Author Hari Kunzru on the culture wars, meth, and his ambitious new novel, 'Gods Without Men'
When I met Hari Kunzru at Soho House, near the Chelsea home that he shares with his fiancée, the novelist Katie Kitamura, I found him sitting at the bar, drinking mineral water and reading Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion by Stuart A. Kauffman, an eminent biologist and “complexity theorist” associated with the Sante Fe Institute.
The choice of book fits Kunzru, whose latest novel, Gods Without Men, delves with equal enthusiasm into the mysteries of Wall Street's quantitative analysts and Chemehuevi Indian rituals. For Kunzru, an avowed nonbeliever, science and religion both deserve investigation, and in the course of his new novel, both offer pathways to ecstatic states.
Set mostly in the Mojave Desert and across several centuries (and narrated from a number of points of view), Gods Without Men is a harrowing, ambitious novel that offers settings from New Age communes to a simulated Iraqi village, and experiences from peyote-fueled hallucinations to a violent manhunt across the high desert. There are also set pieces about quants designing an artificial intelligence to detect arcane patterns in the world and a British rock star having an existential crisis.
It's a novel whose variegated sections rhyme—symbols and leitmotifs recur across history; a coyote in a Chemehuevi folk tale later appears as a man named Coyote, occupying a similar role—but don't repeat. It's the fulfillment of the type of “networked novel” that Kunzru has advocated for, one that he argues is particularly suited to our networked age.
In Kunzru's view, too few novelists take up this challenge. Instead they tend to write “novels that want to be films,” as he lamented to me at Soho House, “that have that kind of surface, all tiny visuals. One person's journey. Stuff that will translate easily to the screen.”
He understands this impulse, but criticizes such straightforward narratives as “chucking out all the things that the novel does best: interiority, the ability to change scale, the ability to kind of connect things together.”
Kunzru's statement of aesthetic principles reflects a kind of confidence found in Gods Without Men,the sort of book that shows an author in full stride, deploying his skills to consider issues of religion, assimilation, mysticism, and even celebrity culture in one expansive, mind-bending work. The novel was published in the U.K. last August to stellar reviews and seems equally primed for success here: Douglas Coupland reviews it on the cover of this Sunday's New York Times Book Review, where he calls it “gorgeous and wise.”
The son of an Indian father and British mother, Kunzru grew up in Essex and earned degrees from Oxford and the University of Warwick. He began his career as a journalist for Wired UK and other magazines, and though Gods Without Men marks his fourth novel (and fifth book of fiction) published since 2003, he's kept up a varied career of literary criticism, travel pieces, and essays on politics and technology. Now in his early 40s, he speaks with a kind of urbane British drawl. He wears thick-framed black glasses and a light beard. A patch of salt-and-pepper stubble peters out near the crown of his head.
Gods Without Men, whose title comes from Balzac, makes liberal use of those aforementioned techniques while practicing a kind of synchronous fragmentation. The main storyline revolves around a well-to-do New York couple, Jaz and Lisa Matharu, who visit the Mojave while their marriage is falling apart under the strain of caring for their severely autistic four-year-old son, Raj. Subplots, some of which intrude upon the Jaz/Lisa/Raj story, others of which simply bear a kind of echoing resemblance to the central story, include a desert UFO cult, an anthropologist studying native peoples after World War I, and an 18th century Spanish Franciscan monk.
All of these characters somehow find themselves drawn to “the Pinnacles,” a three-pronged spire of rock near California’s Joshua Tree National Park. But the story remains deliberately irresolvable, which is part of its pleasure and its design.
“There are big gaps in this book,” Kunzru said, with some satisfaction. “There are gaps you fall into that have no real obvious way out. That's something that I find increasingly interesting in a lot of art in different formats.
“You could tie it up in a little bow and it would all run like clockwork. And I think it would lose what is most interesting about trying to put a bunch of different stuff together, which is: just let them oscillate together, just let them resonate together. Allow the reader to kind of live in the gaps a little.”
As inspiration, Kunzru cited David Lynch's movies, which “refuse a certain kind of sense,” and Roberto Bolaño's magnum opus, 2666. Gaps, möbius strips of logic, parallel plots, unanswerable questions—Kunzru's remarks recalled, for me, an essay he wrote for The Guardian in September 2011 about a postmodernism exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Kunzru cited the Sony Building, on Madison Avenue, as a principal example of early architectural postmodernism. The building's signature feature—“a circular space... carved out of the apex of the triangle which tops the façade”—is actually the lack of something, a visible absence. That, in turn, is what makes it remarkable.
The same might be said of Kunzru's novel—it's driven by the mystery of gaps, of absence—yet it's also a travelogue, a fascinating inquiry into one of America's forgotten corners, and, at times, a doleful family drama. Kunzru is capable of writing in a number of styles—one section features the kind of Biblically amplified prose practiced by Cormac McCarthy—but his language tends to be modest and cooly ironic. Lisa's parents ask Jaz, a son of Sikh immigrants, “about his family and his 'culture,' a word they used as if it denoted something fragile that might break if roughly handled.” A jingoistic sheriff's hands rest “on the carbine laid across his lap, like a musician waiting his turn to play.”
Along with receiving attention for his fiction (and the reported seven-figure advance for his first novel, The Impressionist), Kunzru has also distinguished himself as a thoughtful political commentator, though, as he explained, that hasn't always been by choice.
“Part of it hasn't really been voluntary for me. I seem to get contextualized in various political ways and in various cultural ways almost without trying to be. The race thing kind of ends up something you have to talk about.”
Even so, Kunzru, who is the deputy director of English PEN, speaks approvingly of the role of the writer as public intellectual.
