Some places in the world possess a palpable if inexplicable atmosphere. People are drawn to them, often without being clear why they feel such an attraction. In time, these places may become the focus of ritual, the goal of pilgrimages. Belief in their significance may persist for thousands of years and large, thriving communities develop around them, attracting yet more believers, to the point where the presence of the people has more importance than what drew them there in the first place, and power is now derived from their continuing presence. Anything intrinsic to the place itself has long since been smothered, yet this is now unimportant.
However, other places retain that mystery. They are significant to a small group of people, but for the rest it is a matter of accidental discovery rather than a conscious seeking out. There is an instinctive recognition that such places are special but no story to account for why. In Hari Kunrzu's Gods Without Men, the Pinnacles or Three-Finger Rocks, a group of rocky spires in California's Mojave Desert, fall into this second category. For the local Native Americans, the Pinnacles have since time immemorial represented "the threshold, the opening between this world and the Land of the Dead" (p. 240), and are the home of Yucca Woman, who guards the entrance to that other world, weaving the two together as she makes her baskets. The former aircraft engineer, Schmidt, who arrives at the Pinnacles in 1947, immediately senses their special nature although he must confirm this through instrument readings. For him, the rock columns are like "a natural antenna" (p. 5), channelling the power he believes is running along a fault line "and up through the rocks" (ibid.).
For Schmidt, for the People, and for others such as Fray Garcés, an eighteenth century missionary priest, and Nephi Parr, a nineteenth century Mormon miner driven half-mad by the murder of his family, the Pinnacles act as a transmitter; they establish some sort of connection with the place and receive messages. Garcés converses with an angel, Parr sees a ghostly airship which will eventually take him away, while Schmidt himself meets alien visitors who he believes have come in response to his own transmissions, seeking galactic intervention for the world's problems. What the People have seen is not recorded, as such stories are not for outsiders, but surfaces occasionally in hearsay about glowing figures and men capable of prodigious feats of running. It might be that all these people have experienced hallucinations except that a certain consistency about their stories suggests that the Pinnacles are a focus for something beyond familiar experience. What it might be remains part of the mystery, except to note that their experiences are all intensely personal.
Difficulties arise when outsiders become involved. For those following in the wake of the "visionaries," their relationship with the Pinnacles is inevitably more fraught. In 1920, Deighton, an Anglo-American anthropologist, visits Kairo, the name given by Garcés to the place where the People camp, determined to gather as much information as possible about Native American cultures, which he believes to be on the brink of extinction. His intentions may be good, but driven by a belief in the universality of knowledge, Deighton fails to understand that he cannot simply strip the People of what they know for his own purposes. Schmidt's simple belief in a world beyond Earth has been hijacked by others and transformed into an elaborate belief system in which he is now the Guide, communing with the Space Brothers of the Ashtar Galactic Command, until he dies in a fire caused by his own elaborate communications system. The idealism of a 1970s counter-cultural community, also set up at Kairo, is quickly undermined by the arrival of drug dealers and other criminals before being finally shut down by local people. In all these encounters not only is there a failure to make proper connections but there is also a brutal severing of previous connections. These followers are distinguished by their desperate need to belong having escaped from their previous lives.
Whatever it is that manifests itself through the Pinnacles is able to make the distinction between the two groups, to sift out those for whom it has no use from those who, in some way, further its purpose, suggesting that a keen intelligence is at work, sorting and discarding to a pattern that isn’t available to those who are part of it. The careful layering in the structure of Kunzru's novel reveals this, in part at least, to the reader without ever entirely indicating what its significance might be, let alone who or what is making the choices. It seems, though, that in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the pace of change accelerates, as more outsiders arrive, more connections are made, or ignored, and more data becomes available. It is perhaps ironic that Nicky, the washed-up rock star, the least connected and yet bizarrely the most grounded of the contemporary visitors, the one who doesn't even make it as far as the rocks, perhaps offers the most telling observation as he blunders around in the desert night, trying to find himself spiritually and geographically: "The stars were like pinholes in a cloth. You could believe you were seeing through to some incredibly bright world on the other side of the darkness" (p. 31). If the Pinnacles reject him it is because he should, quite simply, go home to London and plug himself back into the web of connections he has there.
Kunzru's compiling of story fragments, although criticized by a number of reviewers, mirrors not only the actions of the Pinnacles "intelligence" but also of Jaz, a mathematical genius, who works for Bachman, a financial engineer and the creator of Walter, a computer whose function is itself mysterious: "It was more like an organism than a computer. It felt alive" (p. 134). Bachman's attempts to explain precisely what Walter does are as inarticulate as any attempt to speculate on the nature of the power flowing at the Pinnacles. Jaz is told that Walter identifies minute but predictable behaviors, however fleeting and unstable they might be, and trades on the stock markets accordingly. Jaz, however, is puzzled by the wide variety of data he is required to examine, looking for patterns, or "rhymes" as Bachman calls them. "It was as if Bachman were trying to fit the whole world into his model" (p. 135), he notes. Later, Bachman tells him that they are hunting for "[c]osmic slips of the tongue" (p. 138). His mission, he assures Jaz, is to discover the face of God, and he appears to be serious. Yet if Walter is in some sense alive, it also appears to lack any moral understanding and Jaz is increasingly disturbed by the apparent extent of Walter's power, believing the computer's trading activities to be responsible, among other things, for bringing down the economy of a Central American country.
