Saturday, August 27, 2011

Desert Of Forking Paths

This appeared in today's The Indian Express.


As with Vikram Seth, so with Hari Kunzru: it’s difficult to pigeonhole their work. Kunzru’s novels so far have dealt with subjects as various as the different selves of a Zelig-like creature over the years; the life of a Sixties activist looking back on his revolutionary activities; and the intersection between the creator of a computer virus and a Bollywood star.  In all of them, one finds the ambition to not merely portray an aspect of our world but to encompass it, and this is also the case with his latest, Gods Without Men.

The novel features several interwoven storylines set against the backdrop of California’s Mojave Desert. Kunzru’s splintered narrative ranges over the centuries as he delves into the lives of those who find themselves in and around this sparsely populated, majestic region, particularly in the vicinity of the mysterious natural formation known as the Pinnacles.

There’s the grizzled WWII veteran constructing equipment to send out messages of love and brotherhood to the galaxy, trying to “connect the mysteries of technology with those of the spirit”; there are reports from 18th century Spanish missionaries; there’s the misadventures of an ethnologist studying the region’s Indian tribes; there’s the disaffected London rock star fleeing an LA producer; there’s the ups-and-downs of the members of a hippy cult who preach that life-altering extraterrestrial contact is imminent. Connecting all of them is the story of a couple – Jewish-American wife, Punjabi-American husband – with an autistic child who find their lives turned upside down after a mysterious abduction.

Intersecting tales spread over the centuries with a science-fiction flavour: this inevitably reminds one of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The difference, however, is that the connections in Gods Without Men are explicitly spelt out, unlike the thematic hall-of-mirrors of Mitchell’s work. Kunzru carries off the voices necessary to pull off his overweening narrative arc, from the sardonic to the schmaltzy, from the tough to the tender, from the archaic to the current. While this is admirable, as is his re-creation of disparate worlds, a concern is that not all of the stories are as compelling. For example, the rock star’s escapades have a distinct whiff of the been-there-done-that.

After a while, it becomes clear that it’s the narrative of the couple with the child that is at the centre of this garden of forking paths. Fittingly, this tale is the one that’s the most well-rendered, with echoes of the cases of Madeleine McCann, JonBenet Ramsey and, closer home, the Talwars from Noida. In this manner, though the novel isn’t quite the contrapuntal symphony it sets out to be, it remains absorbing.

As the book progresses, there’s a sense of surfeit, of ever more dishes being laden on a groaning buffet table. Especially so in the latter half, when more characters are delved into – for example, the Iranian immigrants to America who find themselves participating in war games in the desert. While this may be well-done, one can’t help wondering whether it’s also overdone. The mechanics of the plot threaten to turn awry towards the end, with eeriness and doppelgangers thrown into the mix.

A piece of dialogue from Gods Without Men, uttered by the creator of a revolutionary stock-tracking software programme, sums up Kunzru’s overall intent: “There’s a tradition that says the world has shattered, that what was once whole and beautiful is now just scattered fragments. Much is irreparable but a few of these fragments contains faint traces of the former state of things, and if you find them and uncover the sparks hidden inside, perhaps at last you’ll piece together the fallen world. This is just a glass case of wreckage. But it has presence. It’s redemptive. It is a part of something larger than itself”. Whether Gods Without Men emerges as greater than the sum of its parts is, however, a moot point.

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