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When reviewers get it wrong

A few years ago, Peter Carey produced a novel called Theft: A Love Story. It is the story of two brothers, the talented artist ‘Butcher’ Bones and his backward brother Hugh, who drift into crime in association with the manipulative Marlene. Without fail, the reviewers picked up on the ‘Love Story’ in the title, and then complained that the relationship between Butcher and Marlene wasn’t fully developed. After all, Marlene doesn’t even appear for several chapters. The reviewers were wrong, because the love story of the title had nothing to do with Marlene. What Carey did extraordinarily well was present the relationship between the two brothers as a love story, and one that earned its place in the title because it shaped everything they did and how the story worked. But the reviewers were looking for something more conventional, and, of course, they found what they were looking for, then complained because it didn’t match their expectations.

ImageThis superficiality is something I find more and more in reviews in the mainstream press. The latest book to suffer this way is Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru. Take, for example, the anonymous reviewer in The New Yorker, who seems to think that the book is about Jaz and what happens when his autistic son disappears. Well no, the story of Jaz and his wife Lisa is one of the more prominent stories contained in the book, but these several stories collectively illustrate different aspects of the novel’s theme. In other words, the story of Jaz contributes to the theme, but it is not what the book is about.

Of course, the New Yorker review is one of that magazine’s capsule reviews, so there isn’t room to go into any more complex detail. But in reducing the book to this level of simplicity, the New Yorker is only making explicit what has been implicit in most other reviews. (The one honourable exception that I know of is the review by Maureen Kincaid Speller at Strange Horizons; and it is Maureen to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for persuading me to read this novel.) I can see how easy it is to arrive at this reading of Gods Without Men: Jaz and Kunzru are both men of Indian extraction who now live in New York, of course that must be what the book is all about! Because it is easy does not mean it isn’t lazy.Image

Let us start with the very first chapter of the novel. This is a story that captures the manner of Native American Trickster stories. But in this instance Coyote goes to the desert to brew drugs. Three times his experiments kill him, and three times other creatures revive him and explain where he has gone wrong. This is not just a brilliantly skilful exercise in pastiche, it is also very funny; and it contains, in embryo, the themes and concerns of the novel we are about to read. Read this chapter carefully enough and you understand where the rest of the novel is taking you: I wonder how many reviewers simply skipped it. It is, after all, dressed as a folk tale and implies something magical, oh and it is a Native American story and they can only ever be peripheral to the main story, all reasons that this chapter cannot be taken too seriously. Oh, and much later on we see a minor character called Coyote brewing drugs out in the desert and suffering a series of mishaps not too different from those in the opening tale, so it’s really just foreshadowing this unimportant incident, so we really don’t have to pay attention to it.

But what we get in the profusion of stories and voices that follow is a succession of displaced people, out of kilter with their own worlds, who come to the desert without ever belonging there. They come for a variety of purposes that they never fully understand, yet which could (and in some cases do) kill them. And they come to find other voices, often as damaged as themselves, trying to say where they went wrong. The result is as confused as Coyote’s drugs, by turns raising them up and casting them down.

The characters are displaced not just because they are strangers n a strange land, but because they are at odds with their own culture. Nicky the rising English rock star is feeling lost away from his native London, but he is also falling out with his fellow band members. Deighton the anthropologist doesn’t just fail to understand the Native American tribe he is studying (they laugh at him for using women’s words), but is equally out of place in white society, eventually leading him to become a hermit. Dawn, the young girl from a desert township, cuts herself off from her own family and community when she is drawn to join a hippyish UFO cult, then goes on to cut herself off from this new community. Laila, exiled from her native Baghdad after her father is killed following the US-led invasion, now role-plays an Iraqi villager to help train US special forces, but at the same time her Goth attire and taste in music separates her family. In this company, Jaz is just one among many; he is the child of Sikh parents who try to maintain their traditional ways and beliefs as he becomes more secular and American. He marries a non-observant Jew and has a high-powered and highly-paid job with a Wall Street investment company, but by the time he and Lisa take their troublesome autistic son Raj out to stay in Dawn’s desert motel, where Nicky is also a guest, Jaz is not only alienated from his family, he is uneasy with his job and his marriage is under strain. Indeed the only characters in the novel who seem fully at peace with who and where they are, are the Native Americans, and Kunzru illustrates this by investing them with almost magical abilities which demonstrates the incomprehension with which they are viewed by the uneasy others.

