- - Friday, March 23, 2012

By Hari Kunzru
Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95 384 pages

”Gods Without Men” weaves together several stories united by their location: the Mojave Desert and especially “Three columns of rock … like the tentacles of some ancient creature, weathered feelers probing the sky.” Called the Pinnacles and long potent for the region’s American Indians, they entice all who see them, though the significance ascribed to them varies. For Fray Garces, an 18th-century Spanish missionary, they symbolize the Trinity. Twentieth-century believers in intergalactic visitors are convinced that this is where planetary beings will arrive to save the earth. Others see strange greenish lights nearby: flying saucers maybe, sometimes humanlike figures.

In 2008, Jaz and Lisa visit with their autistic son, Raj, briefly leaving him sleeping in his stroller. When they return minutes later, he’s gone. But where? Intense searches reveal no child, no sign of tracks. Massive media coverage elicits tremendous sympathy, but when Raj isn’t found, sympathy turns to suspicion. Perhaps these parents were glad to be rid of their troublesome child? Perhaps they killed him? Certainly, we know that Lisa’s days and their nights have been spent dealing with hours of screaming and obsessive behavior.

As this hell is breaking out, global stock markets fall cataclysmically. Jaz, a mathematician turned Wall Street expert in quantitative analysis, has been worried by Walter, a program that searches huge data sets for patterns: “One day he found a periodic cycle in a cluster of figures for CPU transistor counts since 1960, IQ test scores for black boys from single-parent families and an epidemiological analysis of the spread of the methamphetamine drug ya-ba through Thailand and Southeast Asia.” Based on such correspondences, Walter up-ended one country’s currency, and when it kept ferrying more and more money into American mortgage-backed securities, Jaz had foreseen disaster.

Walter is not the only pattern seeker. Everyone in this hugely impressive and readable novel connects bits of information and events. Hippies arrive at the Pinnacles toting books on “number vibration, psychic healing, mineral therapy, astrophysics, mental calisthenics, yoga, the dimensions of Solomon’s temple, and telepathic communication.” Deighton, the war-scarred ethno-anthropologist who records American Indian stories, interprets their culture differently from the locals. The lives of Jaz’s family are shaped by their Sikh beliefs. Lisa eventually finds solace in the Jewish tradition of her heritage. But while all the characters connect the dots in ways they find compelling, no one connects them all.

Author Hari Kunzru’s ventriloquial skills mimic their thoughts and language showing all his characters as stars of their own universes. Some of their stories reach conclusions - though these seem temporary. Others stories remain open-ended: ambiguous and tantalizing. Looking at the face of Walter’s creator, Jaz feels a “hermeneutic despair. … He was a forest of signs.” So, too, is the world of the novel, and they resist being marshaled in any way that includes them all.

Much of “Gods Without Men” has a topical immediacy. Jaz’s work on Wall Street ties into the 2008 economic collapse, and the media blitz after Raj’s disappearance recalls 2007 events following the loss of Madeleine McCann, the English child who disappeared in Portugal while her parents were dining nearby. More generally, the life of rock-star Nicky and Jaz’s work on Wall Street position them on the golden edge of America’s spectrum, while Dawn, who spent her youth awaiting the arrival of saviors from outer space and now runs a desert motel, lives closer to the other, rougher edge.

These deft descriptions of contemporary life capture attention, but what impresses at the end of this novel is its sense of history as a mosaic of endless variations on the human effort to make sense of the world. In one of the more amusing episodes, the Marines build a fake but realistic Iraqi village staffed by Iraqi villagers. Here they practice searches, investigations, attacks on insurgents and, at the end of the day, the villagers are debriefed to see whether they feel more or less enthusiasm for the American presence in Iraq.

The villagers are play-acting and so are the Marines, but the responses are interpreted as fact. All this is seen through the eyes of Laila, a young Iraqi immigrant recruited as a villager. She is as deeply involved as the Marines in interpretation, but her focus is America. The Marines’ version of Iraq and Laila’s version of America are like kaleidoscopic fragments that clatter into enticing patterns. What really is everyone trying to discover? “The face of God,” says Cy Bachman, Walter’s inventor. “What else would we be looking for?”

Hari Kunzru’s earlier work has won several literary prizes, including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Pushcart Prize. The ambition and originality of “Gods Without Men,” his fourth novel, will confirm his position as an important writer. It will also intrigue and entertain its readers, and give them ideas to ponder.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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