“I think that one of the advantages a writer of fiction has is that you're kind of non-aligned. You're not trying to get elected. You're not really speaking for anyone other than yourself, and if people choose to agree with you, great.”
Kunzru came to the U.S. in 2008 for a Cullman Center Fellowship at the New York Public Library. He had planned to use the NYPL's Asia collection to research a novel set in sixteenth-century India but, after the end of his nine-month fellowship, had made little progress.
“I couldn't find a reason to go back,” he said. “I really wasn't done with New York.”
Nor could he let go of a short story he had written, about a couple dealing with their autistic child.
“I just got sucker-punched by being in the States,” he said, approvingly. “That became the thing I needed to sort out, I needed to write about.”
He began traveling periodically to the West Coast, sometimes with his fiancée or friends. He took road trips around the region, flying into Las Vegas' McCarran airport and driving around northern Nevada or trekking east from Los Angeles to the Mojave Desert. As if by accident, he realized that he was gathering material, and the novel took shape.
“I got into a rhythm between being here and being on these long road trips out in the desert,” he said. “It's such an addictive place.”
But it's not always an inviting one, as Kunzru found.
“It's the place where they go and bury bodies and cook meth,” he said. His words recalled Breaking Bad or Imperial, William T. Vollmann's 1,300-page study of California's destitute Imperial Valley. Kunzru continued: “People are living very marginal lives and are not very connected into the mainstream of the economy. They have nothing to do with the very amazing coastal world of California. It's kind of like the buried unconscious of California.
“People are surviving on three thousand bucks a year, living in a double-wide. There's an aspect to this country that's really undomesticated.”
While he didn't embark on the radical first-person adventures of Vollmann, Kunzru spent some time with the locals.
“I always make a point to go and drink in the scary bar. You meet people in gas stations, diners. You end up in some very strange conversations.”
In one of the novel's most violent scenes, Schmidt, a drifter who later becomes an aircraft mechanic and eventually founds a messianic U.F.O. cult, drags his young wife behind his pickup truck, badly injuring her. Schmidt himself is only a teenager and becomes ridden with guilt by the incident. But the truth was actually more frightening, Kunzru explained.
“That was a story that was told to me by a guy in a bar in Twentynine Palms. This old guy, who told it to me like a funny story. He had been fifteen and had this shotgun wedding. It was so weird and chilling. He was pretty drunk and he wanted to bring me back to his trailer to carry on drinking whiskey and shooting the shit. He wanted to show me his guns.”
Kunzru declined. But it wasn’t the last odd encounter he had.
“The meth thing is out there,” he said. He remembered “watching a couple with no teeth argue where the five bucks is that was supposed to be for fixing the window.”
Some of the novel's scenery is inspired by northern Nevada, where old mining towns have gone fallow. Kunzru found “streets and streets of sort of derelict, often wooden structures. And you realize there are a few people still in town, in the center of town. There might be a gas station still functioning. And that's it for a hundred miles in any direction. What is your view of the world if that's your milieu?”
That last question—and the willingness it suggests to inhabit the experience of others rather than simply appropriate it—marks Kunzru’s work more than any other feature. He's also conscious both of the duty of cultural sensitivity and how it can be stultifying.
“There are real questions about who owns stuff and who has the right to speak,” Kunzru said, when I asked him about his use of Chemehuevi Indian folklore. “But if you follow that logic to the end, no one can write fiction. How can I describe your experience because it's different from mine? How can I as a male writer write a woman?
“Pretty much everyone writing today, reading today, has had some kind of bruising experience in the culture wars. We've all gotten kind of paranoid about imagining each other's experiences. I took the view that I have no ownership, I have no right to speak, I have no authority at all. But I have an engagement, an interest, and a risk to do it. I decided I'll take the risk, I'll put it out there, and I'll have the conversation with anyone who wishes to tell me I got it wrong.”
This measured boldness was on display, in January, at India's Jaipur Literary Festival. After false rumors about an assassination plot caused Salman Rushdie to cancel his appearance, Kunzru and his friend Amitava Kumar read from Rushdie's The Satanic Verses as an act of protest. The event created a storm of media attention and threats of legal action. While the book is not illegal to read in India (only to import), the country has loose laws—inherited from the British Raj—governing speech and acts of sedition. Anyone can claim that someone has made comments “prejudicial to national unity,” even if he did not hear the comments directly, and then go shopping for a sympathetic magistrate to initiate an investigation. That's happened to Kunzru and Kumar, who face seven active cases in various jurisdictions. Jail time appears unlikely, but Kunzru says that it could take 10 years to sort it all out.
Discussing their legal situation at Kunzru's book party Tuesday night at the Asian American Writers Workshop, both men seemed optimistic. For Kunzru, it's an opportunity to draw attention to the country's overlooked authoritarian side.
“India gets a really easy ride because it's always compared to China. The repression in China is clear and present; it's indisputable. And India has this tag: World's Largest Democracy. Everyone's like, 'two thumbs up for India. Let's go!' But actually Indian democracy is kind of quite fragile. There are elements within Indian society which don't have a particular commitment to a democratic tradition.”
It's a tradition that he's determined to strengthen, as his growing renown as a novelist in turn allows him to embrace his role as a public intellectual. Talking in Soho House's swank bar, where members of the private club nurse cocktails while reclining on leather couches, India's rough-and-tumble politics, and Kunzru's own legal issues, seemed far away; but the author spoke as if the cause were both immediately present and a kind of duty.
“In order to build a solid space for free speech and dissent, you have to do this stuff,” Kunzru said, his voice firm, his jaw set. “You have to go out there and test the boundaries.”