GODS WITHOUT MEN, by Hari Kunzru. Alfred A. Knopf. 369 pp., $26.95.
Some readers of "Gods Without Men" speak of it in hushed tones as conveying the secrets of the universe to its readers. There certainly are many secrets in Hari Kunzru's beautifully written, ambitiously conceived fourth novel. Much like the Mojave Desert landscape that is its principal setting, the book both exposes its knottiest secrets to glaring sunlight and keeps them in deep shade to keep them from unraveling. Or, to quote the brain of one of the book's more mysterious personages: "Some things grow more powerful when kept in the dark." So here's a warning: Travel this way only if you love the slipperiness of questions more than the harder contours of answers.
At the center of this shape-shifting novel are Jaz Matharu, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated math wiz who's the son of Punjabi immigrants, and his Jewish-American wife, Lisa, who undergo wrenching emotional upheaval while on an ostensibly healing desert vacation with their autistic 4-year-old son, Raj. Far from being a getaway from their shaky day-to-day existence as a Park Slope power couple, the trip only heightens the tensions between Jaz and Lisa over their parenting, their work (she's in publishing, he conceives algorithms for a Wall Street firm blithely teetering on the brink of the '08 collapse) and their respective races.
It all becomes too much for Lisa, who flees from their motel then shows up after a lost night. Hours later, as the family tours a three-fingered rock formation known as the Pinnacles, Raj inexplicably vanishes. It gets worse before it gets, well, not better exactly, but . . . stranger.
Around the core narrative about the Matharu family, the book weaves other stories with some enigmatic connection to their plight, including the dissolute, peyote-gobbling British rocker hiding out at their motel whose fans include teenage Iraqi refugees serving as make-believe villagers in a nearby Marine training base.
The story also tumbles back and forth through the centuries to include an 18th century Spanish friar confronted with peculiar visions near those aforementioned peaks; a Mormon silver miner waylaid by bile and toxins; an anthropologist whose petty-minded jealousy does irrevocable harm to the Native American tribe he's studying; and a mid-20th century cult of UFO worshipers whose search for alien connections through the Pinnacles degenerates into a farrago of sex, drugs and meaningless death. And there's the furtive presence of something or someone much like a coyote . . .
That's a lot to handle; like Lisa, you may try to run away from "Gods Without Men" until something makes sense. And there are moments when the book, for all its stylistic graces, emits a distant, chilling eeriness much like Jaz's first impression of his son: "a beautiful little person . . . [with] brown eyes that would have been the delight on Jaz's life, had he been able to see anything human behind them."
But just when you're ready to forfeit your sympathy with these characters, some seriocomic detail, some complex emotional algorithm keeps you keep peeling away the novel's layers.