Review: Gods Without Men

Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men is one of those books that it’s always hard to start writing about: I haven’t figured out a way into the text, I’m not sure what Kunzru’s trying to achieve. I have no impetus to write.

I think it’s an interesting novel, but one that’s not quite successful. Its multiple storylines, each a bead on a necklace strung through time, all have at their heart a single rock formation in the Californian Mojave desert: three spires of sandstone called the Pinnacles. The Pinnacles feature as a sacred site for Native Americans in the area, who believe that Yucca Woman lives there, weaving the worlds of the living and the dead together; as the base for a UFO cult that springs up in the 60s, thriving for a few years before turning toxic as waves of outsiders descend upon it; and, in the novel’s most contemporary timeline, as the place where a severely autistic three-year-old named Raj disappears from under the noses of his struggling parents, and reappears a few weeks later miraculously changed for the better…

…which is one of the places where I think the novel seriously fails. Kunzru isn’t interested in Raj as a neurodivergent human being; he’s interested in him as a plot driver. The narrative centres his parents, Lisa and Jaz, and asks us to sympathise primarily with how hard their lives have become as they strive to manage Raj’s unpredictable behaviour and his inability to communicate verbally: Lisa, who’s given up her publishing job to become Raj’s full-time carer, desperately researches hokey New Age “cures”, while Jaz fends off the suggestions of his Sikh family. Nowhere in all of this is an appreciation of Raj as a person with his own experience of the world. By the end of the novel, he’s started to communicate verbally and show physical affection; but, again, these developments, which come about after his exposure to the Pinnacles, are presented in terms of his parents’ reactions, their relief and hope, rather than his own reality.

And then there’s the Pinnacles themselves, the motif that ties the whole novel together. For me, they’re simultaneously the book’s biggest failing and the source of its power. They’re neither obviously SFnal nor obviously metaphorical, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what exactly Kunzru is doing with them. Maureen Kincaid Speller suggests that it is something to do with human connection (Raj returns from the Pinnacles better able to connect with other people; the UFO cult is a close-knit, if dysfunctional, community living out in the desert) and though I think that’s a good way to approach the novel as a whole it doesn’t quite work as a reading of how the Pinnacles themselves function. For instance, I like her example of the white anthropologist failing to connect meaningfully with the Native Americans whose myths he is trying to study, but as an example of how the Pinnacles promote or reward connection it’s thin. And even if the Pinnacles are about connection…what then? What do we do with that reading, why is it there, how does the metaphor function?

(It’s interesting that Speller’s review is largely an attempt to come to terms with what the Pinnacles are doing – much like mine.)

For my part, I wonder if there’s something about cultural appropriation/co-option going on. There’s a cycle in the novel going on in which the Pinnacles are seen as a religious site or one of particular cultural/supernatural significance, which significance is then misunderstood by those who come after. The white anthropologist (whose name currently escapes me) studies Yucca Woman and the myths around it in order to preserve what he sees as a rapidly declining culture, but his failure fully to enter into that culture causes the death of a man, and he ends up dying out in the rocks. The UFO cult starts as a tight-knit community but is destroyed by an influx of strangers committing mundane, sordid evils like drug dealing and pimping. Jaz’s concern about the transformation Raj experiences is treated as a potentially dangerous mental illness by his psychologist. Is this a novel concerned with faith – more specifically, with how one person’s faith is another’s mundanity? In this reading, the deeply personal nature of faith and belief and our experience of the numinous clashes with the ever-increasing interconnectedness of the world in which we live. In his highly-paid day job as a stockbroker, Jaz works with a new programme called Walter, which looks for, and finds, patterns in things that seem utterly unconnected: say, ice-cream sales in Ohio and ocean currents in the Pacific. Walter turns out to be incredibly powerful and incredibly good at making money – but as well as just taking advantage of the data it processes, it actually seems to be affecting world affairs. By the time Jaz raises his concerns with his manager, he suspects that Walter has crashed the economy of a small South American country. The impersonal power of big data couldn’t be further from the transformative personal experiences people have at the Pinnacles.

It’s a bit of a mess of a novel, really, and I can’t say that it’s particularly stuck in my mind. I do like its ambiguity and its refusal to give easy answers; it’s a thinky kind of novel, with plenty of readings to offer. Kunzru’s White Tears is markedly more effective, though – read that instead.