This book begins with a short chapter entitled “In the time when animals were men.” This is the only chapter in the book that has a title. This chapter is clearly meant to allude to Native American mythology, but with a twist. Case in point: “Coyote took an RV and drove into the desert to set up a lab. He took along ten loaves of Wonder Bread and fifty packets of Ramen noodles. He took whiskey and enough pot to keep him going. He searched for a long time and found a good place. ‘Here, I will set up-aikya! There is so much room! There is no one to bother me here!” And just a couple of paragraphs later: “He lit a cigarette. There was an explosion. He died” (1).
But Coyote doesn’t stay dead for long. The next thing the reader knows, he is alive again and scheming with some other denizens of the desert: Gila Monster, Cottontail Rabbit, etc. Then “he choked on the poison gas and died” (1). Finally, on page 2 of the novel, after dying three times, Coyote succeeds in cooking some crystal meth, and then the novel begins.
This playful opening establishes the novel’s center point: a set of three pinnacle rocks in the desert near Victorville, CA. I believe this specific set of rocks to be fictional, though other pinnacle rocks certainly exist, and I know Victorville to be a real place, exactly the sort of place where a dead coyote in an RV might be cooking crystal meth. But it’s clear that Kunzru is conflating his desert lore here, since the Coyote myth is Navajo and would be more at home in Arizona or New Mexico.
With the exception of the first one, each chapter in this novel begins not with a title but with a date. The novel’s primary plot takes place in 2008, and approximately every other chapter takes place in that year. The other chapters are set in some year other than 2008 and involve other characters, but they always involve the same set of pinnacle rocks, and many of them involve some kind of spiritual quest.
The 2008 plot is by far the most interesting of the novel’s several plot lines. This narrative concerns Jaz Matharu, his wife Lisa, and their autistic son Raj. Jaz and Lisa’s marriage is strained, as Lisa has abandoned her career to stay home with Raj, who is nonverbal and throws constant tantrums: “Lisa had a shitty deal and he knew it and she knew he knew, and that was the hairline crack in the bowl, the start of their trouble” (48). The Matharus have been visiting Lisa’s family in LA and have taken a side trip to the desert to see the Pinnacle Rocks, and they are staying at a motel run by a woman named Dawn, who is the protagonist of the 1970 plot line.
Before we meet the Matharus, though, we meet Schmidt. His plot line takes place in 1947 (though much of it is backstory and takes place during World War II), and it was his chapter – right after the one about the Breaking Bad coyote – that really hooked me to this book. After serving as an airplane mechanic in the war, Schmidt drove out to the desert near the Pinnacle Rocks, where he “ran a couple of tests, used the divining rod and the earth meter,” and discovered that “there was power here, running along the fault line and up through the rocks: a natural antenna” (5). Schmidt’s section was my favorite part of the book – it got me excited about this novel, which never quite lived up to its early promise. I did enjoy the book overall, but I finished it less excited than I was when I started.
So the basic outline of the Schmidt chapter is that after the war Schmidt settles in the desert because of some ill-defined spiritual joo-joo and does his best to commune with aliens. His intention is as follows: “The world had split in two, either side of the Iron Curtain. He would heal the wound. His intention was to summon the only force powerful enough to transcend Communism and Capitalism and halt the cascade of destructive energies. Since the dawn of history there had been contact with extraterrestrial intelligences. Ezekiel’s wheels within wheels, the Mayan space pilots, the cosmic weaponry of Vedic India – the visitors possessed a spiritual technology far in advance of the crude mechanisms of earth. It was time for them to manifest themselves, to intervene in the lives of men” (13). You get the idea. You read it in a Time-Life book you ordered off TV in 1985.
The connection between Schmidt and the rest of the novel’s plot takes a couple of forms. First, there is a “prospector’s burrow” under the pinnacle rocks that Schmidt uses to escape the heat of the day, and many of the plot lines involve this place, which is described elsewhere as a pit, a cave, and a tunnel. Second, a man named Davis – in 1947 a “young buck, twenty-one or so, head of dark hair, little dandyish moustache. Rich kid” (7). Davis is never a major character, but he is the leader of one of the groups that comes to the pinnacle rocks later in the novel – a group that believes they can communicate with aliens. Schmidt tells Davis his life story, from a violent youth to the strange spirituality he develops around the idea of flight: “Watching the great machines take off and land, the way Earth relinquished them and gently welcomed them back, he felt that here was the secret made manifest” (10). At the end of his section, he does what the people in the Time-Life books always do: “he stepped forward into the light” (14).
Other plot lines include Joanie and her daughter Judy, who are members of some kind of sketchy cult in 1958, when Judy is still a child. Later, for reasons we don’t entirely understand, Judy is the leader of the cult – or not so much the leader but the center point. One gets the impression that she was kidnapped by aliens or some such and returned in a state of inner peace or understanding of some kind. In the 1970 chapters, when Judy is at the center of the cult, Dawn – later the motel manager – is a young woman, and there is also a cult member named Coyote, who lives in the pit underneath the Pinnacle Rocks and – oh! I just figured it out. Of course I connected the meth-taking Coyote in the cult with the Coyote in the short introductory chapter, but I was thinking the connection was symbolic. This explains why a coyote would be able to drive an RV and cook meth, though it does not quite explain why he would be able to die multiple times and still return to cook more meth. Maybe because of aliens? Or because the “deaths” are just blackouts or progressions to superior levels of consciousness or what-have-you? If I owned this book in hard copy, I would take myself on a little scavenger hunt and find out, but browsing around in a Kindle just isn’t fun. Especially when the touch screen on your Kindle is slowly dying… just in time for the release of a new model, no doubt. Yay, capitalism.
