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Comprehending the unknowable, the need to make sense of the world,
This review is from: Gods Without Men (Hardcover)
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Disparate threads spanning four centuries share a common setting in the Mojave desert at a rock formation called the Pinnacle Rocks or Pinnacles. A vacationing couple with diverse, perhaps irreconcilable, backgrounds lose their autistic son. A disfigured veteran of the First World War and his neglected wife study the language and customs of a Native American tribe. An English rock star goes on the lam when the pressure of producing a new record becomes too much. The Brotherhood of Light, a commune, makes contact with the extra-terrestrial Ascended Masters. Iraqi immigrants who fled their war-torn nation help prepare US troops for deployment by role-playing in a mock Iraqi village. A Spanish Franciscan friar establishes a mission among the heathen Indians. A miner in the Old West pronounces his righteous judgment on his enemies while attempting to unlock alchemical secrets. A motley cast of characters meet in improbable ways, each seeking answers in the mystical desert wilderness.
In an audaciously discomfiting opening scene, the mythical trickster Coyote makes several ill-fated attempts to cook up crystal meth before finally succeeding. For this reader, it was an alienating marriage of the sacred and profane even if the union serves the author's purpose. At its heart, "Gods Without Men" is an exploration of mankind's innate need to make sense of his world. Then again, "exploration" is almost certainly the wrong word. Kunzru provides several convenient working case studies of his hypothesis, but little more. There are the obvious bold strokes of religious, ethnic, and cultural clashes, but there are subtler examples as well. An autistic boy goes missing and, though first sympathizing with the parents, society ultimately vilifies them in an effort to force closure on the situation. When the boy is later found, the parents seek some explanation for why he's back and how he's changed. And in a separate model of the paradigm, economists seek first to understand, then to predict, and finally to manipulate or control financial markets - just as people do with their theologies, ideologies, philosophies, and even their tabloid journalism. Not unlike Coyote, Kunzru cooked up various anecdotes that failed to engage the reader for various reasons.
Regrettably, most of the characters are only marginally developed and they're universally unsympathetic. Despite identifying with their struggles (as almost everyone must), the flaws of the characters are unforgivable. The only two characters that are developed meaningfully are Jaz and Lisa, the parents of the missing child. Despite being able to sympathize with the strain they endure due to their diverse cultural backgrounds and, particularly, due to their son's condition, neither character was likable. Uber-intelligent yet awkward Sikh and artsy blond bombshell Jew meet, fall in love, marry, move to New York and quickly get rich. Their history was just too convenient. In the present, they barely tolerate each other. One might callously say they deserve each other. Beyond the principle characters, the others fit the convenient stereotypes necessary to the story. As expected, the hick small town locals are suspicious of the alien-worshipping hippies who, as suspected, abuse and distribute drugs and indulge in prostitution. Foreigners seek to convert or take advantage of the Native Americans. The egocentric rock star can't see past his own selfish desires. Adult males, regardless of their culture, seem to want only one thing from teen girls. None of the narrative threads were constructed in such a way as to be compelling page-turners so the novel needed characters to captivate the reader. They failed to do so.
The writing is good and keeps me from rating the novel lower than two stars, but the characterization and the story itself just weren't enjoyable.