Gods Without Men
Hari Kunzru
384 pages, hardcover: $26.95.
Knopf, 2012.

The setup to Gods Without Men may sound like the beginning of a bad joke: "A Sikh, a hippie, and a monk walk out to the desert. …" But there's nothing clichéd about British novelist Hari Kunzru's latest work.

Kunzru's mosaic of a story envisions history lapping at the feet of three monumental rock formations in California's Mojave Desert. As chapters jump between decades and centuries, each tide deposits the reader in another era, and another life. A Franciscan friar stumbles across the Mojave pursued by visions, flower children seek to spread the Light, and the young, autistic son of a New York couple gets lost in the desert. A UFO sighting in one chapter gives rise, decades later, to a dilapidated diner shaped like a flying saucer.

The temporal jumps are dizzying at first, and their purpose is not immediately apparent. In the most literal sense, Gods Without Men is a history of place. But, physically rooted though the book is, its desert setting seems little more than the ground from which Kunzru launches the metaphysical flights of his novel.

The threads of Kunzru's disparate characters begin to converge, and along the way it becomes clear that, yes, something else is happening here. Spectral forms manifest themselves, a man and a boy, shining, walking across the desert in era after era. The characters seem to be searching for connections, trying to make sense of their world, and it's hard for the reader not to follow suit. The answers seem to be out there somewhere, glinting and fractal, just outside of comprehension, like a word that hovers at the tip of one's tongue.

One character, Cy Bachman, a financial wizard whose statistical modeling software may or may not have precipitated the 2008 global financial crisis, is particularly eloquent on the logic behind his work (and by extension Kunzru's):

"As with most art, this is an attempt to stand outside time. … There's a tradition that says the world has shattered, that what once was beautiful is now just scattered fragments.  Much is irreparable, but a few of these fragments contain faint traces of the former state of things, and if you find them and uncover the sparks hidden inside, perhaps at last you'll piece together the fallen world."

Gods Without Men is intriguing, inventive and expertly crafted. Kunzru's writing blurs the lines between metaphor and literalness, blending historical fact with his fictions. It's occasionally frustrating, and trying to get "the point" of it is like trying to paint a portrait based on hearsay and the fractured reflections seen in broken mirrors, but Kunzru's prose is pure pleasure