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This is Probably a Terrible Book Review [California Seething]

When I want to sound cool and mysterious, I say I was raised in the desert. When I want to explain why I’m loud, stubborn, cynical, opinionated, dramatic, charming (in an overbearing sort of way), and obsessed with protecting my territory and feeding everybody hummus, I say I was raised in Israel. And when I’m listening to Californians whine like babies about the weather, I say I was raised in Albany. (Not to mention how I was shaped by all the crazy years spent on the New York theatre scene trying to “make it there” and, ipso facto, “anywhere”  during which time I worked as an Elf at Macy’s, cleaned up vomit at comedy clubs for stage time and tips and gave out sandwiches and fruit on the subway in the South Bronx for $50 a day + “donations” – but I’ll save all these tales of struggle for my motivational seminars: “Reach for the Stars — Fall on your Ass — Get a Real Fucking Job with Some Health Insurance” and “Artists Starve – Arts Administrators Get Fat, So Come to the Break Room of Life Like I Did and Grab Your Piece of the Pie (actually day-old birthday cake)”.

Anyhow, the desert. The characters in Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men spend an awful lot of time schlepping around the desert looking for aliens. I spent my fair share of time schlepping around the Israeli desert as a young teenager, but I was just looking for snakes, lizards and scorpions to sell to the creepy American zoologist who lived in town. He said he was buying these critters for research, but I think he REALLY didn’t like falafel and hummus, if you catch my drift (He ate them. Fuck subtlety- I’m Israeli!). Anyhow, I think any creature smart enough to fly all the way through outer space to the planet Earth is smart enough to know not to enter Israeli airspace uninvited. It’s like whipping out a LazerTag pistol in the El-Al terminal — funny for a second and then there’s the screaming and blood like an old Sam Kinison routine or Whitney at Clive Davis’ Grammy party (Fuck you Karma- Come and get me!) (actually, please don’t.)

As with any good schlep through the desert, Gods Without Men takes a meandering path and covers a lot of ground. Like a deranged Clark Griswold, Hari Kunzu is determined to give us the Literary Vacation of our lives, so he leads us past every Big Subject he can find on his mind map: Native American mythology, methamphetamine, World War II, the Bomb, British rock, peyote, Spanish missionaries, autism, immigration, the 50s, 9/11, inter-marriage, the 60s, World War One, Wall Street, Kabala, adultery, child abduction, Mormonism, spiritual yearning, LSD, the dark side of fame, and the end of the Old West — all just in the first 200 pages — so that by the time I was halfway through the book I was wondering if Kunzu actually knew where the fuck he was going or if he had just dragged me out to the desert to die.

It’s only through divine (or more likely, extraterrestrial) intervention that he didn’t try and cram in H1N1 Swine Flu, Reality TV and Tiger Woods as well. Thank God that nobody gave a crap who Joseph Kony was before 2012, or Kunzu would have hauled our asses all the way out to Uganda for a chapter in the Family Truckster, maybe stopping on the way back to see the World’s Second Largest Ball of Twine before coming back down to the desert and punching a moose in the face. (Speaking of Kony, I’ve got to say, it’s absolutely brutal what’s going on. How is any privileged, white liberal supposed to keep up with everything we’ve got to feel guilty about these days? Good thing those Chinese slaves keep churning out iPads, so at least I can keep track of the outrage on Facebook. I know that every time someone posts a condemnatory Status Update, Kony is just quaking in his boots. The bright side of the whole situation, is I never have to be outraged about anything for very long. What ever happened in that Darfur place again? Haven’t heard much, so I guess everything must have worked out just fine! I bet my Status Update “Hey, you guys, the situation in Darfur is SERIOUSLY messed up :(” made all the difference!)

Fortunately for the reader, Hari Kunzru doesn’t get lost. He always manages keep a few key landmarks in sight: Dissatisfaction with the world, the Search for Meaning and, of course, the perceived extraterrestrial activity surrounding the Pinnacles — a three-pronged rock formation in the California dessert. It’s never really clear whether there really are any flying saucers circling around the Pinnacles, like Priuses in the Trader Joe’s parking lot waiting for their chance to land, or whether the perception of activity is the result of some weird collective hallucination that spans centuries. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter.

