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Gods & Monsters

The art [of the novel],” wrote Schopenhauer, “lies in setting the inner life into the most violent motion with the smallest possible expenditure of outer life.”1 Salman Rushdie would not agree. It is not that there is no inner life in his new novel. Nor indeed does one feel that Rushdie would require any external occurrences at all to set his fertile mind in motion. It is just that the sheer quantity of events that crowd these 575 pages is such as to overwhelm any depiction of inner life or any mind’s attempt to grasp the half of them. For brevity’s sake, more elaborate syntax will have to give way to the list—as so often it does in Rushdie’s prose—if we are to offer the slightest idea of what is between these covers.

We have, in the first third of the book: Bombay in the Forties and Fifties, with the immensely complex shenanigans of various extended families, scams, superstitions, Zoroastrianism, arson, cricket, politics, suicides, murders, love at first sight, cinema interiors, mythology, rock music, and goat farming. (The inner life is present most strikingly in the form of bizarre psychic experiences.)

Then: London in the Sixties, with more of most of the above, plus drugs, sex, pirate radio stations, music business entrepreneurs, a delightfully erotic young lady who can pass through walls, Chelsea boutiques, record contracts, a car accident, deep coma, and intimations of a variety of catastrophes. In the Bombay section I omitted to mention an earthquake and some lessons in photography. We discover that Lou Reed is a woman and that Kennedy survived both Lee Harvey Oswald and the assassin on the grassy knoll, only to be murdered later by the same bullet that slew his brother (and incumbent president) “Bobbie.”

Finally the book offers New York and the US in general through the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties, with more of a selection of the above (especially the mythology), plus some rock concerts (though still fewer than the murders and earthquakes). There are stardom and its penthouses, the discovery that “alternative worlds” are in “tectonic collision,” a record-contract dispute with global ramifications, more extremely weird psychic experiences, and even Orphic expeditions to bring back the dead (though this may just be a morbid form of voyeurism), and—to close—earthquake, death, murder, and, at the last—why not?—happy love.

In his novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories Rushdie has his charming young protagonist say: “I always thought storytelling was like juggling…. You keep a lot of different tales in the air, and juggle them up and down, and if you’re good you don’t drop any.” In The Ground Beneath Her Feet Rushdie tosses up a great many balls, most of them very large and decidedly colorful. Certainly he is determined to dazzle. Whether he manages to keep them usefully in the air or not is something it is hard at first for the reader to judge, since the pages are very soon, with respect, so full of balls that the mind can only boggle. Rushdie’s dazzle is not of the variety that illuminates or clarifies. He seems nervous of letting more than a page or two go by without some melodramatic event to distract our attention. In the London section, I see I forgot to mention a potion-brewing, fashion-queen witch-murderer. I also forgot to say that the whole story is told by a man who declares himself one of the world’s great skeptics and rationalists.

Along with a considerable school of critical thought, Rushdie is among those writers and critics who have sought over recent years to turn the energy of the “multicultural” and the hybrid into an elaborate aesthetic with a serious moral and political slant. Most readers will be familiar with the way his books mix different narrative traditions, confuse the historical and fantastical, East and West, gods and men, and, not least, characters and author. So when over halfway through The Ground Beneath Her Feet its Indian rock-star hero, now resident in England, finally records the song that will make him famous, it is evident from the novel’s discussion of this turning point that Rushdie is inviting analogies with his own work. Shortly before the recording we hear: “He hasn’t fully grasped how to make of multiplicity an accumulating strength rather than a frittery weakness.” But when the breakthrough comes, with the psychic hero boldly firing his support musicians and recording instrument after instrument one over the other all on his own, the new star is able to announce:

What I want the music to say is that I don’t have to choose…. I need it to show that I don’t have to be this guy or that guy, the fellow from over there or the fellow from here, the person within me that I call my twin, or whoever’s out there in whatever it is I get flashes of beyond the sky; or just the man standing in front of you right now. I’ll be all of them, I can do that. Here comes everybody, right? That’s where it came from, the idea of playing all the instruments. It was to prove that point.

The energy of the Rushdie aesthetic is thus to come from a rejection of the pathos of choice, of that need, with which most of us will be all too familiar, to become one thing or another, “this guy or that guy,” making decisions from day to day. Instead everything is to be maintained in a fizz of promise, potential, multiplicity, and openness. It will be noted at once that such an attitude, repeatedly expressed throughout Rushdie’s work, falls easily into line with that part of contemporary culture which likes to associate its desire to remain forever young with the political ideals of tolerance and peaceful cohabitation. And indeed for Rushdie, the hybrid, or simply the multiform, comes to be seen as an antidote to that fundamentalism which has treated him so scandalously. Of the Moor in The Moor’s Last Sigh, he remarked in an interview, he was a “poetic type…which means, I suppose, that he was someone in whom all the cultures flowed and therefore was unable to take absolutist views.” 2 Albeit with the uncertain glue of that “I suppose,” the aesthetic and the political are wedded together. Being “poetic” has to do with entertaining various cultures and remaining, as it were, suspended between them and their various implications. In the confrontation between “the pure and the impure, the sacred and the profane,”3 Rushdie is, he tells us, “on the side of the profane,” the melting pot.

