“First time Schmidt saw the Pinnacles he knew it was the place. Three columns of rock shot up like the tentacles of some ancient creature, weathered feelers probing the sky.” By the time the crazed war veteran runs a few tests with an earth meter and a divining rod, he has no doubt that the power is there, running along an ancient fault line. The rock is a natural antenna. In time, as Schmidt surveys that range, he will be rewarded by a vision that approaches one lonely night at astonishing speed: “It was disk-shaped, featureless but for a ring of iridescent lights round the rim, like gem stones or feline eyes. . . . It was, he thought, the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.” In short order, this ex-pilot and wife-beater digs a bunker under the rock and transforms himself into “the Guide,” the contact for an extraterrestrial power, a spiritual leader with an army of Lightworkers selling his wacky recordings and luring ever more members to his mission. They call themselves the Ashtar Galactic Command.
So far, this is a true story.
But Kunzru, an Indian-Anglo writer who has proved the wealth of his imagination in three earlier novels — “My Revolutions,” “Transmission” and “The Impressionist” — crams even more history into this highly original tale. By novel’s end, we will have traversed 250 years, a half-dozen belief systems and a global economy that reaches from Singapore to East Baltimore.
It’s quite a ride: This is a book in which monks of the 18th century trudge the Mojave with drug-sodden hippies from the Summer of Love. A book in which Native Americans poised at the twilight of a dying culture try valiantly to guard their myths from relentlessly literal-minded anthropologists. Here is where the walking wounded come to pray to Yahweh, Allah, Vishnu, Coyote, the Brothers of Light. Here are cynical veterans from World War II, hard-bitten GIs fresh from Iraq, randy communards, washed-up bankers, wasted groupies whose only thought is their next roach or a place to park their sleeping bag. Here is death, sex, and rock-and-roll. And all of it, as random as it may sound, is a fitting paean to this jittery world. As each story scrolls, characters jounce across the Mojave like tumbleweed, drawn to the Pinnacle Rocks, their lives connecting, colliding, merging, whether or not they realize it. Kunzru has written a big, unabashed salmagundi of a novel.
At the heart of it is Jaz, a brilliant young Sikh American mathematician who has a big Wall Street job; a smart, beautiful blond wife; and is living the high life in Manhattan. Jaz is a cyber-scientist for an investment bank; Lisa is a promising editor at a publishing house. All is future and possibility. Until fate presents them with an autistic son. “Raj arrived, a beautiful little person with olive skin, a mop of black hair, a big Punjabi nose and brown eyes that would have been the delight of Jaz’s life had he been able to see anything human behind them.” The boy is unpredictable, uncontrollable, wild. With the panic of their unfolding discovery — with the fear that Raj is the culmination of so many irreconcilable differences between them — the marriage begins to dissolve. Soon, Lisa is on the verge of a nervous breakdown; Jaz is about to lose his job. In an attempt to weather this gathering catastrophe, the three of them check into a seedy motel in the Mojave, drawn to the Pinnacle Rocks.