‘In the desert you can remember your name’

Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru

Back in the early days of my blog, I posted about my favourite 1970s pop music in I was a 70s teenager.  The first song I talked about there was – still is – one that still inspires me ever since it first appeared back in 1971. It immediately resurfaced in my mind during my reading of Hari Kunzru’s latest novel…

On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

The song was Horse with no name by America, from their self-titled first album. It has that sense of getting away from it all, losing and finding oneself again that being out in the desert can bring, and this is a big theme in Kunzru’s book too.

He prefaces the novel with a number of quotes, including one from a short story by Balzac: ‘Dans le désert, voyez-vous, il y a tout, et il n’y a rien … c’est Dieu sans les hommes’ – ‘In the desert, you see, there is everything and there is nothing … It is God without men.’ (my trans)

At its centre, Gods Without Men is the story of Jaz and Lisa Matharu, and their four year old autistic son Raj. They are a successful couple living in New York, although their relationship has its difficulties due to Lisa being Jewish and Jaz Sikh, and their families not being able to come to terms with that. Their marriage has faced fresh challenges since Raj’s diagnosis, for he is disruptive, a physically challenging child; Lisa in particular is worn out. It’s difficult to go anywhere en famille with Raj’s behaviour, so this is how they end up in a cheap motel outside LA with the Californian desert close by.  One night they have a huge row, Lisa drives off, leaving Jaz to stew with Raj.  Later when she returns, they go to the desert, where Raj suddenlt goes missing.  Lisa and Jaz are plunged into the media spotlight which soon turns against them as parents.

Running parallel to the main event are the stories of a British rock star addled by excess who runs away from the recording studio, and an refugee Iraqi teenager who has a job as a ‘villager’ in a military simulation to acclimatize US troops before their deployment. Their stories too converge with that of Lisa and Jaz in the desert out near the rock formation known as the Pinnacles, as do those of many through the ages. We hear from many different people whose stories climax in the desert –  from a Spanish missionary in 1775, to the beginnings of a cult in the late 1950s through to its early 1970s incarnation as a commune dedicated to the Ashtar Galactic Command.

This adds up to a rich tapestry of story threads that interweave in and out of each other with the desert as the canvas.  Although Lisa and Jaz are rich and privileged,  we can only sympathise with them as they try to cope with an autistic four year old. Their attempts to not let their cultural heritage get in the way of their modern life are not always successful either, and Kunzru leaves us with no doubts about how they are doing, we suffer with them.

Of the other characters I particularly loved Nick, the Keith Richards-like guitarist who is finding fame fickle and wishes he was back in happier times in London.  The cult is seen through the eyes of two of the women involved, Joanie and then Dawn. Both get carried along with the allure of spiritual salvation, plus drugs and free love, before realising that they are being asked to prostitute themselves for it.

Kunzru shows us all the characters’ lives with great clarity and honesty, and really makes us care about them. I found myself really wanting to hear the next installments in their stories, yet not at the expense of the person’s I was reading.

I have previously read and enjoyed Kunzru’s second novel Transmission, (reviewed here). Gods Without Men, his fourth, shows his evolution as a writer. The writing is as searingly hot as the dense desert heat and as cool as the starry night-time sky. It’s stunningly good. (9/10)

Source: Review copy – thank you.

Hari Kunzru, Gods Without Men (Hamish Hamilton, Aug 2011) Trade paperback, 400 pages.

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