THE YEAR OF MAGICAL READING
Gods Without Men
by Hari Kunzru
The Year
of
Magical
Reading
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Writers of short stories have often tried to present
their collections as pseudo-novels.  This is a time-
honored tradition of American fiction, practiced by
William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood
Anderson, Ray Bradbury and others.  Publishing
industry biases no doubt contribute to the charade,
given the conventional wisdom
that books of short stories sell
poorly.

But a different trend is now on
the rise in contemporary fiction.
Authors are presenting us with
fractured, splintered novels that
aim to evoke the discontinuity
of a short story collection. The
goal lines have been reversed,
and instead of aspiring to a
holistic narrative unity, whether
real or contrived, writers are
increasingly favoring a style of
disjunction and juxtaposition.  

The most prominent example this new state of affairs
is David Mitchell’s masterful
Cloud Atlas (2004), a book
that is structured more like a musical composition, with
different movements and tempos, than a traditional
novel. Other noteworthy ‘fractured novels’ of the new
millennium include T.C. Boyle's
When the Killing's Done
(2011), Geraldine Brooks's
People of the Book (2008),
Tom Rachman's
The Imperfectionists (2010), David
Foster Wallace’s
The Pale King (2011), Michael
Ondaatje’s
Divisadero (2007), Mark Z. Danielewski’s
House of Leaves (2000), and David Gordon’s
The Serialist (2011).  And now, we must add to this
list Hari Kunzru’s
Gods Without Men—a work that, like
several of the above, mixes judicious doses of genre
elements into a book that, nonetheless, will never get
shelved in the sci-fi section of the library.

These books are not short story collections mas-
querading as novels.  In the final analysis, they
do
cohere as unified works, but in a prickly, elusive way.  
Like a cracked mirror, these fractured novels still
present us with a single big picture, even while
threatening to break away into isolated, incom-
mensurable fragments.  This shift in fiction reminds
me of the comparable change in philosophy and theory
during the 1980s, when the systematizers went out of
favor, and the anti-systematizers came to the fore.
Goodbye Marx, Hegel, Sartre, Husserl.  Hello Nietzsche,
Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze. Put away your Northrop
Frye and take up your Roland Barthes. Dialectic exits
stage left; deconstruction enters stage right. Now the
novel is following this same path, jettisoning an
idealized unity in favor of an alluring multiplicity.  

The coherence in Kunzru’s
Gods Without Men is
provided by three large rocks jutting out of the ground
in the desert.   This might seem an unpromising nexus
point for a novel, but Kunzru’s landscape is far from
ordinary.  I've heard friends of mine, who are more
sensitive to such matters, enthuse over the "high
places" they have visited—and they are not referring
to the elevation above sea level or the offices of the
rich and powerful. They are describing certain
geographical locales where an intangible spiritual
resonance can be felt, a metaphysical force that defies
precise definition or explanation, but which seems to
emanate from the spot.  These kinds of high places
would include Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, Delphi,
Ayers Rock, and various other destinations of
pilgrimages and vision quests.  

If the geography here is compact, the timeline is
expansive.  Gods Without Men is a chronological
jumble.  A chapter set in 1942 is followed by a lengthy
section that takes place 2009, which is followed in
turn by diary entries from 1775.  Kunzru demonstrates
considerable virtuosity in changing narrative voice
and prose style every few pages.  A section about a
British rocker is filled with cockney slang, while a
military dispatch from the 18th century is wrapped up
in the decorum and protocols of the period.  Yet there
is nothing flashy or ostentatious about these
modulations.  Each separate storyline is presented
with total commitment and authenticity, and the pieces
in this literary jigsaw puzzle are allowed to fit together
naturally without forcing.  

People travel to the Pinnacles—three columns of rock
that rise into southwestern desert air like "the tentacles
of some ancient creature"—for many purposes, but
what they find there is often something quite different
from what they sought.   Both visions and hallucinations
haunt this landscape.  During the course of the three
centuries covered in Kunzru’s novel, his desert locale is
the setting for a UFO encounter, a hippie commune, a
criminal manhunt, a missionary’s vision, a kidnapping,
a military investigation, sacrifices and redemptions of
various kinds, and other incidents, both strange and
banal.   

Few novels embrace a more disparate collection of
subplots.   My two favorite threads in this tapestry
involve the aforementioned rock star, who breaks up
with the band and heads off into the desert to reboot
his life, and a much different narrative about a MIT
mathematician working on a Wall Street financial model
that seems to have become a "god in the machine," a
black box capable of moving markets and bringing
together the most incommensurable elements into a
single overarching framework.  By the way, the latter
bit of artificial intelligence could serve as a metaphor
for Kunzru's whole book.

Sometimes the events that take place at the Pinnacles
are inexplicable.  Unusual powers seem to be at work
here. Yet just as often, those who come to the spot
seeking a transcendent experience leave disillusioned
or disappointed.  Kunzru doesn’t aim to clarify or
reconcile, and that is one of the reasons why this novel
never falls into the clichés of genre fiction.  He realizes
that the raw power of his story is enhanced by its
inherent mysteries and paradoxes. Trying to ‘explain’
the Pinnacles would be akin to those pat explanations
of Stonehenge or the Pyramids, clumsy attempts to
reduce the splendor of the metaphysical to a series of
claustrophobically empirical observations.

This is a significant book, both in its own right but also
as a sign of the changes afoot in contemporary fiction.  
So much of what is most provocative or engaging in
today's literary scene is exemplified in these pages:  
the return of plotting and storytelling as constitutive
elements in narrative strategies; the infusion of
liberating genre elements into cutting-edge fiction;  
the frictive charge of contrasting cultures engaging in
conflict and collaboration.  What Kunzru has delivered
is one-of-a-kind, yet it is also a book that I would
recommend to someone who wanted to read a single
novel that represented the current moment in modern
fiction.  

Even when all its stories are told,
Gods Without Men
leaves us with more questions than answers. That may
be why this novel, which seems to disregard the tenets
of literary realism, comes across as far more true to
life than those books in which the mysterious is hidden
behind an wall of unmitigated plausibility.   If so, the
new ‘fragmented novel’ may owe its appeal not to any
passing literary trend or piquant experimental quality,
but to its ability to grasp levels of human experience
that a more streamlined, ‘coherent’ narrative could
never reach.


Ted Gioia's latest book is The Jazz Standards: A Guide to
the Repertoire.
Click on image to purchase
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works
share.  

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
by
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter
Grass

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by
Apuleius

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa
Obreht

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
by
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
by
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark
Helprin

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.
Delany

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz
Leiber

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.
Tolkien

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas
Mann

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.
Thomas

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil
Gaiman

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis
Borges

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki
Murakami

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice
Hoffman

Week 38:  Blindess by José
Saramago

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev
Grossman

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley


Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
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Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
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True Science Fiction


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