An impressive if not wholly satisfying novel, centered on an uncanny rock formation and its seekers.
"Gods Without Men" (Alfred A. Knopf, 369 pages, $26.95), Hari Kunzru's fourth novel, is full of echoes and patterns that point toward otherworldly knowledge, or beat a path to insanity. Like "To the Lighthouse," say, it's organized around a setting, in this case a magnetic site in the Mojave Desert called the Pinnacles, a rock formation presumably modeled on the Trona Pinnacles. We're introduced to many characters who at various times visited the Pinnacles, and whose experiences there obliquely overlap: the visions of an 18th-century Spanish missionary with the wanderings of a 21st-century English rock star, the failures of an ethnologist scarred by World War I with the dreams of a hippie UFO cult.
Inside the mosaic is a central, present-day story about a struggling family. Jaz Matharu studied things like quantum probability at MIT, then stumbled into a lucrative position on Wall Street. His conservative Punjabi parents disapprove of his marriage to Lisa, a Jewish intellectual, and tacitly hold the intermarriage responsible for the severe autism of the couple's 4-year-old son, Raj. Amid that conflict Jaz is diplomatic to a fault, and he and Lisa are increasingly estranged. A trip to the desert meant to clear heads makes things infinitely worse when Raj suddenly disappears.
This plot, engrossing if not extraordinarily vivid, is interrupted by often fragmentary stories in which paranormal things are believed to occur around the Pinnacles. It's a place where folks see unaccountably glowing children, where mysteries are revealed that "cannot be contained in the mind of man." The book presents a range of magical thinkers: the "Lightworkers," who believe they're communing with extraterrestrials; the mystical financial engineer who plays the market based on the fine analysis of seemingly random facts; the Internet babblers who think the Matharus murdered their child.
What's most interesting is how such crackpots and charlatans blur with characters whose irrational thinking -- religious, folkloric -- is of the sort we very possibly share or at least respect. Kunzru craftily intermingles various explorations of the unknown, from earnest quests for spiritual fulfillment to star-crossed pursuits of lunatic schemes, till one can't firmly distinguish a mental break from a terrible insight. Likewise, the novel's layered coincidences and mysteries suggest a world in which conspiracy theories are both delusional and inevitable, since, as has been hoarsely announced by various pot smokers, it's all connected.
The novel of ideas played out in interlocking narratives has been a fashionable mode of late, famously employed by David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" and Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From the Goon Squad." The approach here is impressive if not always satisfying. Kunzru, an Englishman living in New York, convincingly conforms his third-person prose to a wide variety of voices, though a few seem easy, as when the rendering of a certain American vernacular relies heavily on dropping articles and subjects (technique gets old). Certain subplots, especially the one about the dull English rocker, seem only superficially woven into the book's themes; as the singer might say to the sound person: not enough reverb. Elsewhere we admire the clever echoes but hope we pass quickly to one of the more involving plotlines. It's fitting that this novel of uncertainty sometimes seems to be an ingenious skein, sometimes an accomplished sprawl.
Dylan Hicks is the author of "Boarded Windows." He lives in Minneapolis.