Synopses & Reviews
A branching and multilayered novel by one of our most acclaimed young writers that centers on a couple searching for their young son, lost in the brutal, strangely powerful landscape of the Mojave Desert.
Jaz and Lisa Matharu, a young couple from New York City, are plunged into a surreal public hell after their autistic son, Raj, disappears during a vacation to the California desert. But the desert is inexplicable and miraculous, and the fates of the Matharus are bound up with those of others, all converging at an odd, remote town near a rock formation called The Pinnacles; among them are a debauched British rock star, a former member of an extraterrestrial-worshipping cult, and a teenage Iraqi refugee who befriends a young black Marine while playing the role of "Iraqi villager" in a military simulation exercise. Viscerally gripping and intellectually engaging, this is a novel of big ideas, grounded in emotion and centered on flesh-and-blood characters, and a heartfelt exploration of the search for pattern and meaning in a chaotic universe.
"As characters in acclaimed British novelist Kunzru's pitch-perfect masterwork tinker with machines for communicating with an interplanetary craft circling the Earth, their desperate quest for meaning is interrupted by a nonlinear melange of other strange endeavors that span centuries and cross the Mojave Desert: British rocker Nicky Capaldi's escape from L.A. in a convertible with a gold-plated Israeli handgun stowed in the glove box; beleaguered parents Jaz and Lisa Matharu's disastrous vacation with their autistic four-year-old, Raj; former hippie commune 'Guide' Judy's return to the desert, strung out on meth; and traumatized Iraqi teen Laila's participation as an actor in U.S. army war game facsimiles of Iraq. Presiding over it all are the Pinnacles, three fingers of rock that bear mute witness to Raj's disappearance and the ensuing frantic search. Also on board are Fray Francisco Hermenegildo Tomas Garcas, a half-mad Jesuit missionary intent on converting Native Americans at the close of the 18th century; Deighton, a disfigured ethnologist, annoyed by the young, 'half-educated' Eliza's failure to recognize 'the distinction he'd conferred on her by asking her to be his wife'; an aircraft mechanic named Schmidt working in the '40s who feels betrayed by what the Enola Gay unleashed over Hiroshima; a working-class mother seduced by the possibility of fellowship with benevolent otherworldly beings; and a local girl who once lived with the hippies and who — even though she returns years later to run the motel where Nicky, Jaz, Lisa, and Raj briefly stay — suspects she has never quite returned. Kunzru's (My Revolutions) ear for colloquial speech creates a cacophony that overlays his affectionate descriptions of the desolate landscape, creating a powerful effect akin to the distant cry of urgent voices crackling up and down the dial on a lonely drive through an American wasteland. Agent: Melissa Pimentel, Curtis Brown." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"A reflection and an embodiment of our new world of flattened time and space....Gorgeous and wise." Douglas Coupland, the New York Times Book Review
"A beautifully written echo chamber of a novel." David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas
"A gripping thriller...Kunzru uses his extraordinary gifts as a storyteller — his brightly textured prose, his empathetic understanding of his characters, his narrative flair — to turn a tabloidy tale into a genuinely moving portrait of a marriage and the difficulties of parenthood." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"Kunzru is wise beyond his years, [a] novelist in superb command of his craft....In his dazzling new novel, a desert is the setting, hero and villain....Here is where the walking wounded come to pray to Yahweh, Allah, Vishnu, Coyote, the Brothers of Light. Here are cynical veterans from WWII, hard-bitten GIs fresh from Iraq, randy communards, washed-up bankers, wasted groupies. Here is death, sex, and rock-and-roll." Marie Arana, the Washington Post
"A stunning achievement...Gods Without Men will undoubtedly prove to be one of the most important works of fiction published this year." Darren Richard Carlaw, the New York Journal of Books
"Kunzru weaves an array of competing stories, turning the novel into a kaleidoscope of clashing perspectives.... Gods Without Men stands out as a courageous attempt to engage with the complexities of faith and doubt in our postmodern world." James Miller, the New York Observer
"[A] pitch-perfect masterwork." Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"An astonishing tour de force." Kirkus (starred review)
"Gathers momentum, power, and a fierce clarify to deliver a rich panorama while detailing our mutual antagonisms and deepest spiritual needs....Extraordinary." Library Journal (starred review)
"Mind-bending...[a] thrill ride of a novel about searching for truth." Michele Filgate, O, the Oprah Magazine
"A compelling exploration of cosmic-American weirdness." Rob Brunner, Entertainment Weekly
"The prose is beautiful, every character is fully developed....Through devotion to careful diction and seamless fluctuation between a dozen different writing voices, Kunzru's novel shines as brightly as the desert's setting sun." Christine A. Hurd, The Harvard Crimson
"Kunzru delivers a lively and frequently thrilling version of the quest novel." Booklist (starred review)
"Compulsively readable, skillfully orchestrated....This really is Kunzru's great American novel." The Independent
"Sometimes dizzying, sometimes puzzling, always enjoyable, Gods Without Men is one of the best novels of the year." The Daily Telegraph
"The literary skills of Hari Kunzru are evident throughout this complex and disturbing novel." Annie Proulx, Financial Times
"A countercultural mind-expanding quest....As a virtuoso performance, changing gears and styles every 20 pages or so, encompassing 18th-century friars and Hoxton hipsters, it will appeal to fans of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas....Extraordinary." The Guardian
"Kunzru's lively fourth novel tackles its big themes without ever becoming ponderous or heavy-going....Involving, thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining." Daily Mail
In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing... It is God without men.
