Hamish Hamilton, £12.99, 383pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Gods Without Men, By Hari Kunzru

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.

To buy this book online, click here.

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)

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project