The more one considers this line of argument, the more one suspects that certain of its assumptions are flawed. In Haroun Rushdie posits a world where all the stories that exist flow together in beautiful harmony. An evil “cultmaster” wishes to destroy this ocean. In these pages the novelist and critic Hilary Mantel glossed the idea appreciatively thus: “This tyrant hates stories, because he aims to rule the world, and fiction creates an alternative world, a multiplicity of worlds he can never command.”4 In this view of things—almost a critical orthodoxy these days—storytelling is seen as inherently liberal insofar as it offers alternatives to some outside-the-story reality. The story is thus understood as of its nature a hybrid of the factual world we know, its alternatives affording imaginative escape from that world’s political powers.

But is this the case? Do stories flow together in tolerant harmony distinct from our “factual” world? Aren’t they rather, with their rival visions, in urgent conflict with each other to establish what the nature of that world is, what the “facts” really are? Aren’t evil “cultmasters” themselves supported by elaborate stories within whose terms they do not consider themselves evil at all? Far from objecting to stories in general (usually they will be well content to have people read innocuous tales that have nothing to do with anything), don’t they rather object to those particular stories that undermine their own? Good storytelling is always seductive and potentially coercive—Midnight’s Children is a most seductive tale. It draws us, powerfully, to its own position, which, however complex and open to interpretation, may be very far from compatible with other positions. Its enchantments, like Prospero’s, are enchantments that bind as much as they please, that tell us reality is this way or that. It is in this sense that Shelley thought of poets, not as charmingly sensitive people unwilling, as with Rushdie’s Moor, to choose between rival systems, but as “the unacknowledged legislators of the World.”

The only leaps of faith I’m capable of,” we hear from the narrator in Rushdie’s new novel, “are those required by the creative imagination, by fictions that don’t pretend to be fact, and so end up telling the truth.” Perhaps when one begins to feel that it is enough to write fiction to be engaged on the right side of some global moral and political battle, and indeed to “end up” telling the truth, then there is a risk of growing careless. For just as it is notoriously difficult to do anything without making choices and becoming “this guy or that” (Rushdie’s musician, after all, becomes the guy who dismissed his supporting musicians), so—and this is particularly true of writing—the things one merely “ends up” saying will rarely bear examination.

The Ground Beneath Her Feet is narrated in the first person by the self-styled rationalist and war photographer Rai Merchant, the secret third in a love triangle whose other members, Ormus Cama and Vina Apsara, are the book’s larger-than-life rock-star heroes. Vina dies in an earthquake at the beginning of the book, and Rai explains his decision to tell his tale thus:

We all looked to her [Vina] for peace, yet she herself was not at peace. And so I’ve chosen to write here, publicly, what I can no longer whisper into her private ear: that is, everything. I have chosen to tell our story, hers and mine and Ormus Cama’s, all of it, every last detail, and then maybe she can find a sort of peace here, on the page, in this underworld of ink and lies, that respite which was denied her by life. So I stand at the gate of the inferno of language, there’s a barking dog and a ferryman waiting and a coin under my tongue for the fare.

Rushdie loves the grand narrative gesture, and there is a sprint for the portentous in his writing which often comes at the expense of sense. Rai chooses to tell the story so that Vina can find “peace on the page.” Presumably, as a man who insistently pronounces himself a rationalist, he means so that he can find peace (the dead, after all, for rationalists, are beyond human reach). As we approach the end of the book, however, we discover that Rai is in fact now blissfully happy with a new girlfriend. Why then is he writing? Whose peace is at stake? And why, if the book is inspired by a need to get a grip on their love triangle, will it have to include so much absolutely extraneous material? Again, if the page is, as he so melodramatically claims, an “underworld of ink and lies,” is it reasonably a place where one would expect to find peace anyway?

  1. 1

    Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, selected and translated by R.J. Hollingdale (Penguin, 1970), p. 165. This section on aesthetics is extracted from Parerga und Paralipomena, section 227.

  2. 2

    See the interview with John Banville in The New York Review, March 4, 1993.

  3. 3

    The New York Review, March 4, 1993.

  4. 4

    The New York Review, February 16, 1995.

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