes earlier incidents in the history of this strange place.
I think this is a book that may mean different things to different readers. For me, it was about the search for faith. The characters bring so many gods to the desert over the years, and it seems that the desert absorbs them and weaves them into its mystery. Each of the characters is fundamentally changed by their experiences in this place - their existing beliefs shaken by what happens to them there. But the book is not preaching a particular line - the overwhelming feeling left at the end is that, for the author as well as for some of the characters, the question of whether there is something beyond the rational remains unanswered, perhaps unanswerable.
This may make the book sound like a heavy read, but the wonderful prose, the fascinating tales, the occasional flashes of humour and, above all, the sympathetic characters all combine to make this a book to be both savoured and enjoyed.
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Too Much and Not Enough,
What an annoying, unsatisfying book. Kunzru wastes our time setting up a premise, or several premises - and then lacks the courage or imagination to resolve any of the questions he raises. I might flatter the author by hypothesizing that the absence of an ending or an explanation is itself the point: that the human condition is to spend our lives wandering in the desert seeking in vain for answers to the big existential questions, as we soothe ourselves with religion in the meantime. If the book were simply about the myriad ways that we delude ourselves into thinking there's something bigger going on in the universe, if it were merely a commentary on our capacity to invent one god myth after another and then bow down to it as if it were real, I could live with that, although it wouldn't be news.
But I'm not feeling magnanimous, because Kunzru took me on a wild goose chase through that long, hot desert, all the while making tantalizing insinuations about that something bigger without ever taking a stand. Something does happen in this book: an autistic child is mysteriously kidnapped in the desert, mysteriously comes back months later, and mysteriously begins to become normal. And this event mirrors an earlier one in the book in which another child is mysteriously kidnapped in the desert and later returned. Kunzru invents a real mystery, and then surrounds the mystery with many variations on the theme of self-deluded religiosity. So, are we self-deluded, or not? Did something happen, or didn't it? Are our religious myths an attempt to rationalize or explain real paranormal phenomena or the existence of extraterrestrial life? Are all these things true at the same time? Kunzru doesn't say. GODS WITHOUT MEN is a giant cop-out.
The trip itself is mostly boring, filled with disparate, deeply flawed and often unlikable characters who come and go, leaving loose ends dangling, just as the ending and the central mysteries of the story are left dangling. Kunzru takes many chapters to bring us to the central drama of the Punjabi-Jewish couple with the autistic son and how their life implodes when he mysteriously disappears in the desert. It's the only part of the story that feels authentic, which makes sense because the husband, Jaz, comes from the Sikh culture that certainly has things in common with Kunzru's origins. Had it been fleshed out, the tale of Jaz's identity crisis and his struggles to find his footing in a foreign culture would have made a good book. Alas, Kunzru instead decided to saddle us with a huge number of sub-plots, if I can even call them that, some of which might have made interesting short stories, but in this context simply add pointless pages to an already meandering mess. Each time I turned the page and was introduced to someone new from another unrelated time period, my heart sank. I plodded through the book because as a Vine reader I had an obligation to finish it and review it, but I did not enjoy myself and I was glad but disgusted when I was done.
At his core, Kunzru is a political writer. He is deeply disturbed by racism, sexism, imperialism, religious fanaticism, and the good old-fashioned mob rule that permeates both this book and human history. His description of the pernicious effects of internet gossip mongering in fostering a mob mentality is very realistic. Kunzru is furious about these things, and I don't really blame him. But it renders almost all the characters either victims or perpetrators: losers and lesser losers.
On a positive note, I appreciated Kunzru's imaginative allegory about the evils of Wall St. and how the web of interconnections in the global economy might manifest in the unlikeliest of places, providing us with a concrete example of that metaphysical chestnut "All is One." His treatment of the grieving parents' separate styles of response to both the disappearance and recovery of their son was very interesting. The rational, computer geek husband strives for answers and emotional detachment and is practically driven crazy by the absence of an explanation, while the emotional, artistic wife becomes a New Age jargon-spouting zealot who invents and commits herself to a metaphysical explanation to erase her discomfort with not knowing. The nature and patterns of belief in a world full of contradictions and mysteries is a great topic for a book, and Kunzru does a good job of satirizing the phenomenon of religious cults - and religions in general - with their code words, rituals, deification of individuals and "magical thinking."
