8:20:15 Gods Without Men, a book review

With Gods Without Men, novelist Hari Kunzru has fashioned a novel that chronologically wanders through scenes from the 1770s to 2009. A collage of disparate characters out of multiple cultures: a Catholic priest in New Spain, Native Americans, a WWII bomber mechanic turned hermit, a British rock star seeking seclusion, a UFO cult/hippie commune, and the protagonist, Jaz Matharu, an East Indian-American who works on Wall Street.

If Kunzru's novel skips about in time, it does have geographic unity. Most scenes take place near a megalith formation in the Southern California desert, three towering rock outcroppings known as the Pinnacles. Characters in Gods Without Men seem inexorably drawn to the Pinnacles for one reason or another.

[lbook cover]

But for the UFO cultists, the Pinnacles are a power spot also drawing extraterrestials for initial earth contact. Lines of cosmic force [or Ley Lines, to use the vernacular of believers] are possible UFO navigation aids. The cultists say, The aliens will save us from ourselves, from environmental degradation, possible nuclear annihilation, and the rest of earth's toxicity.

Into this ripe setup arrive Jaz, his wife Lisa, and toddler son Raj. He thought about a remote desert vacation. Jaz is burned out from a Wall Street job that post-2008 seems too familiar: anonymous flash trading, a hedge fund that might destabilize sovereign currencies ...

If career woes are not enough to strain Jaz and Lisa's marriage, their son Raj is. He is autistic and given to uncontrolled, sustained screaming.

The novel's most dramatic moment comes when Raj--in the blink of an eye--disappears while walking with Jaz and Lisa near the Pinnacles. Was he abducted by aliens? All the foreshadowing in the novel suggests so. The couple is in for crushing psychological pain with media attention to boot. Months go by. Then unexplicably Raj is found, alone in the desert. What happened?

The strain in the marriage of Jaz and Lisa continues, despite their reuniting with a son, who, oddly, appears healed.

It is this mystery of the unknowable--something Jaz and his keen analytical skills can't accept--that gives this novel an unsettling resolution. I was reminded of Peter Weir's great Picnic at Hanging Rock and its similar catastrophic denouement when "something happened to those girls up there on the Rock--" Both Weir and Kunzru wisely keep alien encounters offstage. How mystery can unhinge individual minds makes for much more potent storytelling.

Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru, Alfred A. Knopf, 2012, 374 pp, ISBN: 978-0-307-95711-5

Image credit: google images: goodreads.com


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The Cat at Light's End

Read Charlie Dickinson's story collection, The Cat at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable formats:

.mobi (Kindle)
.epub (most other readers)
.pdf (for PCs)

Also, a flash fiction, "Ylena Thinks Nyet," is at Cigale Literary Magazine.



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