In Gods Without Men, the fourth novel by English novelist Hari Kunzru, a hedge fund manager takes his protégé, Jaz, to the Neue Gallerie in New York to show him a silver coffee set made by the Wiener Werkstätte. “There’s a tradition that says the world has shattered,” he tells Jaz, “that what was once whole and beautiful is now just scattered fragments. Much is irreparable but a few of these fragments contain 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.”
The manager implies that perhaps the coffee set is one of these fragments with the hidden sparks. But he could also be talking about Gods Without Men itself, a novel with chapters like scattered fragments, which go backward and forward in time, each containing echoes, sometimes faint, of the others. The book is populated with spiritual seekers from four different centuries, all of them drawn, for one reason or another, to the Mojave Desert in Southern California.
If Kunzru’s novel has a central story, it belongs to Jaz (short for Jaswinder) Matharu, the son of Punjabi immigrants, and his wife Lisa, a Jewish woman from Long Island who worked in publishing before their son was born. That son, named Raj, has been diagnosed with severe autism, and the difficulty of raising him has strained the marriage; when we first meet the couple, they’re on a “healing vacation” near Joshua Tree National Park. When they finally visit the nearby desert, they come upon a formation called the Pinnacle Rocks. And there, Raj disappears.
The riddle of Raj’s vanishing propels the novel, but around it Kunzru wraps three or four enigmas and a history lesson. The book does not begin with Jaz and Lisa but with a cryptic, American Indian-inspired prologue, and then a chapter about Francisco Garcés, a Spanish monk who really existed and kept a daily record of his 1775 trek through the Mojave. Kunzru concocts for Garcés an encounter near the rocks with “an angel in the form of a man with the head of a lion,” making him the first in a series of desert visionaries that also includes a 19th-century Mormon moving west in search of silver and a 1940s engineer seeking succor for the despair he feels at his partial responsibility for the bombing of Hiroshima. This latter figure, called Schmidt, thinks aliens will someday arrive and teach us how to be good; he hooks up with a would-be guru who attracts a hoard of UFO chasers and, in their wake, a hippie commune. All these seekers gather around the Pinnacle Rocks, which bear some family resemblance to the monolith in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (One of the novel’s epigraphs is a line from that book.)
These shards of stories, all chronicling efforts at mystical understanding, seem to reflect each other, the visions within prompted somehow by the blankness of the desert. Other characters look not for mystical understanding but scientific knowledge—and Kunzru seems, if anything, even more skeptical of these folks. Consider Deighton, an anthropologist who comes to the desert in 1920 to study the Indians and their culture, and who gets a few chapters of his own. Deighton regards the Indians as “primitives” and obsesses over their “purity.” He seems no freer from the colonial mindset shared by Garcés, or the Mormon miner, who each hope to convert the Indians.
American imperialism continues, of course: Today, the Mojave Desert is the site of ersatz Iraqi villages built by the U.S. military to train its soldiers in urban warfare. Iraqi-Americans, some of whom fled their homeland after it was invaded by the United States, play the natives in these simulations. Gods Without Men gives a long chapter to one such refugee, a teenage goth whose father was murdered in Baghdad. One night, during a training session, she spots Raj wandering alone in the middle of this imaginary Iraq.