In the end, Kunzru's overstuffed bag of topics, his unwillingness to tell us whether there really was something extraterrestrial going on in the desert, or what really happened to the autistic child, might have bothered me less if Kunzru had the discipline to whittle down his many subplots into a select few that he explored in depth, if it were more fun to read, if the characters themselves weren't superficial archetypes or stereotypes. It's not just ideas that matter in a book; it's how they're presented. Where was the editor?
I can't recommend GODS WITHOUT MEN.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The X-Files Meets Carlos Castaneda,
'Gods Without Men' was both compelling and frustrating. Hari Kunzru's descriptive writing is emotive and effective, as is his characterisation. My frustration stemmed from the various plotlines and timelines failing to be tied together to a coherent degree. In that respect, the book could be compared to a literary X-Files, as it leaves the reader to fill in substantial gaps with his/her imagination.
The main characters are Raj Matharu (a four-year-old autistic boy) and his parents, Jaz (an American-born Indian) and Lisa (raised in the Jewish faith). Jaz doesn't embrace the religion and culture of his parents, yet it still manages to become a barrier between him and his wife. His parents' superstitious ideas - especially with regards to why their grandson is the way he is - grate on Lisa, causing resentment bordering on hatred. When Raj vanishes into the Californian desert, the clash of ideologies between Lisa and Jaz becomes more evident than ever. Lisa opens herself to the idea that spiritual intervention could help find her lost child. Jaz, however, remains firmly rooted in the material world. Believing that his son has been abducted, Jaz thinks that only physical evidence can lead the path to finding the child.
Raj's disappearance happens near The Pinnacles, a rock formation which has for centuries attracted those who believe the stones to have miraculous metaphysical properties. Some chapters are set in the 1800s, when local Native Americans thought The Pinnacles marked the boundary between the lands of the living and the dead. Other chapters, set in the mid-1900s, tell the tale of people flocking to the area to commune with higher intelligences, the Ascended Masters, using The Pinnacles to transmit and receive 'light energy'. The rest of the chapters, set in the present day, focus on Raj's disappearance and subsequent return to the world a changed boy. The present-day occurrences at The Pinnacles echo events from the past, and hint at their significance. Kunzru's descriptions of the area's relevance to various people and eras are eloquent and extremely readable. He doesn't spoon-feed the reader, leaving him/her to draw conclusions and fill in the myriad blanks, some of which are a little too vast.
My only criticism is that some of the story's strands are left flapping as loose ends, hinting that they were superfluous padding rather than integral parts of the plot. The myriad storylines and timelines lack a unified sense of interconnectedness, which wouldn't happen in, for example, a Salman Rushdie novel. That said, 'Gods Without Men' is a well-written book which demonstrates Kunzru's incisive understanding of human nature and behaviour.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Ambitious Metaphysical Exploration: This Literary Novel Raises Lots Of Questions, But Remains Relatively Open-Ended,
In Hari Kunzru's big and baffling new novel "Gods Without Men," the author embraces a bold metaphysical narrative that touches on so many fascinating topics without ever offering big answers. Is it about native mysticism? Sure. Alien Interaction? Perhaps. History, Humanity, Faith? Absolutely. It raises many questions as it follows disparate timelines, multiple characters, and outrageous plot threads to weave one of the year's most unorthodox experiences. I'll be honest. Within the first couple of chapters, I thought to myself that the book would be a difficult read, more of a literary experiment than a fully formed story. But that initial thought was short-sighted. "Gods Without Men" is surely an intellectual engagement, but it is also wildly entertaining. Once you get into Kunzru's flow, you're likely to be swept up into surprising new territory and the fun of piecing it all together is something that will stick with me. At the end of the day, I don't know that the chapters bring all of the diverse elements together for a big payoff. I don't know that it all makes sense or if it is, ultimately, just a bit of literary trickery. But truthfully, I don't suppose I care. I just enjoyed the journey.
