A Mystery, Four Enigmas, and a History Lesson in the Mojave

Reading between the lines.
March 3 2012 12:05 AM

Coyote Stole My Baby

Hari Kunzru’s sprawling, messy dreamscape of a novel explores the myths and mysteries of the Mojave.

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How did he get there? Kunzru seems less interested in providing an answer than he is in investigating the many ways we might begin to construct one. Raj’s absence is a void not unlike the desert, and calls out for a story, not only about where he’s gone, but why. Before his reappearance, Jaz and Lisa quickly blame themselves, and each other. The American public, meanwhile, alerted to the story by TV news and the Internet, “begin to blog and tweet and post comments” about the Matharus, inventing their own theories and explanations. Kunzru, a former staffer at Wired, includes Internet comments, with aptly chosen typos and grammatical errors, in the narration, along with snippets of dialogue from the Matharus’ television appearances.

There is no straightforward solution to the mystery, but little clues and allusions send the reader back to that cryptic prologue, a faux-Indian folktale about Coyote. That trickster figure reappears periodically throughout the novel, sometimes as an animal—one howls just before the Mormon miner has a vision of angels and airships; another whines before Schmidt, the engineer, sees alien spacecraft—and sometimes in human form. One of the hippies who arrives in the wake of Schmidt is named Coyote; he’s still living in the area when Jaz and Lisa arrive on vacation.

In a tutorial of sorts about the Coyote legend, we learn that Coyote can move back and forth between the land of the living and the Land of the Dead. This suggests a supernatural explanation for both the disappearance of Raj and a parallel mystery that emerges in the chapters about Deighton, the anthropologist. Deighton one night sees a white child who appears to be glowing walking with an Indian man named Mockingbird Runner. When he tells this story in a nearby town, he prompts an investigation cum lynch mob: Angry white men chase Mockingbird Runner to the Pinnacle Rocks, where he is either killed or, perhaps, trapped in the Land of the Dead, whence he emerges to snatch Raj in 2008, only to return the baby to the land of the living a few months later in the middle of that military simulation.

Admittedly, I am still puzzling this out. Gods Without Men is a shaggy, multi-tentacled beast of a book, with many of its parts cast in shadow; that Kunzru could cram so much detail and plot into less than 400 pages is some kind of miracle of compression. (I haven’t even mentioned the British rock star, the meth dealing, the echoing instances of adultery across generations.) The book engages with enormous, complicated themes: religion vs. reason, indigenous culture vs. imperialism, fact-finding vs. storytelling. And Kunzru is a fiercely intelligent writer, who exhibits remarkable control over both his material (he has done prodigious research) and his impressive variety of narrative voices (he has negative capability in spades).

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But I admire Gods Without Men more than I enjoyed it. In a recent Paris Review interview Ann Beattie said that “when you write fiction you’re raising questions, and a lot of people think you’re playing a little game with them and that actually you know the answers to the questions.” Kunzru does not pretend to have the answers in this novel—but he does play a game of sorts, burying hints and allusions you must hunt for if you want to figure out what could possibly be going on. His approach befits the trickster, Coyote, who seems to serve as a kind of spirit guide, and who, like Kunzru, probably doesn’t care that I might have liked this story better if he’d told it straight.

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