Apr 18, 12
anyone seriously exploring our relationship to death; fans of "The Changeling" by Kenzaburo
Read in April, 2012 — I own a copy, read count: 1
** spoiler alert **
From Kunzru's imagination springs an octet of characters each viewing a fragment of their intertwined history. It is a history that spans the savagery of World War II ended by the atomic bomb, extra-terrestrial contact speculation like Roswell (1947), millenarian cults like Jim Jones' People's Temple, New Age counter-culture, and the rise of quant theory on Wall Street. The characters are not introduced chronologically; their life stories are told in fragments from each character's point of view. Occasionally, the same incident is described from the memory of different people. For example, Jaz and his wife Lisa each recall the day of a fateful quarrel when Lisa drives off alone leaving Jaz with their son Raj. The fact that so many of the events are recalled from memory as well as the restricted viewpoints make these narrators particularly unreliable. The reader is left to speculate where the reality lies.
A further ambiguity is the fact that several key characters, Clark Davis, Coyote (the person), and Judy, are seen only through the eyes of others. Their inner motives are permanently hidden.
There is a particular element of surprise that the reader is intended to feel on first encountering this book. It is meant to be re-read, to test and reassess our own memory of the experience. Therefore, this is where I will issue my **SPOILER ALERT**. It is impossible to discuss GODS WITHOUT MEN without one.
To begin with, curious bits of Native American folklore are interspersed in the book. They suggest an underlying authorial plan to the reader's subconscious. The character in these tales is Coyote. He is insatiably curious, clever, impulsive, independent, and amoral. Life and death are two connected spaces, and in his many explorations, he passes in and out of these spaces. The book begins with a humorous reconstructed tale of Coyote as meth cook. Read that story again after finishing the book, and you will have a different experience of it. The second key myth is authentic. It describes how Coyote seeks to bring back his friends from the Land of the Dead.
Invoking these myths activates dormant feelings that cause metaphor and reality to merge. From that location, the skeptical reader is led to engage with the fantasies of these characters. What did happen in the desert? What does the cyclic repetition of destruction signify? The desert itself becomes a character, an unmoved impersonal presence: “...with all the stars smeared across the sky. The ground was breathing. That was odd. The whole desert was slowly inhaling and exhaling...” Of course the speaker here is a drugged up Nicky, so is he intuiting a truth or hallucinating?
The character I felt closest to was Jaz. His family life is told with genuine touches of wry humor. His conflicts with his tradition-bound parents, exacerbated by the birth of an autistic son and the disintegration of his marriage feel as raw as open wounds. Even though we know where this is leading, we still feel admiration for his mathematical skills that lead him to a successful career on Wall Street. It therefore feels discordant to see his reaction even after Raj is recovered. He intuits what we've been led to believe is the Truth. Yet, that intuition seems to be destroying him. That is the core of my ambivalent feelings. The book ends with a question. The reader feels impelled to ask the author: What did you mean? Instead of answering, the author seems to be asking us: What do you want it to mean?