I picked up "Gods Without Men" due to the advertisement of one of its principle plot points. The unexplained disappearance of an autistic child in the Mojave Desert put me into the frame of mind that the book would be a mystery or an intense personal drama. Yes and no. The family are, in fact, just a few of the many characters that populate a story that spans several hundreds years. It would be impossible for me to concisely synopsize this complex tale that involves occultists, missionaries, Native Americans, military personnel, displaced immigrants, and music superstars. More than anything, this is a story of place. An unusual rock formation, a place of possible otherworldly influence, is the backbone that brings everything into perspective. But as we jet back and forth between time and characters, Kunzru's novel never makes you feel lost. That's a huge accomplishment and I was intrigued and involved in just about every major story.
"Gods Without Men" may not be for everyone, it certainly isn't a light beach read. But if you like your fiction to challenge, provoke, and stimulate discussion, this might make an ideal selection. I suspect different readers will take different things out of the book. I firmly believe it can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and that's a major selling point. But because it doesn't spell out its themes with concrete precision, "Gods and Men" remains relatively open-ended. Some people might loathe that, some will love it. I don't know that this will qualify as one of my favorites for the year, but it is certainly a bold and ambitious endeavor geared toward serious-minded readers. KGHarris, 3/12.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A tour de force!,
Or perhaps I should say "forces."
This fascinating novel centers around Pinnacles National Monument in California's Mojave Desert, with parallel threads spanning multiple time periods and characters. Switching back and forth between 2008, the 1870s, 1920s, 1940s, 1950s, 1970s and even the 1770s, Kunzru weaves together a series of compelling stories in which three mysterious, even mystical, rocks play a consistent, starring role. But it would be a gross oversimplification to suggest that the rich tapestry he creates is about the other-worldly power of the strange formation. Their force, whether real or imaginary, is just the backdrop to several very human tales, all of which come together toward the end of the book. And the cover copy doesn't begin to reflect how multitextured the stories are. It's the kind of book that's hard to put down, even when it's way past bedtime, because Kunzru is such a fluid, accomplished writer that he keeps you wondering at each juncture.
I haven't done an analysis, but he probably spends the most time on the story of Jaz and Lisa Matharu, whose profoundly autistic son, Raj, disappears without a trace while the family is visiting the rocks. But interspersed with that plot line are others about a hippie-like community seeking transmissions from extraterrestrials, a man and his wife who are conducting research into Native American culture in the 1920s, immigrant teenagers from Iraq, a strung-out rock star, a Catholic padre. These aren't stand-alone stories that Kunzru weaves together but cleverly interrelated elements of the same story, each advancing the larger novel. His characters are three-dimensional, their voices different but true, and the situations they find themselves in are3 believable as they try to find meaning in their lives.
Other reviewers have complained about the back-and-forth nature of the narrative, so if you like your literature linear, this may not be the book for you. But I found it original and extraordinary. My only complaint, if you could call it that, was that he'd shift time periods just as I was totally caught up in one thread, so the effect was kind of like watching a serial drama on TV that leaves you hanging and having to wait for the next installment...except that the one supplanting it was also captivating.
Hari Kunzru is a masterful writer who should be better known. With any luck Gods without Men will gain him the renown he deserves.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well .... that happened.,
The judges on food shows are always saying if you put too many components on the plate, you run the risk of ruining the whole dish. That's what this book was like. Too many components. Some of the components were delicious. Others left a bad taste in my mouth and I wanted to spit them out, which made the book less satisfying than it could have been.
I'm REALLY on the fence about this book. I enjoyed a lot of it, and even appreciated some of what I didn't enjoy, but there are definitely caveats. If you read the jacket copy, you kind of have an expectation of what the book is about. However, the first incident referenced in the jacket copy doesn't happen until more than half-way through the book. It had an ambitious structure that didn't entirely work for me. (Another book I read recently The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel also had an ambitious structure, one that DID really work for me.)
There were some fascinating ideas (Walter) and some insightful sections (the mom's TV chapter). And there were times I was gripped. And there were times I was bored.
