Hopscotching across time, looking quizzically at space, Kunzru’s marvelous novel uses diverse cultures (Native American, Catholic, Mormon, Wall Street, hippie UFO believers) to speculate on the nature of reality and religion, magic and mystery.
The novel is anchored by a time, a place and a relationship. The core year is 2008; we visit several other time periods. The place is the Three Pinnacles rock formation in the Mojave Desert. The relationship involves Jaz, an assimilated American Sikh, and his Jewish-American wife Lisa. Instead of a linear narrative, we have the energizing cross-currents of history. In 1947, Schmidt, an aircraft mechanic and World War II vet traumatized by Hiroshima, is alone at the Pinnacles, hoping to attract extraterrestrials with his message of universal love. Success! A spacecraft lands; he’s welcomed aboard. (That same year saw the alleged UFO crash-landing in Roswell, N.M.) Meanwhile in Brooklyn in 2008, Jaz and Lisa are raising their autistic son Raj. Seems it’s easier to talk to aliens than for the Matharus to communicate with their four-year-old. Kunzru’s portrait of their marriage is finely nuanced. They’re a modern, secular couple, yet shreds of old beliefs divide them. When they visit the Pinnacles on vacation and Raj disappears, the marriage almost comes apart. The rocks may be a crossing point into the Land of the Dead; they have witnessed much drama. Schmidt met a fiery end when his homemade space capsule blew up. An anthology professor holed up there and went mad after betraying a Native source to a bloodthirsty white posse. A Spanish friar saw God there in the 18th century. As for our century’s tarnished magic, the computer trading program overseen by Jaz generates millions but wrecks the Honduran economy (collateral damage), while our royalty, rock stars, are represented by a worthless narcissist. Ironies abound; mysteries multiply; there’s a cliffhanger ending for Jaz and Lisa.
Kunzru (My Revolutions, 2007, etc.) just gets better and better. This fourth novel is an astonishing tour de force.