As an aside, it is worth noting that Dawn is at least as prominent and significant a character in this novel as Jaz, but she is hardly mentioned in the reviews. It surely cannot be because she is female? Or because she is not overtly other?

One of Kunzru’s more interesting stylistic tricks is to make a character central to one chapter, but give them a peripheral or walk-on part in the next chapter in which they appear. So that the resolution of something that is of immediate importance to that character may be something that is only hinted at in passing when they are no longer centre stage. I love the way this moves us in and out of what is important to different people, but at the same time it demands that the reader stay alert and keep quite a lot of information in the memory. To my mind this is exactly what a good novel should do, but if you’re not willing to invest that much attention you probably won’t even notice more than two or three of the characters. Dawn, for instance, first appears in chapter three, which brings Nicky to the desert motel. It is another five chapters before we come to the first one that focuses upon Dawn herself, and then we have quite a wait again before we are able to identify the new recruit to the UFO commune with the motel owner.

But if characters shift in and out of focus, there are characteristics that recur, that seem to link the figures in some overarching way. The one that stuck out for me was the repeated motif of the burned man. In the opening Trickster tale, Coyote burns himself to death, and later the character called Coyote burns down the place where he begins his drug-making. In between, the founder of the UFO cult is burned to death, and his acolyte and the man who takes over as leader of the cult, Clark, suffers facial burns in the same incident. Deighton also has facial burns, in his case sustained during World War One. (And as I write this, it occurs to me that Kunzru repeatedly refers to the redness of Deighton’s wounds, which only cover part of his face. Is he, then, symbolically turned into the Red Man he is studying; or, since the wounds are partial, is he both red and white, a visual representation of the two cultures between which he stands?) Even a very minor character, Ellis, the aging lover of Jaz’s immediate boss, Bachman, is described as ‘a plastic surgeon, doing facial reconstructions on burn victims’.

The most significant and most problematic of these recurrent patterns, of course, is the linked motif of disappearance and visitation. Practically every one of the linked stories that proliferate through this book involves disappearance (and sometimes reappearance); many involve an apparent visitation, either by angels or aliens. Kunzru provides rational explanations for some of these, but most are left tantalisingly unexplained. There is no tidying away in this novel, it is left to the reader to accept or reject, to believe or question.

In what is chronologically the earliest story in the book, we meet an 18th century Spanish monk who was the first white man to visit this part of America, and who may have met an angel. In the 1920s, Deighton sees a glowing boy walking away from the native encampment on the night that his young assistant cuckolds him with a member of the tribe. This leads Deighton to concoct an accusation of his rival kidnapping a white boy, which leads in turn to the formation of a posse. Later, we learn that the conventional white narrative of what happened was that the posse caught and killed their man; the Native Americans tell a very different story of the man escaping the posse and disappearing. In the 1950s, Joanie comes to a UFO convocation in the desert, where her little girl, Judy, is seen playing with a little glowing boy, and then disappears. In the 1960s, when Dawn joins the UFO cult, it is just at the point when a now grown-up Judy reappears as if from nowhere. And then there is the story of Jaz and Lisa and their son Raj, who come to the motel in 2008; the two are getting away from things because of the strains in their marriage, but the strains are due to their son who is autistic and demanding. When they visit the three pinnacles of rock that are the centrepiece of the whole novel, and Raj suddenly disappears from his pushchair, they feel particularly guilty because both know they have secretly wished for something like this. When Raj does reappear later in the novel, he is found by Laila, to whom he first appears as a little glowing boy.

Is the glowing boy a genuine alien visitor? Are the disappearances and visitations somehow magically connected to the location? Are they real or fake? These are the sorts of questions we ask, the questions that keep us reading, but they are never answered. The point is that it is this interconnectedness down the centuries, the sense of experiences echoing and re-echoing, that is at the heart of the novel. This is what the book is about, not some interesting, engaging but relatively mundane story of a well to do New York couple whose son goes missing. That is just one aspect, one iteration of the story the novel is telling.

Though I suppose that is a rather subtle point to get across in a newspaper review.


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