What’s really interesting about the book is the way in which the characters are impacted by their experiences with the unknowable, the mysterious & the unthinkable. The dissatisfied are drawn to these experiences, the fearful try to rationalize what they can’t understand and find earthly sources of blame for those things that terrify them at night and the cynical exploit the beliefs of others for their own nefarious purposes.

At the center of all of this are Jaz, Wall St. math whiz and the son of Punjabi immigrants and his Jewish wife Lisa who has watched her independence and identity dissipate one day at a time while she has struggled to care for their four year old autistic son Raj. The mysteries that surround Raj: his condition, his mysterious disappearance at the Pinnacles and his even more mysterious re-emergence on a Marine base in the area, unharmed, yet not quite the same, strain the relationship to its breaking point as the two characters react to the unknowable in very different ways.

Kunzru is at his best when telling the story of Lisa, Jaz and Raj. He watches with great empathy and tenderness as he sets them on a path that mocks their belief in a post-ethnic, secular, rational American utopia where love transcends all cultural differences and money buys happiness. While they are certainly subjected to circumstances far beyond the ordinary, they are not the first couple to discover that love and good intentions are not always enough to overcome the complexities of life on this planet (not to mention any others.)

There are a bunch of other intriguing storylines in this book but while they are richly detailed, they are often maddeningly unresolved and drift into irrelevance. One gets the sense that Kunzru wanted to write the sweeping, epic story of a mysterious and evocative location and explore in depth the profound interconnectedness of all those who pass through this place searching for knowledge, escape or solace. He also wanted to get started on his kitchen renovation already, so he decided to take what he had after 386 pages, send it to the Publisher and put down a deposit on new Caesarstone countertops. Or maybe I’m just projecting? Damn it, I really need to get started on this kitchen renovation already. I’ve already got a new microwave and dishwasher sitting in boxes taking up half my living-room (NOTE: Not hyperbole! See pic below.)

Rather than feeling epic, the book feels overstuffed — like a big Broadway musical where every character gets their money number no matter how little they actually advance the plot. While this may work onstage, it doesn’t work on the page where you can’t hum the detailed backstory of minor characters.

So this is an ambitious novel that doesn’t quite live up to its potential — but it’s certainly the best book about space aliens and autism in the California desert that I’ve ever read (Jenny McCarthy just killed herself.)

So….should you buy it? Uhm, sure, yeah, why not? In paperback. Used. Or maybe just check it out of the “library” (is that still a thing?) Totally worth reading, but not really worth rushing out right away and spending $55 on or whatever they charge to buy books new these days (Back in my day for $10 you could buy a new book and still walk out of the store with a pack of Hubba Bubba, small bag of Combos and a Twix bar. Of course, back in my day, we used to shoplift from the bookstore like you wouldn’t believe.)

Honestly, I would recommend taking the money you’d spend on getting this book new and going out into the desert yourself. You probably won’t see flying saucers, but there are these other weird lights in the sky there called “stars” – and if you live in LA, those are just as weird. Don’t bother camping — rent yourself a cabin with WiFi and a hot tub on the outskirts of Joshua Tree (my ancestors camped out in the desert for 40 years so that I wouldn’t have to. Besides, “roughing it” was invented by rich white people whose lives were too easy to begin with) watch the sun melt behind the mountains, breathe the clean dry air and let your mind fill with the silence of the empty sky. And, if you do happen to look up and see a weird glowing figure way off in the distance- don’t worry- that’s just the porch light reflecting off my pale, naked ass as I make my way down to the hot tub. Howdy, neighbor!

And, if you get sick of all this desert Zen nothingness crap, just get back on the road and drive to Vegas. It’s March Madness, son! There’s basketball on around the clock. Hole yourself up in the sports-bar at New York, New York and watch game after game until your liver pickles and your blood runs thick with buffalo-wing sauce. You might not seealiens or get in touch with nature, but you’ll have a better time than you would reading a book, or for that matter, trying to review one. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to wrap this thing up because there’s 30 seconds left in the Florida State/UNC game, it’s a one point game and there’s no fucking way I’m missing the end of this one. Literature and the desert can both bite me. I just hope I’m better at putting together my bracket than I was at writing this fucking book review. Sorry, Hari!

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