All The King's Men

Our world, in the imagination of postmodern novelists, is fragmented. Can writers of Hari Kunzru's calibre put it back together again?

01 November, 2011

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.

Given this plethora, the large brushstrokes are inevitable. But Kunzru also does the opposite—he piles up embellishments. Seven pages into the book, describing the retired aircraft mechanic who sets up home near the Pinnacles to capture extraterrestrials, he writes:

Schmidt had built a vortical condenser to store and concentrate the paraphysical energies flowing through the rocks. A crystal was set into a gimbal on the tip of the tallest stack, angled towards Venus. He was developing a parallel piezo-electric system, based on his study of Tesla, but for now was sending signals using an old Morse key, with an aetheric converter to transform the physical clicks into modulations of the paraphysical carrier wave.

Kunzru has a flair for such technical detailing—how silver is mined, how the stock markets work. Unfortunately, we don’t always spend enough time with the characters to whose worlds these details belong. And so, such facts often remain ornamental: there to jazz up the atmosphere rather than help us enter an imagination. A nine-page fragment about a dying Mormon, Nephi Parr, is one example. Kunzru, in those few pages, tries to do both—give us a glimpse of a history and tell us a story. But he is impatient to move on and we are eager to know more. The end result is a blurry and easily-forgotten Nephi Parr. The same is true of Schmidt; he too is a victim of the novel’s tumult. Kunzru’s description of him appears to capture a life but actually only gives us information about it.

To his credit, many of Kunzru’s characters survive this tumult. Their back stories do bear down on us at great speed but then come the small dramas and the inner voices that permit us to understand, for instance, the dilemmas of a white man whose interest in a decimated Native American community its members inevitably consider quaint, or the growing attraction of a bored, small-town American girl for the beatnik camp.

This two-way approach holds good of Lisa and Jaz Matharu too, the prosperous Indo-American couple from New York, whose story is at the centre of Gods. Kunzru’s account of their married life feels like a speed read of a lifestyle magazine. “Married life was good”… “classic Mercedes sports car”… “weekend excursions”… “dive vacations”… “book parties”… “summer rental in Amagansett”… “mid-century modern furniture”… “Lower East Side Gallery”, and so on. And yet once we’re done with the curriculum vitae, their story unfolds delicately, switching back and forth between his point of view and hers.

Lisa and Jaz are on vacation in the Californian desert when Raj, their autistic child, goes missing. His disappearance is the last straw in an already-crumbling marriage. Up to the time Raj is born, Lisa and Jaz confront recognisable, if not stereotypical, problems. His parents are conservative and hardworking Punjabi immigrants, displeased about their son marrying a white woman. Her parents just want her to be happy. The differences are illustrated in quick visits to the two parental homes. While the Schwartzmans are kind to Jaz, “asking questions about his family and his ‘culture’, a word they used as if it denoted something fragile that might break if roughly handled”, the Matharus are reserved and rude: “His dad offered Lisa a whiskey and was displeased to see she accepted … Jaz shuffled his feet and tried to keep the conversation from petering out. In vain he translated some of Lisa’s approaches to his mother, questions about her house, compliments on the food. She wouldn’t respond…”

Nevertheless, the couple have a happy marriage till Raj arrives. His disability breaks down stereotypes about Western rationalism and Eastern faith. More importantly, we are for the first time able to see the couple as uncertain human beings, observe the shifting patterns of their responses to each other and to their unloveable child. Lisa and Jaz’s conflicts over Raj before he disappeared and the further unravelling of the relationship afterwards are captured with intimate focus; this is the heart of this novel. It could, quite easily, have made up the whole of it except that—on the evidence of this novel and others—the supremely ambitious Kunzru is unlikely to write a work of fiction centred on a single drama.

Kunzru’s project in Gods appears to be about palimpsests. The solitary Pinnacles have always inspired awe but the nature of that awe has, over the quick-changing American centuries, naturally changed too. The rocks have gone from being a symbol of the Holy Trinity, to being an imagined conduit to life on other planets, to today’s more amorphous fascination for something not manmade and yet seeming to symbolise a hidden truth about the manmade world. Once we grasp this idea, our interest in this layering of contrasts becomes a polite one—there is only so much pleasure to be had, after all, from a flurry of historical juxtapositions. What is more impressive is the suppleness of Kunzru’s imagination. He pulls off the attitudes and worldviews, the biographies, the lingo—the ‘culture’ in other words—of so many different characters that it sometimes appears as if this creative frenzy, rather than any larger plot or narrative idea, drives the novel. Is this what Kunzru hoped to achieve with this many-tentacled creation—multifariousness?

