Collapsing Time & Space

“One thing that struck me about the 9/11 footage shown during last year’s anniversary was that in 2001, the people on New York City’s sidewalks had no smartphones with which to record the events of the day. History may well look back on 9/11 as the world’s last underdocumented mega-event. But aside from the absence of phone cameras, the people and streets of September 2001 looked pretty much identical to those of September 2011: the clothes, the hair, the cars. I mention this because it has been only in the past decade that we appear to have entered an aura-free universe in which all eras coexist at once — a state of possibly permanent atemporality given to us courtesy of the Internet. No particular era now dominates. We live in a post-era era without forms of its own powerful enough to brand the times. The zeitgeist of 2012 is that we have a lot of zeit but not much geist. I can’t believe I just wrote that last sentence, but it’s true; there is something psychically sparse about the present era, and artists of all stripes are responding with fresh strategies.

“This new reality seems to have manifested in the literary world in what must undeniably be called a new literary genre. For lack of a better word, let’s call it Translit. Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind. It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present. Imagine traveling back to Victorian England — only with vaccinations, a wad of cash and a clean set of ruling-class garb. With Translit we get our very delicious cake, and we get to eat it, too, as we visit multiple pasts safe in the knowledge we’ll get off the ride intact, in our bold new perpetual every-era/no-era. Translit’s precursors are, say, “Winesburg, Ohio” and “Orlando,” and the genre’s 21st-­century tent poles are Michael Cunningham’s novel “The Hours” and David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas.” To these books we can add Hari Kunzru’s gorgeous and wise “Gods Without Men.”

“This is Kunzru’s fourth novel. It is many things, and it is certainly a reflection and an embodiment of our new world of flattened time and space. Its multiple substories span the years 1775 to 2009, and geographically cut between Manhattan, Southern California and Iraq — or rather, a simulation of Iraq. Reading this book is not unlike watching a TV show that’s simultaneously happening on multiple channels, a story filmed in different eras using differing technologies, but which taken together tell the same single story, echoing and reinfecting itself.

“The core of the book concerns a prosperous young Brooklyn couple, Jaz Matharu, a second-generation Punjabi-American mathematician, and Lisa, a nonobservant Jewish American who works in publishing. Jaz writes algorithms for a Wall Street firm in pre-crash 2008. He is estranged from his family in Baltimore, having broken with the Sikh way. The couple have an autistic son who turns their life upside down as they try to cope with his un­expected condition. It is not giving away too much to say that the 4-year-old child, Raj, is lost during a day trip to a rock formation in the Mojave Desert near the military area of Twentynine Palms. Raj is later found, but something is different with him. He is healed, and yet. . . . Best to stop here. The book all too convincingly explores the horror of Raj’s wrenching disappearance, and the catharses of his strange return…”

Text: Convergences: ‘Gods Without Men,’ by Hari Kunzru, reviewed by Douglas Coupland, The New York Times, March 8, 2012.

Image: Gerhard Richter, September, 2005. Oil on canvas, 52cmx72cm.

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