The characters in Hari Kunzru’s fourth novel, Gods Without Men, enter the east Californian desert at their peril. With its monumental three Pinnacles, which they all agree to be cosmically significant but interpret differently, the desert is a gigantic Rorschach test that feeds back their deepest fears and desires, crushingly amplified. If there’s any god awaiting them, then it’s the dangerous trickster that the local Indians call Coyote. This protean figure, glimpsed throughout the book, is an appropriate icon for a novelist whose characters specialise in self-reinvention, like the guilt-tormented aircraft mechanic Schmidt who, after several chapters’ absence, reappears as the leader of a UFO cult.
The book is a cross between a novel and a medley of short stories and Schmidt is one of many characters that it presents in moments of crisis and transformation. In his previous books Kunzru tended to divide such shape-shifters into the good, who give themselves up to