The cover plug for Gods is from David Mitchell, whose own novel, Cloud Atlas (2003), was a similar attempt to fit a universe into a book. What that novel achieved and where this one falters is that even though each section of the onion-structured Cloud Atlas is, to use Mitchell’s word for Gods, an ‘echo’ of the other sections, each in itself is a more or less consummated work of fiction. To me this proves that while there are passing thrills to be had from reading a playfully structured Babel of a novel, one can only love it, if inclined to, for old-fashioned reasons—compelling characters, great storytelling, moral drama, wit, tragedy, redemption.

The other reason why Cloud Atlas scores better than Gods is that our fascination for Mitchell’s stories is matched by our inability to say exactly why the author has chosen to narrate specifically these ones. The postmodern experiment is evident in the stringing together of stories from the beginning to the end of time and across a range of literary styles and genres. (Obviously no lack of ambition there!) But it’s never clear why we’re reading about the adventures of an English amanuensis to a composer in 1930s Belgium or a 1970s Californian thriller. As a result, there is something irreducible and highly intriguing about Cloud Atlas. As often happens in fiction, the less a story expresses an agenda, the more it seems to have an inner reason for existence.

With Gods, Kunzru’s aim—to present a layered account of the big movements the American desert has witnessed, from the coming of the Europeans to the Marines playing war games—is all too clear. This can sometimes make his novel, well-researched and superbly written as it is, come across like an in-your-face history lesson. The fact that all his stories are located against the same desert is great for historical perspective but historical perspective all by itself does not a novel make.

One wishes, then, that Kunzru had taken a leaf out of Richard Bach’s book—forgotten about playing god and just focussed on finding out what it is about the American desert that so compels him.

KUNZRU'S FIRST NOVEL, The Impressionist (2002), came with some of the same pleasures and problems.

Pran Nath, its Anglo-Indian protagonist, is a mute witness to the events of the first half of the 20th century. Ghostly, in the author’s own words, he becomes little more than a pair of eyes with which to view certain historical set pieces—the excesses at the court of a degenerate raja, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the hotchpotch theories of the Theosophists. Our shapeshifting hero has little subjectivity; we struggle to catch any emotion behind his all-seeing eyes except the primitive one of self-preservation. The impressionist starts coming to life only when he tries to achieve Englishness—that is, when he does a Tom Ripley and lands in England under the assumed identity of Jonathan Bridgeman, on his way to an Oxford education.

It’s not a coincidence that the more engaging parts of this novel are not just set in England but are about being English. In earlier sections too, the characters Kunzru writes about with the greatest feeling are Englishmen, more specifically Englishmen labouring under the White Man’s burden. Inverting the standard tale about the natives suffering under imperialist rule, Kunzru draws attention time and again to the suffering of imperialists in pursuit of their mission. And there’s nothing notional about this pain either. A British Resident on parade is, for all the outwardly show of power and control, feeling seasick on his elephant, worried about his kleptomaniac wife and uncertain about his ability to control “the runaway madness” of India. A once daring British major, now wracked by an unconsummated marriage and an inappropriate desk job, is drinking himself to death. A Scottish missionary has given in to illicit sexual craving and is tortured by jealousy and guilt. And so on. Even the notorious General Dyer of Jallianwala Bagh has a secret pain; his “sclerotic twice-shattered legs” are giving him hell even as, in the pursuit of duty, he orders his Sikhs and Gurkhas to fire on the crowd.

Concealed within The Impressionist is a potentially powerful novel about the trials of the English in India—the skewered private lives of individuals schooled to be forever in pursuit of a lofty public goal. As far as the Anglo-Indian aspect of the novel goes, The Impressionist conveys, at best, the anxiety of not being British enough, not the complexity of being of mixed race. Other novels have conveyed that position with greater artistry: I Allan Sealy’s The Trotter-Nama, for instance, or Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh. Common to both books is their drollery—that recognisably arch way of dealing with the confusion. Tucked away in Eugene Aloysius Trotter’s roundabout introduction of himself are possibly the most telling lines on being “half and half”: “I’m white here, but I’m brown back there…It starts to happen in the airport so I wait in the toilet till the change is complete.” Rushdie’s Moor, of mixed Portuguese, Moorish and Spanish Jewish descent, tries to sum himself up too. Surveying the village where his Moorish ancestors came from centuries ago, he tries on different self-definitions but none fit. Finally he says, “I was a nobody from nowhere, like no-one, belonging to nothing. That sounded better. That felt true.”