If Jaz is rather too intimately acquainted with the interconnectedness of the world through his work, his private life is by contrast a mass of brutally severed connections. The talented child of Punjabi Sikh emigrants, he has remade himself as the all-American boy, rejecting his beliefs and his culture, and then compounding the sin, in his family's eyes, by marrying a white American woman. Lisa, the indulged daughter of secular Jews, has already admitted defeat in attempting to bridge the cultural divide between her and Jaz's family and instead, with Jaz, builds her own set of cultural connections in New York, itself that most connected of cities.
However, the birth of their son, Raj, reflects the illusory nature of this construction, first as the families wrangle about the cultural rituals surrounding birth and naming, and then more significantly when Raj is diagnosed as being severely autistic, a developmental condition characterized by the child's failure to communicate or to engage in social interaction. Raj is, literally, as disconnected as it is possible to be, but so, by virtue of her role as his primary carer, is Lisa. Both Jaz and Lisa are now attempting to deal with the utterly unknowable, as a result of which their own relationship comes under severe strain. While Jaz tries to fend off his family, which views Raj's condition as a punishment for Jaz's marrying an outsider, Lisa rejects their village remedies as superstition, instead pursuing the high-tech version of quackery, subjecting Raj to untested therapies of dubious merit, desperate for a breakthrough that never comes. Her need to believe in modernity rather than superstition is such that even while she scrutinizes Raj's every waking moment for signs of improvement, she cannot accept that playing with his aunt's amulet might soothe him, even for a short while.
By the time the family arrives at the Pinnacles, as part of an ill-conceived road trip intended to bring the family them closer together, both Jaz and Lisa know what they really want, without daring to say it out loud, and the Pinnacles mysteriously oblige when Raj apparently unfastens himself from his pushchair and disappears. Most reviewers have focused on this moment in the novel, perhaps in the light of recent child disappearances cases, such as that of Madeleine McCann, and the subsequent criticism of the McCanns for not behaving as the public felt bereft parents should. Indeed, some reviewers have gone so far as to dismiss the other story elements as merely so much clutter, I think unwisely so. The novel's main focus may indeed be on the contemporary but only insofar as it is the most visible and accessible iteration of a much deeper pattern. For all that Kunzru delivers a tour de force account of Lisa and Jaz's trial by media and total stranger, this is not a novel about a missing child (and indeed Raj is not the only child who disappears during the novel). Instead, it is in part a novel about the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive, and this is its most extreme expression: people so desperate to find meaning in their own lives they will happily extract it from the lives of others without a moment's thought for the pain they're inflicting.
The mystery then is not that Raj disappears, not even that he eventually reappears many miles away, and somehow changed for the better, but that his parents, after everything they've been through, still persist in questioning the experience rather than simply accepting its miraculous resolution. Or, rather, the stories they choose to tell themselves can lead only to self-destruction or to a terrifying revelation they are neither of them equipped to deal with. Even with the wealth of information the reader already has, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Lisa and Jaz will join those who wait, and will participate in another iteration of cultish behavior. Or will Raj become a variable in the pattern, throwing it off course?
Having said that, the presence of the reader throws yet another variable into the mix. The structure of this novel is so intricate it is difficult not to wonder whether the reader isn't another layer of world which the characters can only vaguely apprehend. Do we lurk behind the Pinnacles or are we part of Walter? For me, that is part of the pleasure of reading Gods Without Men; for others it clearly makes reading the novel a chore rather than a delight. Nevertheless, I would rather have a novel that continues to unfold its meanings rather than one which has a clear, unambiguous narrative thread, and Gods Without Men undoubtedly satisfies that need.
If I have one criticism it might be that there is something almost too pitch-perfect about this novel. In the subject areas of which I have some knowledge, it's clear that Kunzru has done his research very thoroughly and correctly, and I can’t fault his presentation of the issues at all. I might also pause to wonder if the description of the aftermath of Raj's disappearance doesn't go on just a fraction too long, but again that’s a minor quibble. Instead, let me commend Gods Without Men to you as a wonderfully constructed and fascinating novel.
Maureen Kincaid Speller is a critic and freelance copyeditor. She recently completed an MA in Postcolonial Studies and has now embarked on a PhD, focusing on indigenous contemporary literatures in North America. She has reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation, and is now an assistant editor of Foundation.