Reading the blurbs leaves me feeling they read a different book than I did. Beautiful prose? I wouldn't say that. Nothing blew me a way. A thrill ride of a novel? I didn't feel it. Tour de Force? Uh, sometimes I had to force myself to keep going.
The other thing that seem to have slipped right over my head was the Coyote myth. There were glimpses of it, but maybe too subtle for me to grasp.
Maybe the whole book went over my head, I don't know. I'm not sure how wide the appeal of this novel will be. I'm not inspired to pick up more by the author, but I don't feel my time was wasted reading it.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,
As I read this I became engaged and then disengaged as the plot jumped from one character to another and from one time setting to another. Kunzru's skill as a writer is obvious but this novel needed tighter editing to make it cohesive and understandable. While I enjoyed the read, Kunzru needed to keep his audience in mind before he added yet another character and subplot.
What did keep me reading was my desire to find out what happens to Raj, Lisa, and Jaz. They are the only characters I cared about. Would Jaz and Lisa be able to repair their relationship? Is Raj really cured of his autism? Has he been replaced by someone else? (Great job of exploring what it would be like to have an autistic child.)
So I read and, at times, waded through all of the other characters and subplots only to be disappointed in a novel with no resolution. I hated the ending. It leaves you at the abyss, disappointed. I had to ask myself if the ending was intentional or did Kunzru not know how to conclude it? The lack of resolution made the book a three star instead of a four star novel.
Finally, the jacket material suggests that the novel contains big ideas and is intellectually stimulating, yet I didn't find myself thinking about any of the themes presented because they unoriginal.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The age-old search for meaning in the dark desert night,
Having grown up on the edge of L.A. where the last remaining lemon groves succumbed to still more red-tiled tracts and big-box sprawl, I commend Hari Kunzru for staring down the atmosphere of dessicated Southern California. "LA faded into a thankless dead landscape. You couldn't call it a desert, really. It was waste ground, the city's backyard, a dump for all the ugly things it didn't want to look at." (26) This perspective, as all of them filtered through a character from one decade, one irritation or fascination with the Pinnacles and what draws them or dumps them next to its triple formation, shows the contrast between what passes for civilization and what promises transformation.
I liked Kunzru's previous novel "My Revolutions" (see my review) and this one features an even more ambitious plot. Kunzru seeks to pin down not only the '60s/70s vs. now as an ideological and personal shift, but decades as diverse as 1776 with the friar Garces (the report by an hidalgo captures marvelously the tone of such bureaucratic formality mixed with sheer novelty), the frontier years with a Mormon alchemist and a WWI-vet turned BIA fieldworker, the Forties and the start of the Cold War, ten years after, and then a dozen later when the hippies arrive. These plots are scattered around the present one as of 2008's economic "correction" and they follow each other as if placed in a possibly random, possibly intentional pattern we must figure out.
Douglas Coupland in the New York Times acclaimed Kunzru for "Translit," as if from one period and stance surveying with the same steely eye all other times and places. As with many contemporary novelists tackling cultural themes, the intellectual level of the author elevates the distance between characters--who often stumble along with less education and more incomprehension--and the creator. This stance between Kunzru and his subjects, common though it may be to smart authors, may discourage more readers from entering into the spirit of what can be a detached, enigmatic voice that unites the chapters, stylistically disparate as they strive to be.
Similarly, I find this novel to be more akin to William Vollmann's epic investigations into American history, if a third of the length. The relative compression of this tale of "harmonic convergence," etheric communication, and "beings from the seventh density" (as spot-on conveyed in a a key postwar vignette in pitch-perfect proto-New Age-speak, I say this as a native Californian), however, works in its favor. Lesser talents might have bloated this storyline. I was not surprised by what transpired, and the Jaz-Cy conversations and stochastic alterations recall Darren Aronofsky's movie "Pi." I'd compare this to a postmodern if streamlined gloss on 20th-century counterculture and alternative attempts to suss out cosmic meaning as in Pynchon's "Against the Day" or "Inherent Vice" (both reviewed by me). Fewer laughs, if the same mystery.