Despite this rootlessness, driving both Rushdie and Sealy’s novels are public and private, real and fabled histories which the characters narrate and, in narrating, lay claim to. Whereas to Kunzru and his creation, Indian history appears as a series of tableaux, not a story to be entered. Pran Nath escapes to Bombay and becomes Pretty Bobby but he’s still difficult to pin down. In fact he’s not meant to be:

Bobby is a ghost, haunting thresholds, pools of electric light. He hovers at the limits of perception,… ethereal enough to trust with your secrets, safe in the knowledge that he would melt in direct sunlight.

And a few pages later:

Bobby is a creature of surface. Tissue paper held up to the sun. He hints at transparency … Bobby’s skin is not a boundary between things but the thing itself, a screen on which certain effects take place …

This may be all very well metaphorically but we’re ultimately bound to lose patience with ghosts who melt in the sun. The epigraph of The Impressionist is from Kim but Rudyard Kipling would not dream of comparing Kim to a cipher. In fact Kim is the opposite—familiar with so many Indian mores and habits that it’s easy for him to mould himself to them as the situation demands.

India features centrally in two of Kunzru’s four novels. This is unsurprising given his partly Indian roots. Yet it is his insider-outsider eye for Englishness, along with his natural affinity with England, that is perhaps the true fount of his fiction.

My Revolutions (2007), a love story set against the radical movements of 1970s England, is arguably Kunzru’s best novel so far. The intensity and frustration of the affair; the foolhardiness, fervour and ultimately, bleakness of the times; and the contrast with the crassness of today’s England—all of this is conveyed with wonderful acuteness. There is a minor scene in the novel where the hero, Chris Carver, is stuck in an old-fashioned bed-and-breakfast in London. In his already reduced state, the place starts to terrify him.

All British state institutions, whatever their purpose, share an atmosphere. When I was growing up they used to share a smell too, an alkaline reek that united school and hospital and prison and dole office … The smell has gone, abolished along with so many of the visible signs of power (in dark moments I think it’s all my generation achieved, killing that smell), but even without it the atmosphere remains and that room had it: old and cold and abstractly cruel.

This is exactly the kind of perception that Kunzru’s busier novels lack—not the sense of a time but the sense of its passing and what that passing conveys.

To return to Gods, what we miss is just such a unity, a unity whose absence, Kunzru wants us to believe, is where the art of his novel lies. We miss the narrator, the sutradhar, who will provide the pauses, weave the threads together, remind us of a smell, an interior, a tune that binds disparate times together. As Rushdie’s indolent Moor so tellingly says, “In my youth…I was also apt to lounge. But I was not seeking to annoy; my vain intent was to set my slowness against the accelerated rush of Time itself.” In Gods we are thrown against the accelerated rush of time without the hand of the writer to catch our fall.

A DECADE AGO, the critic James Wood coined the phrase ‘hysterical realism’ to describe some of the more capacious, crowded novels of Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith. Wood saw the “glamorous congestion” in these novels—their many stories, plots and characters, their authors’ hunger for spinning conceptual webs between unconnected events and ideas—as a tendency that disguised empty cores. These were novels that lacked moral seriousness precisely because they were so fecund. Rushdie, DeLillo et al were uninterested—in novels such as The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Underworld—in a settled point of view or the inner arc of a particular character’s development. What excited them was generating multiple stories and flaunting their interconnectedness. Wood didn’t think this good enough:

Novels, after all, turn out to be delicate structures, in which one story judges the viability, the actuality, of another. Yet it is the relatedness of these stories that their writers seem most to cherish, and to propose as an absolute value. An endless web is all they need for meaning. Each of these novels is excessively centripetal. The different stories all intertwine, and double and triple on themselves. Characters are forever seeing connections and links and plots, and paranoid parallels. (There is something essentially paranoid about the belief that everything is connected to everything else.)

Kunzru has clearly imbibed much from the writers and books that were the subject of Wood’s essay. His other novel featuring India, Transmission (2004), concerns the fallouts of a dangerous computer virus called Leela, the work of Arjun Mehta, a disgruntled Indian software engineer in the Silicon Valley. Transmission could be read as an attempt to imagine Wood’s “endless web” in material terms. A virus—a force more far-reaching than the authorial—links up hitherto unconnected strands of the world. Leela spells trouble for:

...knitting machine manufacturers and management consultants, adult magazines and university departments, for an auto-parts supplier in Austin which couldn’t track its inventory, a public-relations company in Sao Paolo which had lost its contacts database. Late in afternoon a router went down shutting off most of Boston’s internet traffic for almost an hour.

