Gods Without Men is a frisky stab at The Great American Novel from a non-American. The book’s big themes reiterate Hari Kunzru’s established interests: cross-cultural power struggles (The Impressionist) and misunderstandings (Transmission), failed countercultural movements (My Revolutions), the difficulties of assimilation (all of the above). A series of mysterious encounters with aliens in the California desert tie together nearly 250 years of interlinking stories, but the real subject is the Iraq War, as echoed by other manifestations of bloody conquest: Western settlers slaughtering Native Americans, Spanish imperialists subjugating their native subjects, and many men driven mad by their abuse of power. At times, Gods Without Men comes close to turning into a catalogue of the horrors of Western cultural imperialism through the ages.
The main story follows Jaz and Lisa Matharu, a troubled couple who take a vacation with their autistic son Raj. It’s 2008, and Jaz is on the verge of quitting his Wall Street job, concerned that his esoteric market analyses and the resulting trades aren’t just taking advantage of weak economies, but actively hastening their collapse. When Raj vanishes in the desert, the couple become talk-show celebrities. First they’re pitied. Then they’re accused of East Coast coldness for not crying in public over their son’s disappearance. Finally, they’re vilified as murderous Satanists.
This storyline gives Kunzru scope to tackle the recent American zeitgeist: social-media-driven hysteria, mass financial irresponsibility, the lingering scars of racism. Jaz is Indian, Lisa is Jewish, and their parents’ mutual doubts color their marriage. There are echoes of past wrongs even in the description of the Matharus’ gentrified Brooklyn lifestyle, eating dinners in restaurants “that served steaks and oysters out of a storefront that retained some of the fittings from the old pharmacy that previously occupied the site.”
It’s a spot-on, angry, funny description. Alternating sections from Jaz and Lisa’s points of view, Kunzru has a keen eye for his first novel set entirely in America, but trouble arrives in the second half when Raj disappears and total narrative despair sets in. Matters aren’t helped by the other dominant storyline, a chronicle of the fictional Ashtar Galactic Command’s rise and fall from the ’50s to the early ’70s. It’s a well-sketched but predictable tale of alien cult worship that feels like a frivolous rendition of My Revolutions’ portrait of contemporaneous, much more serious political activism. No matter the time period, Kunzru’s determination to find echoes of Iraq in everything dulls his virtuosity, grounding the novel in recent history in an ultimately pedantic fashion.