Hari Kunzru on ‘Gods Without Men’
March 6, 2012 | by Amitava Kumar
Hari Kunzru’s latest novel, Gods Without Men, is being released in the U.S. today. Set in the Mojave Desert, the novel is an echo chamber for stories divided across more than two centuries. The clever symmetries that link the stories reveal the bleached bones of American identity—racial mixing, violence, an unending contest over the politics of meaning and faith. This is Kunzru’s fourth novel; his debut, The Impressionist, appeared in 2003 and was followed by Transmission (2004) and My Revolutions (2007). I conducted this interview by e-mail, but I saw Kunzru only a few weeks ago, in late January, at the Jaipur Literature Festival. He had done a public reading from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses , a book banned in India since its publication more than two decades ago. Rushdie had been scheduled to appear at the festival but, because of threats to his life, decided to stay away. When I last saw Kunzru, it was close to midnight and he was making calls to lawyers overseas. He had been informed that he was facing arrest. The next day, on legal advice, Kunzru left the country.
The first time I read about you, you were described as having “a nonspecifically exotic appearance” that marked you “as a potential native of about half the world’s nations.” How do you usually explain your origins?
I was born in London. Depending on who I’m talking to, and how I feel, I might describe myself simply as a Londoner, British (that one’s only crept in since I came to live in New York—to anyone in the UK, it’s weirdly meaningless), English, the son of an Indian father and an English mother, Kashmiri Pandit, rootless cosmopolitan …
How did Gods Without Men come about?
I got stuck in Los Angeles on 9/11. I’d been in California for a couple months and was supposed to fly home to England the next day, which was not going to happen. I had a weird experience involving trying to give back a little rented Japanese sportscar with Arizona plates, freeways being closed, getting lost and driving round the perimeter of ghostly, closed LAX on the tensest day in modern American history. Then it involved the LAPD and firearms. Only my English accent stopped the fuckers arresting me. It wouldn’t work so well now with cops and immigration people in the Western U.S.—they’ve got English-accented Pakistanis on their radar. Anyhow, I got away unshot and found West Hollywood full of freaked out hipsters telling each other someone was about to fly planes into the Hollywood sign. People were losing their minds. I decided to get out of the city and drove to Death Valley, which seemed quiet and appropriate. I had a very intense few days. It stayed with me, but I didn’t realize I had to write about it until much more recently, in 2008.
The stories are set in the Mojave Desert, but in different time periods. How did you arrive at this device of splitting and convergence?
I made the decision to hold the novel “open” formally for as long as possible as I was writing. I made a rule that anything that felt important would go in, even if I couldn’t rationally understand why it was connected. I wanted to write a book that was structured, not so much by conventional plot or causality but by a kind of rhyming or echo.
I imagine this story involved travel in the desert and other kinds of research.
Since 2008 I think I’ve made eight journeys connected with the book, some alone, some with other people, over various routes. Maybe five months of travel. Rent a car out of Los Angeles or Las Vegas, then drive around, end up somewhere else. Phoenix, Albuquerque, Salt Lake. Semidirected. Take a lot of photos. Go hiking. Drink in bars, talk to people. I’ve stayed in a lot of cheap motels. I have also spent a lot of time on eBay and abe.com, trying to track down research material—everything from UFO and spiritualist tracts to anthropological texts.
But it’s the particularity of a place, the physical experience of being in a place, that makes it onto the page. That’s why I don’t just do library research. I very rarely write about somewhere I haven’t been.
I was particularly intrigued by the character of Jaz, a software programmer whose parents are from the Punjab.
I wanted to write a second-generation character who was forced to bridge an extreme gap—between a Punjabi village culture and the milieu of financial analysts on Wall Street. Jaz believes that the world is fundamentally rational and knowable. He believes it will open itself up to a logical and determined man. He is ill-equipped for the eruption of noncomputability into his closed system.
You have his boss discussing with him this program called Walter that reads data—huge quantities of diverse data, often unimportant and seemingly unrelated data—and spots patterns and a design. As a novelist, do you try to immerse yourself in other kinds of knowledge? Do you, for instance, read financial tracts?
My interest in quantitative finance is obviously part of the more general (and ultimately quixotic) project of trying to understand capitalism. But, specifically, I wanted to write about prediction and control, about the extraordinary transnational web that has been created by globalization, about simulation, and the way it is increasingly used as a tool to understand complex dynamical systems, like markets or the weather. How do models relate to the world? What is completeness, in a model? What happens when you hook your model up to a trading engine, and let it become an actor in the market? What if you allow it to make many thousands of trades a second? Your abstraction of the world is now acting in the world, is part of the world. It has changed the system of which it is a part. What happens when models are trading against models? What volatile new kinds of phenomena could arise?
I’m very interested in the mathematical notion of emergence (though my math is frustratingly poor), the way order arises out of the interaction of populations of simple elements—without the requirement for a top-down plan or a creator. It speaks to things like the nonexistence of God, free will, the possibility of sudden phase transitions, the whole notion of “crisis,” the poverty of reductionism, political domination, a nonutilitarian notion of what it means to be human. All questions for the novelist.
The novel has sharp political edges. I haven’t read any recent fiction that has brought the Iraq War home quite in the manner this book does. Have you been reading political fiction that has excited you?
Three books come to mind so far this year—Yan Lianke’s The Dream of Ding Village, about blood-selling and the AIDS epidemic in Henan, China Mieville’s Embassytown, and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, which feels like a contemporary novel.
I read someone like Zadie Smith and am struck by how skilled she is with voices. And this talent is so readily visible in Gods Without Men, too. Not to be a sociological determinist, but is there something about this generation of writers that makes you particularly adept at doing this kind of tongue tripping?
Yes. I’d agree with that—doing voices, performing selves. It’s an important skill, when you’re thrown into a situation where ideas about race and culture are highly charged, and you don’t have a simple answer for people when they ask where you’re from.
What has been the fallout from the controversy at Jaipur?
Right now, my main reaction is that Indian public life is weakened considerably by the presence of so many offense laws on the books. Offense law is a weapon that can be picked up by all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons. It’s a dangerous thing for a democracy to have lying around, like a loaded gun.
The Asian American Writer’s Workshop will be hosting a launch for Gods Without Men with Amitava Kumar tonight in New York. Tomorrow, Kunzru will be discussing the novel with Teju Cole at the New York Public Library; seats can be reserved for free here.