Hari Kunzru: an oasis in the Mojave desert...
Hari Kunzru. Hari. Kunzru.
What a guy.
Dapper of suit. Tweeter of great politics. Writer of four exquisite novels, that have taken us from colonial India to Shoreditch to communes and now to the Mojave desert. You can't pin this guy down. 2011 found him acting in a film. He wrote My Revolutions, a personal favourite of this interviewer - a perfect allegory for so many things, for the war on terror, for the innate hypocrises at the heart of liberalism and activism, for the power of starting again. He wrote Transmission a brilliantly satirical vision of India's new economic and technological hold on the Western world. He wrote the hilarious The Impressionist. And now, Gods Without Men, a series of fragments, stories, tableaus of life in the Mojave desert, of the search for a connection, of the search for self, to fill the empty void, a series of interconnecting systems all vying for supremacy. It's a startlingly brilliant piece of work - one of the year's best.
Time to talk to Kunzru. A problem, given this interviewer's propensity for sycophancy and for being a massive fan. Over a Skype call while Hurricane Irene waged outside, Nikesh Shukla spoke to Hari Kunzru and this is what they said to each other.
> Gods Without Men - what possessed you to write about the Mojave Desert, psychotropic substances and cults?
The desert thing happened by accident. I was in New York. I was intending to write about the emperor Akbar and his friendship with a Hindu courtier. It was going to be a historical 16th Century Indian novel. I had this fellowship at the New York Public Library to use their Asian collection and that fell apart in my head. I couldn't make it work in the way I wanted to. Some friends in LA said, if you're doing nothing, if you're just sitting in your office freaking out, you should get on a plane and see us. We'll go on a roadtrip. That's what we did. We had this extraordinary week touring in a car around the Joshua Tree area. I fell in love with the place. I thought I might write a short story set out there. It kept growing though, in tendrils. I realised there was the whole UFO history to that area, because there are so many military bases and religious nutcases and open space. There was a big living-free-desert-hippy thing out there. The more I looked the more I found and it all seemed to revolve around this ideas of emptiness and about people searching for things to fill that emptiness.
> The book plays this weird trick on you where you're not sure if it's all going to come together in a big way or even if it needs to come together and the ambiguity of it is what drew me to it. Was that an intentional narrative trick?
The structural thing was important to me. A lot of writers really like that. A lot of writers and a lot of serious readers are more tolerant of empty spaces. I'm interested in structuring writing around the gaps between different slabs of narrative and the work a reader has to do to work out those connections, this active reading, is interesting to me. It's less neat than, say, Cloud Atlas - where there's a nested narrative, where everything gets started and then gets finished - whereas this is more about ambiguity and narrative rhymes where one part of one story seems to be echoing another part in another.
> Like call and response...?
Exactly. There are various musical analogies you could give. There are improvisations on basic themes if the basic melodies of this book are to do with a search for meaning and our relationship with the unknown and the transcendental, on the other side of the visible world, there are improvisations on that throughout the book. Did you ever read Roberto Bolano's 2666? That got me interested in how disparate pieces of narrative could be placed next to each other and the reader would be forced to read through them all and piece them together and meaning would come out of the gaps rather than be spelled out.
> You've been very varied in your themes so far. Four books in and we don't know what you'll do next whilst others are quite content ploughing their suburban lives for material. What draws you to the subjects you write?
It's always got something to do with the large scale social/political/metaphysical/economic systems we're all embroiled in. I'm interested in characters who are trying to negotiate complex terrain. Often my characters have an oblique relationship to the context they find themselves in. They're often outsiders. It all feels to me terribly logical and consistent but I accept that up to this point, it's been a weird ride. Especially for my publishers who've wanted it to be a bit more predictable than it's been. Another series of decisions that have led me from one book to another has been starting off writing broad comedy and then narrowing it down to the point of writing My Revolutions. I wanted to write something realist and serious. Now I'm centring a narrative that's not so much about gags, I'm going out into a bigger canvas. I've never been a minimalist even though I've always wanted to be a tasteful minimalist. My stuff just seems to grow weird tentacles. I've learnt that I have to go with that, whether it's cool or not, I have to live with the fact that that's how I write.
> You've lived in the US for the last three years. How has that affected your writing, if at all?
The obvious thing is to do with the rhythms of English. I'm hearing a lot of compression. Americans compress things in the way they speak and the way they write in a direct way. A lot of that English circumlocution doesn't happen in that same way. Hanging around with the New York intellectual scene, there's a certain style of fact-driven argument that they like here. You absorb the atmosphere of the city you're in. Coming back to London this summer was the first time I felt quite distant from it. I lived there all my life and felt plugged into its rhythms. I haven't really been around to see how all that craziness (the riots) has come about. It felt quit shocking, actually. It's tough in the UK right now.
> It's a strange atmosphere here. I feel like we're where America when Bush first came into power.
For me… I lived through all the Thatcher period. I was nine when she got in. I was 26 when the Conservatives got out last time. Even though there was a lot of problems with New Labour, it felt like there were a lot of things I hated about the establishment were getting dealt with. Now those authoritarian instincts are coming back and with the economic hard times, that's a pointed conflict. In New York, you're insulated from that because there's a lot of money floating about. The people at the top have an unbelievable amount of money. I swear I've never been so aware of how rich how some of the people around me are. Some of the writers I know and I are clinging to the edge and we're probably not going to be here for much longer. New York's going to turn into a citadel for the bankers. Creative life is going to vanish. Meanwhile, back in London, we're getting down to the retro 80s business of class war.
> Do you believe in UFOs?
No. That's not to say 'there are more things in heaven and hell, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.' My best take on it echoes the research of Mark Pilkington who is a British UFO researcher. He wrote a clever book about how it seems that the US Air Force took advantage of the early belief in UFOs to seed misinformation to help obscure various experimental aircraft they were testing in the Cold War. A lot of UFO-logy is sublimated spiritualism and a wish to feel there's a larger narrative to life on earth and the ordinary everyday life is infused with the mystical and magical. Maybe a housewife in Iowa did meet some aliens once. I was in Roswell recently and I drove down the road where the 1947 Roswell contact was experienced. It's a very odd blank piece of land. If you were pootling down that road at night in the 1940s, you can imagine that anything could have happened. There's a lots of bits of the American West where you can feel that sort of thing can happen.
> It's a strange landscape… the type of place you could imagine a film called Cowboys and Aliens taking place.
I think Cowboys and Aliens is a perfectly logical piece of work. It's incredible they haven't done it before.
> If you were to start a cult, what would your mission statement be?
It'd be about listening for the cosmic drone that is behind everything. A lot of listening, meditation and pot.
> Did you meet anyone from those desert cults?
Well, I went to meet some Mormon fundamentalists in Utah who were terrifying. They were living in an illegal polygamous settlement. All the women were dressed in 19th Century robes and all the men had shit-eating grins, which was terrifying. I met a bunch of weird meth head people who believe in strange stuff. I did go and spend a morning at a suburbanised meditation retreat for the disciples of a 1970s spiritual guru, who had a hoky mix of Hinduism and Native Americanisms and new age rubbish. It's not hard to run into these people.
> And finally, Hari's book of the year?
Well, one that's not obvious that I've been pushing at people is… Sjon From the Mouth of the Whale. It's set in 17th Century Iceland. It's about a scholar trying to research the natural world around him, while being surrounded by maniacs of one kind or another who believe in various things. It heads into magical realism. It's a feverish dream about being on the edge of the world when scientific rationalism is happening.
Gods Without Men is out now on Hamish Hamilton.