Think of Hari Kunzru's disquieting new novel, Gods Without Men, as a bicycle wheel. The outer rim of the wheel is an unnamed stretch of desert that, by Kunzru's description—and the fact that one of its characters drives there from LA in just a few hours—sounds like the high, arid country around Joshua Tree National Park. The spokes are the characters who visit that desert over centuries: Native Americans, Spanish priests, early ethnographers, hicks, hippies, military men, meth cookers, Iraqi refugees, a British rock star.
The hub of the wheel is a large, three-pronged rock formation in the midst of this desert. The pinnacles might be mystical, or maybe Kunzru's characters assign them mystical powers because they want their chaotic lives to have some narrative, some meaning. Some think the pinnacles are the gateway between the living and the dead. Some think they're the place where aliens have made contact with the people of Earth. When people get near the pinnacles (whether in 1775 or 2008), their lives tend toward drugs, sex, and death.
Whether or not the rock formation is mystical, Gods Without Men certainly is. The novel is almost esoteric in the way its characters' life-spokes cross each other, sometimes across generations, on their way to and from the three-pinnacled hub. One example: A goth girl from Baghdad named Laila has fled to America with her little brother after the outbreak of the Iraq war. She obsesses over a British rock star and briefly meets him on the street of her obscure California town before going to work with her uncle at a re-creation of an Iraqi village built for American military training purposes. The strung-out rock star is in her town because he's fleeing a recording session gone bad in LA. He's staying in the same motel where Jaz (an Indian American math whiz working for Wall Street), his wife Lisa (a Jewish American wild child turned housewife), and their son Raj (an autistic boy whose very existence strains their marriage) are staying. Dawn, the woman running the motel, was part of an alien-worshipping commune (and drug-distribution network) that met a bad end at the rock formation in 1970.
In 2008, Raj vanishes at the pinnacles. The rock star, who'd been tripping on peyote near there a few days earlier, is briefly blamed by local cops and TV stations. Laila may (or may not) find the missing boy while watching a night-training exercise at the military base where she's posing as an Iraqi girl hostile to the US military. (She is an Iraqi girl hostile to the US military, one whose scriptures are sad-sack rock 'n' roll lyrics.) Dawn, the alien worshipper/drug dealer turned motel owner, saves Lisa from some drunk and randy soldiers (who Laila will later meet—are you keeping up?) the night before Raj disappears. And we haven't even gotten to the ethnographer, the sheriffs that seem to hop through time, and Coyote, a shape-shifting character who seems to be everywhere, playing cat-and-mouse games with anyone who ventures onto his desert turf. Sometimes, people switch bodies. Some characters reincarnate.
Trying to summarize the novel makes it sound confusing and difficult, a big Pynchon scramble. But Kunzru is an ace storyteller who keeps us low to the ground, invested in each moment, more occupied with the state of the characters' relationships than some big-picture map. "Good prose," Orwell once wrote, "is like a windowpane"—a clear glass through which one can see ideas. Fussy, overwritten prose is a smudgy windowpane that draws attention to itself, obscuring the ideas moving behind it. (Some writers, of course, make stained-glass windows—late Joyce and Faulkner, for example—where the ideas are barely discernible behind the ornamentation of the language, which is supposed to be its own reward. A writer has to be colossally arrogant to even try that gambit, but it works once in a great while.)
Kunzru is of the Orwell school—the plotlines of Gods Without Men sound psychedelic when they're summarized, but the book's prose is clear. When Dawn encounters one of her former commune family after an interval of many years, she sees "a middle-aged woman in denims and a white shirt (still that white shirt!) with graying hair and the thin lips of a person who'd had to say no too many times in her life." Jaz, reeling from the trauma of his lost child, tries "to make his life as much like plane travel as possible. He slept in an armchair... wearing an eye mask and a pair of bulky noise-canceling headphones. It was like staging his own extraordinary rendition, grabbing himself out of one time and place, hoping to land in another."
With My Revolutions, a novel about a British domestic terrorist in the 1960s, Kunzru showed his ability to tell a complicated, politically fraught story in a simple, engaging, unpretentious way. Gods Without Men is more ambitious, reaches through politics and into metaphysics—and it succeeds.