AS A TEEN I WAS INFATUATED for a while with the inspirational American writer Richard Bach—not so much his multimillion-copy bestseller about how birds learn to fly, but more The Bridge Across Forever, in which the author meets his soulmate-to-be. To test their love, he sells his Florida home and she turns her back on Hollywood. The two camp out in a trailer in the Mojave desert—a blank, featureless background from which the occasional rattlesnake glides out. Leslie and Dick spend time flying their sailplanes, working on their egos and coming around to accepting the ‘made for each other’ conclusion.
Hari Kunzru’s new novel, Gods Without Men (2011), is set in the same desert and he’s obviously taken with a similar idea—the sands as a setting against which you test yourself, the desert starkness that makes your own reality starker. But if the desert of Bach’s memoir is, to use a crude dichotomy, nature, then the one in Gods is culture. Were Kunzru to meet Leslie and Dick, having a candlelit dinner under the desert stars, he’d paint them, as he paints the dozens of characters in his populous novel, as representatives of their era, in this case men without gods—ageing American adventurers who spend too much time on their mental couches trying to work out the truth about themselves.
Kunzru is a master at the postmodern art of creating an authentic world and then undercutting the tangibility of this singular reality with the simultaneity of multiple realities. His novel teems with crisscrossing American histories and stories, all of them played out against the looming, three-fingered Pinnacle Rocks in the desert. The cast includes: early Cold War spiritualists communing with the extraterrestrial Space Brothers who are anxious to prevent planet earth from blowing itself up; an 18th-century Spanish Franciscan missionary-explorer cleaving to his outpost in the desert; a 19th-century Mormon miner fleeing Gentile persecution, mixing spirit with matter by hailing the precious quicksilver as “the very light of Jesus”; an early 20th-century self-taught anthropologist harbouring a painfully conflicted relationship with the natives; the beatniks and hippies starting out with Interdimensional Unity and ending with drugs, paranoia and violence; and today’s US Marines, enacting the battles they will play out for real in the sands of Iraq.