Walter Benjamin's 1936 essay The Storyteller describes a force that has ended the tradition of storytelling and "brings about a crisis in the novel. This new form of communication is information."In Hari Kunzru's inventive and densely packed fourth novel, Gods Without Men, a stockbroker invents a financial system called Walter that profits from obscure links between "fleeting and unstable" coincidences.
"Walter consumed the most esoteric numbers - small-arms sales in the Horn of Africa, the population of Gary, Indiana, between 1940 and 2008, the population of Magnitogorsk, Siberia, for the same years ... it was as if Bachmann was trying to fit the whole world into his model."
Magpie-like and constantly seeking hidden connections, this financial monster resembles the "crisis in the novel" that has seen contemporary fiction decay - or develop - into an assemblage of data.Kunzru's novel draws together 1960s hippy cults, Wall Street wizardry, rock and roll burnout, early Spanish colonialism in America, 19th century pogroms against native Americans and, as a constant refrain, alien visitations.
The central narrative thread - an autistic child who disappears in the desert - does not fully emerge from this tangle of plots until about halfway through the book, at which point all Kunzru's disparate strands converge in the Mohave Desert, an empty place that turns out to be full of human incident.This Faulknerian organisation of time by place reveals the grand displacement of Kunzru's characters, almost all of whom are drifters or immigrants.
Places converge as numbers on a Wall Street trader's screen or as a dinner party conversation about holidays. Jaz, a stockbroker and second-generation Punjabi immigrant, has trouble sympathising with his wife-to-be's sadness about the sale of her childhood home because he "had never felt anywhere belonged to him enough to feel strongly about losing it". To Jaz, places belong to people, not the other way around.
In the 1920s sections, a preoccupation with "miscegenation" leads to an unjust manhunt and, in 1969, locals are shocked by hippies - mingling with "negroes". We hear from a mad Mormon with mercury poisoning in 1871: "If a white man mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty is death on the spot." Indeed, the spectre of race haunts every part of the book, but Kunzru neither intends to sing the praises of the melting pot nor to give in to racist simplifications.The principle of miscegenation, an inevitable consequence of colonialism, war and globalisation, is not only at work in Jaz and Lisa's uneasy marriage, but also in Walter's total miscegenation of data - a strategy that ends up playing a part in the banking crisis of three years ago.In contrast to this tendency to mix - sometimes violent, sometimes tender - Jaz and Lisa's child has autism, which makes him unable to connect with anyone. After Raj is first diagnosed, Jaz reflects on his bad luck, using the kind of data analysis he would be familiar with on his trader's screens: "He was the father of an autistic child. What were the odds? He knew exactly. One in 10,000 in the Seventies. Now down to one in 166. Jaz made his living building mathematical models to predict and trade on every kind of catastrophe. And now this: an event for which he had no charts, no time series."
Much of the book mobilises a sort of pun again and again, in different eras and contexts. Kunzru's deeply alienated characters dream of and even appear to encounter aliens. These beings visit the muddy, mixed-up world to share their vague message of brotherly love.
The figure of the alien is as complex here as that of miscegenation. In some cases, the desire for alien contact is a fantasy that misses the imperative of real human community, while elsewhere it stands for the possibility of escape from alienation, which can only appear as a fragile, absurd but necessary fantasy. Whether the aliens are imaginary or real is left undecided.
From / The National