I enjoyed most the desert town details. The Marine base-adjacent burgs feel like this, and the places look like that. The tonal shifts demanded as characters pop in and out require considerable ventriloquism, and scenes with culture clashes between Jaz's Sikh family and Lisa's assimilated Jewish one show promise, if more subtly transmitted than Joanie's fervor as the Guide prepares for mind-meld, 1958-style. The odd, anthropologically filtered register of the native American report from 1920 stands out for proving to me Kunzru's skill. I thought the Coyote portions (as in the Wily E.-type prologue!) would be the hokiest ones before reading this, but they managed to break through my expectations, suspicious as I am of "wisdom of the ages folderol." Lisa's realization that her family crisis will not be "renewed for a second season" sinks in. Yet, there remains a sustained decision by Kunzru to keep himself apart from what he surveys.
Although other reviewers may give away more about the plot (as Coupland did), suffice to say I will not. I found, as with many such journeys, the way to the destination more intriguing than the final arrival. Despite my own impatience with alien contact themes and distrust of those who come around my home turf to satirize us sun-damaged natives, I admit Kunzru captures glimpses-- in perhaps a necessarily if at times insistently enigmatic narrative-- of the excitement of the long journey towards the age-old search for meaning in the dark desert night.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A kaleidoscopic novel...complex and visionary,
As one who has lived in the desert of Southern Nevada, has hiked and explored many magnificent and mystical places in the deserts of the Southwest, and has a deep respect for the teaching spirits of Native American religious and mythological traditions, I am completely awestruck by the brilliance of Hari Kunzru's Gods Without Men!
GODS WITHOUT MEN is a complex and visionary novel which mingles the essence of myth and mystery with ever-shifting perceptibility. Reading it is much like looking into a circle of mirrors, into a kaleidoscope with many richly colored beads, and when the reader/viewer looks into one end, the light entering the other creates intricate symmetrical patterns of beautiful forms reflected off the mirrors. Each chapter of GODS WITHOUT MEN, each story, each character, and each theme is a colored bead in the kaleidoscope and when tumbled against each other they create exquisite patterns of meaning and insight.
The novel opens with a modern day introduction to Coyote, one of the most popular mythological figures of the Great Basin Native American Indian cultures. Coyote is a significant presence throughout the novel, reappearing in various forms, with various guises, at various times. Coyote can appear as a culture hero, as a messenger, as a trickster, or as a transformer. Coyote can even appear as a power just like the Creator, a power essential for contacting the sacred, for contacting the "Light."
In GODS WITHOUT MEN, multiple story threads are spun out from vastly different spools of history, culture, religion, folklore and science. All threads are entwined as one in the three-fingered hand of Pinnacle Rocks - a power vortex of rock formation in the Mojave Desert and the primary setting for all of the stories of GODS WITHOUT MEN. And it is there, at the Pinnacles, where Coyote, the mediator animal who can move easily back and forth between the land of the living and the land of the dead, seems to be always lurking, in one form or another, at the edge of every story.
At the heart of this intelligent but heartfelt novel is five year old Raj, the severely autistic child of Jaz and Lisa Matharu. While on a rare family vacation to visit Pinnacles National Monument Park in the Mohave Desert of California, Raj mysteriously vanishes in the park leaving not a trace. The disappearance of Raj plunges his parents into the depths of parental grief and despair. Sanity is threatened and every belief system challenged.
There are several intriguing supernatural parallels made to the mysterious disappearance and the equally mysterious reappearance of Raj in GODS WITHOUT MEN. Every character who is the warp and weft of this great weave of stories appears to be searching for something - for a higher level of understanding of the world, of reality.
The pervasive presence of the shifting rascal/hero character Coyote is a reminder that this shifting world of appearances is not really real; there are other levels of reality. The figure of Coyote helps explain that phenomena seem to be real, and yet they are not, that this world is only a shadow of another more real world, that the shadow represents the traits which lie deep, deep within...and that not all mysteries have straightforward solutions, especially the mysteries of the desert.
"In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing...It is God without men."
~Honore de Balzac
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Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru