Thursday, April 12, 2012

Hari Kunzru's "Gods Without Men": Book Review

Having grown up on the edge of L.A. where the last remaining lemon groves succumbed to still more red-tiled tracts and big-box sprawl, I commend Hari Kunzru for staring down the atmosphere of dessicated Southern California. "LA faded into a thankless dead landscape. You couldn't call it a desert, really. It was waste ground, the city's backyard, a dump for all the ugly things it didn't want to look at." (26) This perspective, as all of them filtered through a character from one decade, one irritation or fascination with the Pinnacles and what draws them or dumps them next to its triple formation, shows the contrast between what passes for civilization and what promises transformation.

I liked Kunzru's previous novel "My Revolutions" (see my review) and this one features an even more ambitious plot. Kunzru seeks to pin down not only the '60s/70s vs. now as an ideological and personal shift, but decades as diverse as 1776 with the friar Garces (the report by an hidalgo captures marvelously the tone of such bureaucratic formality mixed with sheer novelty), the frontier years with a Mormon alchemist and a WWI-vet turned BIA fieldworker, the Forties and the start of the Cold War, ten years after, and then a dozen later when the hippies arrive. These plots are scattered around the present one as of 2008's economic "correction" and they follow each other as if placed in a possibly random, possibly intentional pattern we must figure out.

Douglas Coupland in the New York Times acclaimed Kunzru for "Translit," as if from one period and stance surveying with the same steely eye all other times and places. As with many contemporary novelists tackling cultural themes, the intellectual level of the author elevates the distance between characters--who often stumble along with less education and more incomprehension--and the creator. This stance between Kunzru and his subjects, common though it may be to smart authors, may discourage more readers from entering into the spirit of what can be a detached, enigmatic voice that unites the chapters, stylistically disparate as they strive to be.

Similarly, I find this novel to be more akin to William Vollmann's epic investigations into American history, if a third of the length. The relative compression of this tale of "harmonic convergence," etheric communication, and "beings from the seventh density" (as spot-on conveyed in a a key postwar vignette in pitch-perfect proto-New Age-speak, I say this as a native Californian), however, works in its favor. Lesser talents might have bloated this storyline. I was not surprised by what transpired, and the Jaz-Cy conversations and stochastic alterations recall Darren Aronofsky's movie "Pi." I'd compare this to a postmodern if streamlined gloss on 20th-century counterculture and alternative attempts to suss out cosmic meaning as in Pynchon's "Against the Day" or "Inherent Vice" (both reviewed by me). Fewer laughs, if the same mystery.

I enjoyed most the desert town details. The Marine base-adjacent burgs feel like this, and the places look like that. The tonal shifts demanded as characters pop in and out require considerable ventriloquism, and scenes with culture clashes between Jaz's Sikh family and Lisa's assimilated Jewish one show promise, if more subtly transmitted than Joanie's fervor as the Guide prepares for mind-meld, 1958-style. The odd, anthropologically filtered register of the native American report from 1920 stands out for proving to me Kunzru's skill. I thought the Coyote portions (as in the Wily E.-type prologue!) would be the hokiest ones before reading this, but they managed to break through my expectations, suspicious as I am of "wisdom of the ages folderol." Lisa's realization that her family crisis will not be "renewed for a second season" sinks in. Yet, there remains a sustained decision by Kunzru to keep himself apart from what he surveys.

Although other reviewers may give away more about the plot (as Coupland did), suffice to say I will not. I found, as with many such journeys, the way to the destination more intriguing than the final arrival. Despite my own impatience with alien contact themes and distrust of those who come around my home turf to satirize us sun-damaged natives, I admit Kunzru captures glimpses-- in perhaps a necessarily if at times insistently enigmatic narrative-- of the excitement of the long journey towards the age-old search for meaning in the dark desert night. (Amazon US 3-2-12--see my complimentary review of Erik Davis & Michael Rauner's "Visionary State: California's Spiritual Landscapes here)

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