Ever since The Impressionist appeared in 2003, with its picaresque hero for post-colonial times, it was clear that Hari Kunzru's fiction was fuelled by an energetic intelligence. Along with a love of big ideas came narrative zest, verbal and comic flair, and an acute eye for contemporary mores both East and West. Is identity a fixed essence or a mimic matter assembled from conventions, the first novel asked.
The question haunts all of Kunzru's fiction. It could also be aimed at Kunzru himself: is authorial identity a matter of a consistent stylistic voice or of shape-shifting through a series of exuberant fictions which share some overriding concerns? Transmission, his second novel, took us on a cartoon-ish cyber-romp from New Delhi to Silicon Valley. Geeky immigrant Arjun Mehta unleashes a virus that crashes markets and lives. Infantile dreamers, in this brave netted world, can have catastrophic impact, but virtual connectivity rarely translates into real connection. Nor do border patrols and "identity" checks vanish despite the freedoms of the web.
With My Revolutions, Kunzru changed tack again, this time moving into psychological realism and noir to probe the way the politics of the rebellious young can slip into terror. Rather than focussing on Muslim radicalisation after 9/11, he set his revolution in the late Sixties and Seventies, when hopes for change turned into the terror of the Red Brigades. Forced into a false identity, his depressed hero is now troubled both by his murky past and lying present.
Gods Without Men marks another new and bold departure. This is a novel centred on place, a spot in the Californian desert where three rock pinnacles rise up towards the sky to exert their new-age and old magic on all who pass. The Pinnacles beckon towards transcendence, which can come in a variety of guises to the changing inhabitants of the cave beneath.
Place here trumps time. And history becomes a matter of half-forgotten generational connections, teased out in an array of echoing stories that move, never consecutively, from 18th-century Franciscan explorations through Mormon silver-miners and ethnographic meetings with the natives, into a present of shabby motels and squalid small towns from which Iraqi immigrants are coopted into military simulations. This really is Kunzru's great American novel.
The book begins with native American lore, "in the time when animals were men" and the trickster, Coyote, figured large. The ever wily coyote, who can overcome death, also becomes, in Kunzru's version, a superb manufacturer of crystal meth. One of the strands of story takes us back to 1970 and a druggy, hippy community where free love, never quite free of consequences for the women, rules under a tattering geodesic dome.
Before the hippies came those attuned to extra-terrestrials, led by a certain Schmidt whose mission it is to connect the mysteries of technology with those of the spirit and to save humanity from apocalypse. Kunzru is particularly good at evoking the chilling atmosphere of 1950s sci-fi films, complete with innocent blue-eyed girl, and wisely tender aliens.
Dominating the present is the narrative of a New York family on holiday in California. Jaz is a mathematician and works for a rapacious hedge-fund whose latest software will soon impact on more than global markets. He is also the alienated son of a traditional Punjabi family who can neither accept his way of life nor his marriage to Jewish Lisa.
Once a vibrant, passionate woman, Lisa no longer works or plays. Their small son Raj is the reason. He's autistic. The marriage frays further when Raj is abducted on a visit to the Pinnacles. Persecuted by media who can't come to terms with Lisa's inability to engage with the confessional culture, obsessed by the need to find the child, Jaz and Lisa's lives are utterly altered.
Compulsively readable, skillfully orchestrated, Kunzru's American odyssey brings a new note into his underlying preoccupation with human identity. Faced with the immanence of a big "other" – alien, natural, druggy or godly – of what transformations, let alone lives, are humans capable?
Kunzru takes his epigraph from Balzac, for whom the desert is "God without men". The last words belong to the Franciscan friar who sees in the Pinnacles a divine Trinity. In its shadow, God's love forms itself into an angelic apparition. The mysteries of life and death are revealed to him. But they instantly recede into forgetfulness. Nature, in its American vastness, provides the lure of transcendence, the seductions of meaning. In the process, the dailiness of human history vanishes. Or does it?
Lisa Appignanesi's latest book is 'All About Love' (Virago)