This is not implausible but, as Wood might ask, is it meaningful? Kunzru’s theme here is a quasi-Heisenbergian one—for us to continue acquiring it, information must be transmitted but in being transmitted it becomes unstable. The World Wide Web connects everything but it is at the same time highly vulnerable to interference, hackers, noise. This cybernetic idea could be an exciting one but all it translates into, as in the example above, is the concatenation of global events.

Much more engaging than the life of the virus are the occasional flashes of tenderness that Kunzru shows for his characters. A tough, tattooed, bisexual geek called Christine Schnorr strikes up an unlikely friendship with the shy, socially inept Arjun Mehta. Equally unlikely, and yet for that reason moving, is the connection we glimpse between the rich, bored and beautiful Gabriella, girlfriend to a jetsetting PR professional and uncertain what to do with her freedom, and the rich, bored and beautiful Bollywood film actor Leela, inspiration for Arjun’s virus and a prisoner of her fame.

Yet the fantasy of writing novels about global interconnectedness remains strangely attractive to Kunzru. Where Transmission had Leela, Gods has Walter, a highly advanced software or “global quant model”, developed by a Frankensteinian figure called Cy Bachman. While currently used by a hedge fund to, well, hedge their bets, Walter has potential to do much more. Bachman directs his colleague, Jaz Matharu, to spot patterns or rhymes in the random statistics that Walter spews. Jaz is soon amazed and disturbed by the coincidences.

One day he found a periodic cycle in a cluster of figures for CPU transistor counts since 1960, IQ test scores for African American boys from single-parent families and an epidemiological analysis of the spread of the methamphetamine drug Yaba through Thailand and Southeast Asia. Not only was there a strange harmony to the movements of this grab-bag of statistics, but it seemed to track a certain popular measure of volatility in currency markets.

When Jaz confronts Bachman about what exactly Walter is on to, he gets a philosophical answer and one that to me illustrates what Kunzru is attempting in Gods. Much of human history is shattered and fragmented, says Bachman, and some of these fragments contain traces of the destroyed whole. “What if one were to hunt for these hidden presences? ... You need to trick them into revealing themselves. That’s what we’re doing with Walter, Jaz. We’re juxtaposing things, listening for echoes.”

Is that enough to sustain a novel—juxtaposition and echoes?

Perhaps only if this postulated interconnectedness moves from the realm of theory and into the lives of people. Another Californian desert novel I admire for its intensely lyrical mood of reverie is Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero (2007). Three children with a unique bond grow up on a farm in Northern California in the 1970s. A violent incident flings them apart; the trajectories of two intersect many years later: Claire, an orphan, horse rider and lawyer’s assistant, and Cooper, also an adopted child like Claire, now a gambler and a wanderer, living out of hotels and playing poker for a living in small Californian towns. The third sibling, Anna, is a historian, researching the life of Lucien Segura, a little-known, early 20th-century French writer.

The world of Divisadero is, as its title suggests, a world of vignettes and fragments. Ondaatje talks about the poetic form of the villanelle as a motif. “It’s like a villanelle, this inclination of going back to events in our past, the way the villanelle’s form refuses to move forward in linear development, circling instead at those familiar moments of emotion. Only the rereading counts, Nabokov said.”

Kunzru understands the yearning to revisit historical fragments; he knows all about the inclination to go back to the past. But the operative word in Ondaatje’s first sentence above is “our”. It’s the feelings and memories of his characters that draw us to them. Their thoughts and actions give the past meaning—whether this is their private past or events of global reckoning such as the two Gulf Wars.

Responding to Wood’s essay about the hysterically realist writer, novelist Zadie Smith said in The Guardian, “Writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.” With Hari Kunzru it often feels like the opposite. He can colour in so many worlds, ventriloquise in so many voices, that it seems remarkably easy for him to write exactly what he wants. This is no mean gift but it’s also a gift that can obscure an obvious-seeming truth: For all the world’s pyrotechnic glory that is possible to encounter in a novel, what we’re ultimately out to discover is where its author’s heart lies. We need that anchor to make sense of the world he creates. In fiction, everything’s personal.