Engaging, but ultimately disappointing

2011-11-02 00:00

FOR most of the first 370 pages of this 384-page novel, I was captivated. But ultimately, I felt disappointed. Gods Without Men is a complex read and requires concentration, but that’s not the problem. It is the ending which doesn’t give the reader the rewards they might justifiably expect. I wasn’t hoping for a neat conclusion, but to be left with the sense that there are more things in heaven and earth than we can know about was something I already understood. We read fiction to move beyond that, to grasp at the possibilities.

Hari Kunzru’s novel has a number of strands. The constant between them is place, the California Desert and in particular, a rocky formation known as The Pinnacles. Those who turn up at this mysterious spot at various times include an 18th- ­Century Catholic missionary; a bunch of late-sixties hippies looking for UFOs; a former soldier damaged by World War 1; a failing and stoned British rock star and a bunch of marines role-playing, albeit unconvincingly, how they will behave to win hearts and minds when doing a tour of duty in Iraq. And central to the story is a New York couple, Jaz, who is a Sikh, and his Jewish wife Lisa, and their four-year-old autistic son, Raj.

The demands of looking after him have already brought their marriage to the brink of disaster, but when he vanishes on a visit to The Pinnacles, hell breaks loose. The anguished parents find themselves embroiled in a McCann-style media circus, which moves from sympathy to accusation and is intensely portrayed.

The novel jumps between the various strands, and it is a tribute to Kunzru’s writing that the reader remains involved, even though there are moments when you have to pause and re-establish just who is being written about and what had happened last time they made an appearance. The stories are powerful and fascinating, but I still felt let down when, in Kunzru’s own words, “this cherished fiction, the fiction of the essential comprehensibility of the world” was bleakly exposed, however much it was dressed up in fine words.

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