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Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Writers of short stories have often tried to present their
collections as pseudo-novels.  This is a time-honored
tradition of American fiction, practiced by William Faulkner,
Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Ray Bradbury and
others.  Publishing industry biases
no doubt contribute to the charade,
given the conventional wisdom that
books of short stories sell poorly.

But a different trend is now on the
rise in contemporary fiction. Authors
are presenting us with fractured,
splintered novels that aim to evoke
the discontinuity of a short story
collection.  The goal lines have
been reversed, and instead of
aspiring to a holistic narrative
unity, whether real or contrived,
writers are increasingly favoring
a style of disjunction and juxtaposition.  

The most prominent example this new state of affairs is
David Mitchell’s masterful
Cloud Atlas (2004), a book that
is structured more like a musical composition, with different
movements and tempos, than a traditional novel.  Other
noteworthy ‘fractured novels’ of the new millennium include
T.C. Boyle’s
When the Killing’s Done (2011), Geraldine
Brooks’s
People of the Book (2008), Tom Rachman’s The
Imperfectionists (2010), David Foster Wallace’s The Pale
King (2011), Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero (2007), Mark Z.
Danielewski’s
House of Leaves (2000), and David Gordon’s
The Serialist (2011).  And now, we must add to this list
Hari Kunzru’s
Gods Without Men—a work that, like several
of the above, mixes judicious doses of genre elements into
a book that, nonetheless, will never get shelved in the sci-fi
section of the library.

These books are not short story collections masquerading
as novels.  In the final analysis, they
do cohere as unified
works, but in a prickly, elusive way.  Like a cracked mirror,
these fractured novels still present us with a single big
picture, even while threatening to break away into isolated,
incommensurable fragments.  This shift in fiction reminds
me of the comparable change in philosophy and theory
during the 1980s, when the systematizers went out of
favor, and the anti-systematizers came to the fore.
Goodbye Marx, Hegel, Sartre, Husserl.  Hello Nietzsche,
Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze. Put away your Northrop Frye and
take up your Roland Barthes. Dialectic exits stage left;
deconstruction enters stage right.   Now the novel is
following this same path, jettisoning an idealized unity in
favor of an alluring multiplicity.  

The coherence in Kunzru’s
Gods Without Men is provided by
three large rocks jutting out of the ground in the desert.   
This might seem an unpromising nexus point for a novel,
but Kunzru’s landscape is far from ordinary.  I’ve heard
friends of mine, who are more sensitive to such matters,
enthuse over the “high places” they have visited—and they
are not referring to the elevation above sea level or the
offices of the rich and powerful. They are describing certain
geographical locales where an intangible spiritual resonance
can be felt, a metaphysical force that defies precise
definition or explanation, but which seems to emanate from
the spot.  These kinds of high places would include
Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, Delphi, Ayers Rock, and various
other destinations of pilgrimages and vision quests.  

If the geography here is compact, the timeline is expansive.  
Gods Without Men is a chronological jumble.  A chapter set
in 1942 is followed by a lengthy section that takes place
2009, which is followed in turn by diary entries from 1775.  
Kunzru demonstrates considerable virtuosity in changing
narrative voice and prose style every few pages.  A section
about a British rocker is filled with cockney slang, while a
military dispatch from the 18th century is wrapped up in the
decorum and protocols of the period.  Yet there is nothing
flashy or ostentatious about these modulations.  Each
separate storyline is presented with total commitment and
authenticity, and the pieces in this literary jigsaw puzzle
are allowed to fit together naturally without forcing.  

People travel to the Pinnacles—three columns of rock that
rise into southwestern desert air like "the tentacles of some
ancient creature"—for many purposes, but what they find
there is often something quite different from what they
sought.   Both visions and hallucinations haunt this
landscape.  During the course of the three centuries covered
in Kunzru’s novel, his desert locale is the setting for a UFO
encounter, a hippie commune, a criminal manhunt, a
missionary’s vision, a kidnapping, a military investigation,
sacrifices and redemptions of various kinds, and other
incidents, both strange and banal.   

Few novels embrace a more disparate collection of
subplots.   My two favorite threads in this tapestry involve
the aforementioned rock star, who breaks up with the band
and heads off into the desert to reboot his life, and a much
different narrative about a MIT mathematician working on a
Wall Street financial model that seems to have become a
"god in the machine," a black box capable of moving
markets and bringing together the most incommensurable
elements into a single overarching framework.  By the way,
the latter bit of artificial intelligence could serve as a
metaphor for Kunzru's whole book.

Sometimes the events that take place at the Pinnacles are
inexplicable.  Unusual powers seem to be at work here. Yet
just as often, those who come to the spot seeking a
transcendent experience leave disillusioned or
disappointed.  Kunzru doesn’t aim to clarify or reconcile,
and that is one of the reasons why this novel never falls
into the clichés of genre fiction.  He realizes that the raw
power of his story is enhanced by its inherent mysteries
and paradoxes.   Trying to ‘explain’ the Pinnacles would be
akin to those pat explanations of Stonehenge or the
Pyramids, clumsy attempts to reduce the splendor of the
metaphysical to a series of claustrophobically empirical
observations.

This is a significant book, both in its own right but also as
a sign of the changes afoot in contemporary fiction.  So
much of what is most provocative or engaging in today’s
literary scene is exemplified in these pages:  the return of
plotting and storytelling as constitutive elements in
narrative strategies; the infusion of liberating genre
elements into cutting-edge fiction;  the frictive charge of
contrasting cultures engaging in conflict and collaboration.  
What Kunzru has delivered is one-of-a-kind, yet it is also a
book that I would recommend to someone who wanted to
read a single novel that represented the current moment in
modern fiction.  

Even when all its stories are told,
Gods Without Men leaves
us with more questions than answers. That may be why this
novel, which seems to disregard the tenets of literary
realism, comes across as far more true to life than those
books in which the mysterious is hidden behind an wall of
unmitigated plausibility.   If so, the new ‘fragmented novel’
may owe its appeal not to any passing literary trend or
piquant experimental quality, but to its ability to grasp
levels of human experience that a more streamlined,
‘coherent’ narrative could never reach.


Ted Gioia's latest book is The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
Gods Without Men

by Hari Kunzru
Selected Reviews
(2007-2014)
BY TED GIOIA

Daniel Kehlmann [click here]
David Mitchell [
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Richard Powers [
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Michael Chabon [
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