In addition to the Matharus, who take center stage more and more as the novel progresses, the 2008 plot includes Nicky, a British pop star and drug addict who is holed up at the same motel near the Pinnacle Rocks. I did not enjoy Nicky’s chapters much – they reminded me of the “Charlie” episodes of Lost – but eventually his story intersects with the Matharus’ and I enjoyed his character more. Overall, the primary plot line involves the Matharus. Jaz and Lisa’s marriage is at a breaking point. In addition to the stress of raising a developmentally disabled child, they are struggling with some cultural issues. Jaz was raised as a traditional Sikh, and his marriage to a white American woman upset his family, who often send Jaz little amulets and other doo-dads that are supposed to cure Raj of his autism. Lisa sees these objects as superstitious pieces of crap and symbols of Jaz’s family’s intolerance. When Jaz gives one of these amulets to Raj and he likes it and refuses to take it off, Lisa is furious and storms off in the rental car that is their only transportation. In Lisa’s absence, Jaz and Raj accept a ride into town with Nicky, to whom Raj is inexplicably attracted. Raj’s behavior also improves during this section, which is not explained but could be for any of several reasons: the absence of his stressed-out mother, the amulet around his neck, the spiritual joo-joo of the Pinnacle Rocks and/or aliens, or, as I suspect, the fact that he is being cared for by a parent who has been forced (by Lisa’s decision to abscond with the car) to slow down and actually pay attention to Raj’s needs and signals rather than to some abstract idea I of how a child is supposed to behave. OK, end of Child Psychology lecture.
While Jaz, Raj, and Nicky are getting acquainted, Lisa goes to a bar known for catering to lowlifes, and who does she run into but Coyote? The human one. He and some of his buddies are in the process of dragging Lisa off to nowhere good when Lisa is rescued by Dawn from the motel, who drives her out to the Pinnacle Rocks for some reason and then back to the motel. When Lisa returns she is chastened by the whole experience, and she and Jaz forgive each other and decide to go on a hike back to the Pinnacle Rocks so Jaz can see them. They bring Raj in his stroller, and they leave him in the shade when they walk in a circle around the rocks, and when they come back, he is gone. The empty stroller is sitting there, but no Raj. They’re in open desert and can see for miles, but there’s no sign of Raj. Things proceed as you would think – manhunt, etc. – and then after a LONG time – months, I think – he’s found by some teenagers on a Marine base, just wandering around along the perimeter of the base.
And – wait for it – he’s not autistic any more. The assumption that whatever happened to Judy back in 1958 happened to Raj in 2008, and now presumably he is the new central point of the cult? The novel never really tells us what happens – whether Raj was kidnapped by a UFO (I don’t think this is where Kunzru wants us to go, but who knows?) or whether something special about the Pinnacle Rocks “cured” him, or what. He was just inexplicably cured, like when Adam from Little House on the Prairie (TV show only) got hit on the head and then wasn’t blind anymore.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this contemporary preoccupation with examining an event from every possible perspective can be exhausting sometimes. As I’ve also said before, I just finished writing (and am still editing) a novel that uses more or less this same format, though it doesn’t jump around in time like Gods Without Men does. Kunzru manages the multiple perspectives and timelines just fine, and ultimately this is a well-executed novel. But at times I found it so slow. I craved more forward motion than I was given. You know what I’d like to read? I’d like to read a novel that starts where this one ends. In chapter 1, Jaz and Lisa’s son has been returned to them mysteriously after a two-month absence. He was autistic before he disappeared but seems cured. The community around the Pinnacle Rocks is all atwitter about the incident, and many have theories about UFO’s, etc. that might pertain to the boy’s disappearance. Maybe Jaz and/or Lisa does some research into these theories; they could learn about Schmidt, about Davis, about Coyote, about Joanie and Judy, and about the 18th-century Spanish explorers (oops! Forgot to tell you about those guys!) without breaking the forward momentum of the novel. And speaking of the momentum of the novel, let’s get the Sikh grandparents on stage. Let’s send Lisa out to get Raj into school, into swimming lessons, soccer camp. As he learns to speak, what does he say? What is his personality like? Does he have nightmares? Can he articulate what happened to him, or how it felt to be autistic? And what about Jaz and Lisa’s marriage – do they salvage it? I forgot to mention that they’ve had major financial trouble, but let’s add that to the list: what happens when Jaz returns to New York, where his company is in disgrace?
This book is good. I recommend it. If, like me, you liked Cloud Atlas but never figured out that the story was all being told from another planet, this book will be just your speed. However, if also like me you find rotating points of view a little tiresome or overdone – not bad, just tiresome and overdone – you might want to save this one for later. I’m thinking that my 2017 reading challenge should be to take on a big pile of stolid midcentury, third-person-limited novels about midlife crises and spouses that can’t connect and war being scary and whatever else people wrote about in the fifties with only one point-of-view character. I can feel my brain stretching out and making itself comfortable just thinking about it.