Hari Kunzru's sprawling novel weaves disparate narratives together – from a child disappearing in the American desert to Wall Street wizardry – to discuss community and connections.
Gods Without Men: Exploring community and connections
Walter Benjamin's 1936 essay The Storyteller describes a force that has ended the tradition of storytelling and "brings about a crisis in the novel. This new form of communication is information."
In Hari Kunzru's inventive and densely packed fourth novel, Gods Without Men, a stockbroker invents a financial system called Walter that profits from obscure links between "fleeting and unstable" coincidences.
"Walter consumed the most esoteric numbers - small-arms sales in the Horn of Africa, the population of Gary, Indiana, between 1940 and 2008, the population of Magnitogorsk, Siberia, for the same years ... it was as if Bachmann was trying to fit the whole world into his model."
Magpie-like and constantly seeking hidden connections, this financial monster resembles the "crisis in the novel" that has seen contemporary fiction decay - or develop - into an assemblage of data.
Kunzru's novel draws together 1960s hippy cults, Wall Street wizardry, rock and roll burnout, early Spanish colonialism in America, 19th century pogroms against native Americans and, as a constant refrain, alien visitations.
The central narrative thread - an autistic child who disappears in the desert - does not fully emerge from this tangle of plots until about halfway through the book, at which point all Kunzru's disparate strands converge in the Mohave Desert, an empty place that turns out to be full of human incident.
This Faulknerian organisation of time by place reveals the grand displacement of Kunzru's characters, almost all of whom are drifters or immigrants.
Places converge as numbers on a Wall Street trader's screen or as a dinner party conversation about holidays. Jaz, a stockbroker and second-generation Punjabi immigrant, has trouble sympathising with his wife-to-be's sadness about the sale of her childhood home because he "had never felt anywhere belonged to him enough to feel strongly about losing it". To Jaz, places belong to people, not the other way around.
In the 1920s sections, a preoccupation with "miscegenation" leads to an unjust manhunt and, in 1969, locals are shocked by hippies - mingling with "negroes". We hear from a mad Mormon with mercury poisoning in 1871: "If a white man mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty is death on the spot." Indeed, the spectre of race haunts every part of the book, but Kunzru neither intends to sing the praises of the melting pot nor to give in to racist simplifications.
The principle of miscegenation, an inevitable consequence of colonialism, war and globalisation, is not only at work in Jaz and Lisa's uneasy marriage, but also in Walter's total miscegenation of data - a strategy that ends up playing a part in the banking crisis of three years ago.
In contrast to this tendency to mix - sometimes violent, sometimes tender - Jaz and Lisa's child has autism, which makes him unable to connect with anyone. After Raj is first diagnosed, Jaz reflects on his bad luck, using the kind of data analysis he would be familiar with on his trader's screens: "He was the father of an autistic child. What were the odds? He knew exactly. One in 10,000 in the Seventies. Now down to one in 166. Jaz made his living building mathematical models to predict and trade on every kind of catastrophe. And now this: an event for which he had no charts, no time series."
Much of the book mobilises a sort of pun again and again, in different eras and contexts. Kunzru's deeply alienated characters dream of and even appear to encounter aliens. These beings visit the muddy, mixed-up world to share their vague message of brotherly love.
The figure of the alien is as complex here as that of miscegenation. In some cases, the desire for alien contact is a fantasy that misses the imperative of real human community, while elsewhere it stands for the possibility of escape from alienation, which can only appear as a fragile, absurd but necessary fantasy. Whether the aliens are imaginary or real is left undecided.
In these pages, Raj isn't alone in his inability to connect. The attempts of other characters to engage in relationships are often derailed by violence or apathy.
The desert is a theatre for various attempts to foster new forms of community, none of which work out. In 1971, a hippy commune collapses into acrimony and abuse; at a gathering of alien enthusiasts in 1958, a machine for contacting higher beings catches fire, killing a child; a Christian mission in 1778 fails to convert anyone and lays the ground for the wholesale exploitation of the local people.
The examples of communal disaster are numerous but solitude is no solution. Jaz and Lisa's attempt at an isolated family holiday, for example, ends up drawing rapacious media attention after Raj disappears. Lisa is persecuted for her failure to display media-friendly emotions and compulsively reads blogs and forums where complete strangers condemn her - the internet is another imagined community that has failed to live up to the hopes invested in it.
Although the book gets snarled up now and then in limp pastiche, Kunzru's tendency towards faintly clichéd representations of hippies, anthropologists and indie rock stars alike is actually another means of showing how the modern world constantly simulates itself to survive its own excesses. But some of these pastiches are thinner than others, as Kunzru seems to realise: "In Nicky's opinion," he writes, "the whole Americana thing had gone beyond a joke."
At times, readers might agree. Gods Without Men has many of the weaknesses of its kind - its motley cast of characters can feel like a box-ticking exercise, its themes can come across as heavy-handed and its structural innovations mask its reliance on convention. The book's saving grace is its self-awareness - this is not just a "big book" but a critique of the big book. It is, in short, a novel imperfectly retrofitted for a globalised, financialised era.
In Walter Benjamin's essay, we find two types of storyteller - the artisan who stays at home and tells local tales and the trader who travels the world and brings back anecdotes. In our age, narrative belongs not to the craftsman or the merchant, but to the migrant worker, the displaced person, the global flow of currencies.
Among Kunzru's doomed collectives is a fake Iraqi village set up in the desert to train US soldiers through elaborate role-play games.
The fake citizens, most of them refugees from the real Iraq, are "assigned an individualised character with a name, biography and back story", Kunzru writes. "Heather said she wanted them to think about how their characters would react in various situations, so they could be as truthful as possible when interacting with the soldiers. This was, she said, a 'fine grained simulation'. They should all consider themselves 'tiny moving parts, like cogs in a watch'."
This section, the angriest in the book, is also the funniest: "Usually the soldiers just walked around with grins on their faces saying 'Salam alaikum'. This seemed to be the main plank of their counterinsurgency strategy."
The military sees the world as Walter sees it - as a system that can be codified and tracked. It's a perspective on humanity that might more properly belong to aliens from outer space.
Where this leaves the novel isn't clear - is it another "fine-grained simulation" full of characters with useful back stories, or does it offer a higher truth, like a kindly visiting alien?
Kunzru leaves the question open in all its complications. In a perhaps more complacent time, Don DeLillo, one of the early proponents of the big, prolific info-narrative, said that "fiction rescues history from its confusions".
The intermittently brilliant Gods Without Men presents a fiction as intentionally full of confusions as the histories it might dream of rescuing.
Hannah Forbes Black is a writer and artist who lives in London. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and Intelligence Squared.