“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.” 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 …