The British novelist Hari Kunzru talks about his fourth novel Men Without Gods, a book that explores the space between understanding and ignorance.
Reading between the gaps: Hari Kunzru discusses Men Without Gods
Hari Kunzru is in a cafe in Bloomsbury, close to the British Museum. In a few hours he will read from his new novel at the nearby London Review Bookshop; for now, though, he is drinking tea and considering the subject that looms over all of us in London: the riots.
For three consecutive nights before this meeting, thousands of rioters have crowded into the streets, looted shops, burnt cars and fought with police. The hold that these events exert over the city - literal and metaphorical - is particularly stark for Kunzru, because his arrival in the UK coincided almost exactly with their beginning. Kunzru is British, but lives in New York.
We agree, quickly, on the strangeness of it all. Then our conversation turns to the cause:
"Are the riots properly political?" he muses. "It would be much easier for people on the left if the rioters had a coherent agenda, other than a desire to go shopping for free. But I think the causes are political.
"Hackney, where I have a house, is a place of parallel worlds. There is the world of the hipster and the world of the hoodie [that is, the apparently threatening young person, who, in the popular imagination, always wears a hooded top], and the two rarely meet. The riots are forcing us to pay attention to this huge gulf between two communities."
We talk for a while about this gulf. It is apposite, because the real purpose of this meeting, Kunzru's fourth novel Gods Without Men, is a book that treads around just these ideas: the gap between what we know and what we don't, the exhilarating space between understanding and ignorance.
Kunzru, 42, is now four novels into a glittering career that began with 2002's The Impressionist. That novel won him a place on the influential Granta list of Best Young British Novelists in 2003, and his work since then - including 2008's My Revolutions - has secured him a place among Britain's best-known young(ish) literary novelists.
Gods Without Men accommodates a series of loosely connected narratives, which are grounded by the shared landscape against which they take place: a rock formation called the Pinnacles in the Mojave Desert, California. There is Schmidt, a former Second World War aircraft engineer who waits for contact with extraterrestrials. Fast-forward to 2008 and we find Nicky, a British rock star stranded in California and failing to make a record. These and other narrative strands, though, move around the central story of Indian-American Jas and his Jewish-American wife, Lisa. The disappearance of their autistic son, Raj, becomes the axis around which the novel turns.
A chance trip into the Californian desert set Kunzru on the road to Gods Without Men. In 2008, when he arrived in the US on a one-year fellowship at the New York Public Library, he had different plans: a novel set in 16th-century India.
"I decided to go out there and live in a monkish way, and do this fellowship," he says. "The set up is absolutely brilliant, they give you enough money to live on in New York, an office in this beautiful building, everything. I was there with my blank sheet of paper. And I just couldn't write. Eventually, some friends said they were planning a trip to Joshua Tree [National Park in California]. I was doing nothing, so I went along. We drove around the desert for about a week. And we just encountered all these amazing stories."
Many of the strands in the novel are based on the real stories that Kunzru encountered: the Ashtar Galactic Command, for example, a cult that believed it could contact alien life; or the existence in the desert of military simulations of the Iraq war, used to train US soldiers before they departed for Iraq and real combat.
It's a novel, then, founded in research. But Gods Without Men wears that learning lightly. What is the trick when it comes to weaving this kind of research into a novel?
"You have to knock the scaffolding away," says Kunzru. "It's about doing a lot of research so that you're immersed in the subject, and then not looking at it while you're writing. I become obsessed with photos, and end up collecting a lot of ephemera from the period that I'm thinking about. But as soon as you're writing a sentence to prove to the reader that you know that obscure fact about the mechanism of a jukebox or whatever, then you've gone wrong."
As Gods Without Men progresses, the narrative strands that it presents to us start to knock against one another, and to resonate. Some British reviewers have criticised Kunzru for failing to provide a neat, loose-ends-tied-up resolution. Enlightened readers might accuse them of missing the point: this is a novel about the absence of resolutions, about the gap between the human and the transcendental.
"It would have been easy," he says, "to write a novel that relies on old conventions about how stories are nested together - you know, you have a character who finds someone's diary, and it explains the whole thing, but that feels hokey now, we need new forms. I'm very interested in a kind of narrative rhyming, in which events are connected by a shared shape or rhythm, rather than a traditional causal connection."
We're back, then, where we started: talking about gaps in our understanding of the world, how we understand them, how we bridge them.
"The interesting people are honing in on absence, and silence, on how it feels when loose ends are not tied up. That is a function of our experience. Reality is like that. That's where the interesting work is being done right now."