– Honoré de Balzac, Une passion dans le désert,
Jaz and Lisa Matharu are plunged into a surreal public hell after their son, Raj, vanishes during a family vacation in the California desert. However, the Mojave is a place of strange power, and before Raj reappears inexplicably unharmed — but not unchanged — the fate of this young family will intersect with that of many others, echoing the stories of all those who have traveled before them.
Driven by the energy and cunning of Coyote, the mythic, shape-shifting trickster, Gods Without Men is full of big ideas, but centered on flesh-and-blood characters who converge at an odd, remote town in the shadow of a rock formation called the Pinnacles. Viscerally gripping and intellectually engaging, it is, above all, a heartfelt exploration of the search for pattern and meaning in a chaotic universe.
About the Author
is the author of the novels The Impressionist, Transmission,
and My Revolutions,
and is the recipient of the Somerset Maugham Award, the Betty Trask Prize from the Society of Authors, a British Book Award, and the Pushcart Prize. Granta
has named him one of its twenty best young British novelists, and he was a Fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. His work has been translated into twenty-one languages, and his short stories and journalism have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker,
the London Review of Books, Wired,
and the New Statesman.
He lives in New York City.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Gods Without Men, Hari Kunzru’s viscerally gripping and intellectually engaging novel about the human impulse to search for meaning in a chaotic universe.
1. Gods Without Men
brings us into the consciousness of nine fictional characters, among them a hedge fund executive; a UFO cult leader; a dissolute British rock star; a homesick Iraqi teenage girl; one historical character, the eighteenth-century Spanish missionary Fray Francisco Hermenegildo Tomás Garcés; and one deity, Coyote, the trickster in many Native American traditional stories. Why does Hari Kunzru embrace such a wide and diverse cast of characters?
2. Do these characters from different historical eras and different echelons of society share any of the same aspirations? What draws them to the Pinnacle Rocks?
3. Which character or characters do you most identify with? Why?
4. Why do you think Kunzru set this novel in the desert? Could he have told the same story in a different landscape?
5. After reading Gods Without Men do you agree with Honoré de Balzac’s description of the desert: “In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing . . . It is God without men,” one of the epigraphs of this novel? Has your conception of the desert changed? Do you think “wasteland” is an appropriate synonym for “desert”?
6. Dawn joins the Ashtar Galactic Command in 1970 when she is a teenager because she wants “to be part of something bigger than herself” (page 155). Does she achieve that goal? Thirty-eight years later, teenage Laila draws comfort from the Ashtar record she buys at a thrift shop. Why?
7. Several characters in the novel possess arcane knowledge of mathematics, alchemy, aerodynamics, electrical engineering, or entertainment marketing that enables them to manipulate the material world in their favor, yet they don’t seem satisfied with their achievements. What are the sources and consequences of their dissatisfaction?
8. The character Coyote appears intermittently throughout the novel as an animal, a man, and a deity. What do his appearances herald? Are other characters comparably skilled at transforming themselves?
9. Kunzru references three international conflicts in this novel—World War I, World War II, and the second Iraq War. What do the characters Deighton, Schmidt, and Laila, who had firsthand experiences of those wars, have in common?
10. Lisa views Raj’s disappearance as her punishment for her wild night in town. Dawn thinks she was responsible because by taking Lisa to Judy’s place “she’d got her family involved. They were mixed up with Coyote, mixed up in the paths and flows” (page 343). Do you believe that either character is responsible for Raj’s disappearance?
11. Does the little glowing boy Laila finds in the desert at night (page 297) bear any relation to the “glow boy” (page 64) Joanie’s daughter, Judy, was seen playing with before she disappeared in 1958?
12. Why do you think Lisa is able to gratefully accept her son’s seemingly miraculous return and his recovery from autism, whereas Jaz cannot bear not knowing what happened to his son and is frightened by Raj’s changed behavior, believing the boy who was returned to them is not Raj; “It’s as if—as if something is wearing his skin” (page 357)?
13. Toward the end of the novel, Lisa believes she has learned a lesson: “true knowledge is the knowledge of limits, the understanding that at the heart of the world . . . is a mystery into which we are not meant to penetrate. . . . Now she could call it God . . . confident that though the world was unknowable, it had a meaning, and that meaning would keep her safe and set her free” (page 345). Does Jaz experience his own epiphany at the end of the novel when he stands holding hands with Lisa and Raj looking out over the desert?
14. Why does the novel begin and end with an explosion? At the end of the novel, do you gain a clearer understanding of what Coyote was up to in the first chapter?
15. Do you think Kunzru’s postmodernist storytelling technique of presenting the reader with pieces of a puzzle without providing explicit explanations of how the pieces fit together is appropriate for a novel that explores the search for pattern and meaning? Would the story be more or less realistic if he had limited himself to traditional forms of storytelling?