"gods without men" could easily be substituted for the title of Mark Leyner's new novel, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack (Little, Brown and Company, March 26). But there's no way "The Sugar Frosted Nutsack" could serve as an appropriate title for Hari Kunzru's Gods Without Men.
It's more than just a trick of terminology to point this out. For all their differences — and these books are very, very different — each novel tries to accomplish similar things. Both start out with the ineffable, a fleeting contact with the divine; each writer then tries to push through the boundaries of what a typical realist novel permits.
Leyner's subject is the gods (Los Brazos, La Felina, Fast-Cooking Ali and the rest) and their plaything Ike Kantor, an unemployed, anti-Semitic Jersey City butcher. But Nutsack insists that it "more closely resemble[s] the loop-based step sequencing we associate with Detroit techno music than with traditional 'writing,'" and prides itself on features like "a punishingly repetitive use of the phrase 'punishingly repetitive.' In fact, the phrase 'punishingly repetitive' is used 251 times (including this sentence) in The Sugar Frosted Nutsack."
How much you like stuff like this will pretty much accurately predict how much you like Nutsack. But while it's a matter of taste whether or not Leyner is funny, it's certain that little more than Leyner's force of personality animates his book.
Next to Leyner's bug-eyed enthusiasm, Hari Kunzru's Gods Without Men (Knopf, March 9) seems remarkably traditional and well-mannered. At the same time, though, it describes its own loops, by way of a series of stories spanning two and a half centuries that keep returning to a particular three-pronged rock formation in California's Mojave desert called the Pinnacles.
The central plotline starts out in 2008, when Raj, the autistic son of second-generation Pakistani-American Jaz Matharu and his blonde Jewish wife Lisa, goes missing from his stroller in the shadow of the Pinnacle rocks. Nestled around this story are other histories: of a Spanish desert mission, of an anthropologist documenting desert tribe legends, of a goofily idealistic UFO-inspired commune and its decline into drugs and violence.
The connections among all these storylines are loose and nebulous, marked out more by resemblance and resonance than strict definition. The Pinnacles focus the stories, the rocks substituting for an overarching narrative. This gives Kunzru a very long leash to strike out in other directions. Some of these, like the totalizing financial model Jaz helps develop against his moral qualms in his career as a Wall Street quant, absolutely crystallize the point where technology and faith meet. If others are less successful — because we're sure the UFO visitation is a swindle, or because we know that Raj has to come out of the desert — they still contribute layers to a novel that builds meaning and resonance through accretion of plot and genre. And as Kunzru's characters encounter similar crises, as they brush up against the sacred or the alien, their stories get played out in ways that deny resolution, encourage circularity, leave a reader waiting for the hint of the mystical.
That undefined hint at something more is the reason that Gods — locked into its singular title — is so much less restricted and circumscribed than polymorphous Nutsack. For all of the wildness of Mark Leyner's imagination, the only person working is Leyner. And if Gods seems staid in comparison, it also challenges its reader to connect its fragments, to participate in the task of making meaning out of repetition and recurrence.