Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru knocked my socks off. To try and describe what it's about is daunting. The title comes from a Balzac quote: In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing . . . It is God without men.
The desert plays a pivotal role, and is almost a character itself. The center story is of Jaz and Lisa Matharu, a young couple from NYC who find their marriage collapsing as they struggle to deal with their son Raj, who is severely autistic. In an attempt to create a "normal" family, they take a trip west and end up on the edge of a desert in California, where (this is sort of a spoiler, but it's right on the book flap, so it's hard to avoid it) Raj disappears, and Lisa and Jaz find themselves under intense--and incredibly nasty--public scrutiny.
But the book isn't just about the Matharu family in the present day (well, 2008-2009). It's about a missionary exploring the same region in the late 1700s; an early linguist and his young wife, coming to the desert to learn Native American languages and stories in the 1920s; a young mother and UFO believer taking refuge there in the 1950s; the rise of the UFO community and its coming apart during the 1960s; a young rock star from Britain; and a young Iraqi girl being trained to simulate the Iraqi people in a Marine base in the U.S.
It's about belief systems, what happens when people within those systems change their beliefs, and what constitutes a family, especially families of different belief systems. It's about ways of life that build up and then die out (or are killed). It's about Native American beliefs, UFO chasers, Judaism, Sikhism (on a separate note, my heart goes out to the victims of the recent tragedy in Wisconsin), us vs. them mentalities.
It's also about good writing, emotional, precise, such as when Jaz and Lisa are being interviewed on TV about Raj's disappearance:
"That was why they were there, after all. For the apportionment, the magical assignment of blame. Bad things do not happen without a reason. It is preferable, when thinking about bad things, to make them happen to bad people. We think of bad things all the time. Our thoughts have to go somewhere. If the bad people do not seem properly Bad, we must make them so, unless we can make them Good, but for that we apply the most exacting standards."
Lots to think about, lots to talk about, and definitely worth a re-read.