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A moment in contemporary fiction,
This review is from: Gods Without Men (Paperback)
Like a mutant-child of David Mitchell and Salman Rushdie, I found Kunzru's fourth book to be his most polished yet. All his strengths as a writer: the gleeful recreation of dialogue and prose to match the time-space framework of a chosen timeline and the need to tell his stories by the speed and drama of a Concorde; he uses them both wonderfully to take his readers on an inter-century ride in a haunting Californian desert landscape. Flitting between various timelines from the 1700s to 2009, we see versions of this physical landscape and its centerpiece: the three-pronged rock-formation being interpreted, articulated and deified by whole sets of characters. This is not without good reason as these rocks seem to possess (apparent, imagined, real or semi-real) ability to enthuse the wanderers who strike upon it an experience or "knowledge" of a force beyond.
I must admit that Kunzru embraces the tag of "hysterical realism" with such dervish intensity, I was exasperated sometimes by toe-dipping into intensely well-realised but fleeting glimpses of these human stories and human voices within them. Nevertheless, in the stories written around the current decade, which form the main emotional hook and the dominant timeline, the two narratives are chockablock with detail and pack quite a punch: the story of a half-Indian autistic kid vanishing into oblivion just around these formation of rocks culminating a heady, emotionally high-strung kitchen-sink marriage-drama around cultural clashes and immigrant experience; and a short-story of an immigrant Iraqi girl who gets employed with her extended family in a defence Simulation exercise in this landscape.
From the copious detailing of a deranged stockbroker with his ethical-bomb of a financial system to the rhythms of an Iraqi family during the war-years to the downfall of the Beatniks to disillusioned, drifting rockstars to the ensuing media frenzy after the half-Indian kid's disappearance, Kunzru's subplots and side-characters are invested with as much life as his protagonists. He has a penchant and necessity to explore the current human condition in all its complexity, in all the noisy, cluttered, information-bombarded regalia typical of developed melting-pot urban landscapes of countries like America. He wants his readers to be inside the hippocampus of each of the disparate mindspaces of these people he has created and the level of empathy he warrants and rewards his readers with is something I find endearing and frankly, admirable given the ground he covers here.
Of course, beyond the literalities and the aesthetics, the common themes of a world-weariness, of seeing through the dominant/mainstream social architecture, of seeking out the knowledge of something-beyond, of curiosity and exploration is what gives real flesh and blood to this magnum opus. It's a biting comment on civilization that regardless of the century humanity finds itself in, it spirals its own cultural and existential schizophrenia, its own exclusive sense of displacement amongst its inhabitants. Negotiating the transience of human experience, the complexity of human consciousness and the limits of one's life is a continuous struggle, and has never been more intense than in today's wired-together, ever-more-cynical world where there's no dominant zeitgeist for the seeker, just fleeting bursts of noise. Much changes, but frankly what truly matters in human experience, its elemental perceptions and instincts: they remain the same. Writers like Kundru really bring this understanding of contemporary pathos to their writing and beg to be read more. This might sound heavy-handed in the way Kunzru's book never is and to cushion these big themes in the subtext, there is enough dark humour, sentimentality, nods to the legends of the West, soothing nostalgia and intense mystery that keep you turning the page.
Ambitious, imaginative and teeming with life (and hints of afterlife!), this just sweeps you away.