In Raj, Bohemian, Hari Kunzru’s 2008 short story, whatever was left of post-modernism was wittily interred. The narrator angrily confronts the titular character, an appropriator and marketer of what he sees as his edgy artless cool, and confronts, instead, the void that is his identity, bereft of signifiers of cultural superiority. Without immersing oneself in ‘the endless metonymic shuffling of objects’, the narrator concludes cheerlessly, life would be ‘intolerable’. It seems fitting that the cast of characters of his latest book, Gods without Men, find themselves roaming the desert searching for spirituality, faith, and the numinous expanse that lies between the two.
A number of strange and varied characters converge in the Mojave Desert. A crystal-meth cooking coyote, a trickster figure of sorts. An aircraft mechanic-turned-alien-devotee named Schmidt. Wolf, Jody, Coyote, Dawn, Joanie; members of the alien cult that Schmidt’s paranormal fantasies give rise to, the Ashtar Galactic Command Chapter. Nicky, a dissolute British rockstar, explosively acting out his ennui on peyote. Laila, an Iraqi American teen who plays the role of a native in a simulation of an Iraqi village to train US Marines. A murderously bigoted 19th century Mormon miner. An ethnologist and World War 1 veteran, Skin-Peeled-Open, whose jealousy leads to an ethnic lynching. A Spanish Franciscan missionary exploring the unsettled lands along the Mojave River in 1778. And Jaz and Lisa Matharu, the troubled parents of an autistic boy, Raj, who goes missing in the desert.
The desert is at the heart of each of these storylines as the site of a near-mystic quest: for alien contact, for creative inspiration, for a lost child. The Pinnacles, dramatic columns of rock, are also never far from view, and seem to have a powerful draw, as ‘natural antenna’ for alien summoning purposes, or as symbols of the Trinity. For a single geographic expanse, the Mojave Desert provides an impressive epic historical canvas, extending from Spanish colonisation to the Iraq occupation and 2008 Wall Street meltdown.
The book hinges on the lost child’s parents: Jaz, a math grad student turned Wall Street market analyst who broke away from his Punjabi family’s cocoon in Baltimore, and Lisa, his Jewish wife, who reluctantly gives up her job to take care of their fractious child. Jaz’s job finds him under a somewhat sinister boss, Cy Bachman. With the help of a global quant model, which processes dizzyingly diverse sets of data, Jaz is asked to spot patterns— “the face of God”, as Bachman has it. The model works uncannily well, but Jaz grows disturbed by its ability to ‘game the system’, to create and exploit global instability—and by Bachman’s ability to make him feel like a ‘jumped up peasant’ with his sense of entitlement and cultural sophistication.
The couple’s strained marriage gives way to a full-blown crisis when their son disappears. In an echo of the Madeleine McCann case, the parents are harassed by the internet mob, which, seemingly dissatisfied with anything less than an operatic hyper-reality, judges them suspiciously stone-faced snobs, and concludes that they’re ‘Satanic pedophile child-traffickers’.
The simulation scenes for US Marines are just as effective as poignant satire and social comment. We’re told about how soldiers intend to win the hearts and minds of natives: ‘Usually the soldiers just walked around with shit-eating grins on their faces, saying Salaam alaikum. This seemed to be the main plank of their counter insurgency strategy.’ There’s also a lot of simulated violence, such as a mocked-up beheading video shot in a mosque, ‘the most sinister place in the town’, in which Laila’s uncle plays the role of a collaborator who is killed. He watches it afterward with relish, applauding it for being ‘realistic’ and ‘bloodthirsty’. But Laila realises that these theatrics have all-too-real consequences when a young soldier admits that he has killed Iraqis. She observes: “He hadn’t sounded happy or sad or remorseful or proud. Just blank.”
Other threads feel less effective.
The alien cult predictably devolves from benign hippie communeness, with ‘ash-covered sitarists’ and ‘Nashville junkies in soiled Nudie suits with pedal steel guitars’, into sordid Children of God-style exploitation. The rockstar’s milieu may prove that nobody does the bored hipster debauch better than Kunzru, with its parties in ‘deluxe log cabins’ full of girls accessorised with beads, headbands and spliffs, ‘looking like designer Red Indians’. Yet Nicky himself never feels like more than a semi-adumbrated cameo, a feeling that’s somehow reinforced when he’s abruptly cast aside after bumping into Raj shortly before his disappearance.
That’s why the cast of characters often feels less like real people, and more like allegorical figures on an existential quest. Whether that gets them anywhere is ultimately a test of the reader’s own faith.