by Dave Wheeler
How funny has the news become lately? From politics, to health concerns, to bacon shortages, to a headline from my favorite news outlet, Buzzfeed: “Ke$ha Claims She Had Sex With a Ghost.” The high rate at which information travels seems to necessitate a high stream of content, with an apparent decline in the quality of that content. The absurd is deemed newsworthy and the news is absurd.
In some ways, being of the Millennial generation, one wherein computers have always been a household commodity and the Internet (more or less) has been a communication staple, dubious AOL chatrooms aside, this high-streaming newsfeed has played water to my fish. In other ways it will henceforth, and so when I read books for pleasure, I often prefer to forget modern life as we know it, at least in its current technological, political, and economical preoccupations, often turning toward re-imagined near histories like those Michael Chabon has become famous for or dark Russian fiction like The Master & Margarita, which I finished (finally, I know) last week with a tip of my hat to Banned Books Week.
What I have not read enough of is the type of self-examined literature ready to expose current society in all its serious absurdity, like Gods Without Men, Hari Kunzru’s latest masterpiece.
It centers around a young, inter-lapsed-faith couple and their autistic son. Jaz, the husband, a former Sikh, works for a new finance firm grounded in a philosophy that makes The Secret sound reasonable, and takes Lisa, a non-practicing Jew, and their son, Raj, on a much-needed vacation to California, to the Mojave. Where, subsequently, Raj goes missing in a big way.
From economic concerns to racial attitudes to alien abductions to superstitions and cults, Kunzru does just about everything in this book, considering the narrative bounces around from 2008 to the 1940s and ‘50s, to the 1920s, to the 1700s and 1800s. When you open the first page, you read a myth about the unsinkable Coyote. He’s learning to make meth and keeps exploding his trailer, each time corrected by a different animal spirit on his cooking technique.
From the get-go, Gods Without Men asks of its readers and itself, “What are you willing to believe?” It’s not about what you do or don’t believe, but rather your preparedness to recognize some pretty inexplicable things. When the Stock Market crashes, will you believe wealth is fragile? Will you believe it’s your fault? When your son goes missing, will you believe he’s been taken by extra-terrestial beings? Or will you believe it’s your fault?
In his New York Times review of Gods Without Men, Douglas Coupland categorizes the novel as “hysterical realism,” a genre that feasibly encompasses Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and my beloved The Master & Margarita. Meanwhile, I wanted a different term, so I read the whole Wikipedia entry for “Irrealism,” which basically made me an expert. Irrealism is a philosophical sense in which multiple realities, however bizarre or contradictory, can exist simultaneously. In its mish-mash of metaphysics and the human capacity for knowledge, many world versions supplement and complement one another.
But instead of bastardizing philosophical thought I’ve familiarized myself with and distilled here in the most rudimentary way, the point I’d like to make is this: I found so fascinating in Kunzru’s novel his capability to present the world as the news portrays it, in all its economic instability and violent uncertainty and prejudice, while simultaneously shaping parallel moments in times equally devoid of rationality, reaching ever more fantastical heights. And yet, as I read it, I never once thought the nature of extra-terrestrial enlightenment in the mid-1960s was preposterous, if only because the fabric of racial hatred and dramatic class disparity resounds with a familiar disbelief, as in, It’s 2012 and this is still a thing!
At least, that was my reaction. The thing about Gods Without Men is that it’s like a Rorschach test. Its title originates from Balzac, who stated “The desert is gods without men.” The setting is just as much a character as any of the myriad people who negotiate its vast mystery. Inasmuch as people experience the Desert and come back changed, I’m convinced Gods Without Men has the same mutable effect.
Otherwise, you’re welcome to ask the author himself, when he’s at Benaroya Hall for Seattle Arts & Lectures later this month. (Tues, Oct 23, at 7:30pm) But that’s not to say he’ll have a definitive answer.
“Sundays In” is a new bi-weekly column written as the experiences of one reader to another. While much of the week might be filled with work and errands, there might just be one afternoon to enjoy the pleasure of reading. For this bookseller, “Sunday” is Thursday.