Puppet Show


by Salman Rushdie
Random House, 259 pp., $24.95


From Salman Rushdie we expect messy, but not slapdash. A Rushdie mess is momentum’s residue. The novelist whose great themes are migration, mutation, and metamorphosis, whose habitats are time machines and transit zones, can’t sit still. Even before the fatwa, he was easily distracted, compulsively digressive, and always in a hurry. This fast-forward of what he called his “mongrel self” left behind a lot of larvae. “Who am I?” asked the Satanic Versifier in 1988. “Let’s put it this way: who has the best tunes?” For such insouciance, Rushdie would be punished by the mullahs. As one of his characters, a photographer, discovered in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, there are parts of the world “where you can be murdered for carrying a tune.” Exile, outcast, refugee, fugitive, Flying Dutchman, moving target—since 1989, we have been reading his books through the bonfires of their burning.

Whereas slapdash is lazy. If up till now Rushdie has been more a pressure cooker than a crock pot, at least he came to a boil. Fury is mostly a birdseed scattershot of ideas. Many of these ideas—about dolls and masks, representation and fetishism, “the industry of culture” and “the religion of fame,” the preference of a “brave new electronic world” for “lateral leaps” over linear progression, and the Shiva-like twinship of creation and destruction—are worth exploring. On the run, Rushdie hasn’t gotten dumber. But the characters to whom these ideas occur are undernourished. Fury is less the diasporic road-rage novel it aspires to be than the silhouette or X-ray of such a novel, a protocol or prospectus.

Meet Malik Solanka, a fifty-five-year-old historian of ideas who has abandoned his home town of Bombay, his professorship at Cambridge University, two wives, a surprisingly blond three-year-old son, and a London television program from which he has made a fortune by designing and scripting pedagogical dolls. He is holed up in a blue funk in an $8,000-a-month apartment in New York City in the first summer of the third millennium, the summer of Elián, Gladiator, and “Gush, Bore.” He is afraid of a “hidden twisting in him,” a “dreadful torque of doubt,” an “alien” about to “burst out of his stomach, baring multiple rows of teeth.” He seeks, in a straw Panama hat and a cream linen suit, nothing less than “the unselfing of the self”: “Eat me, America, and give me peace.” He is still playing with dolls but he is also pursued by furies.

As in Greek mythology, these furies tend to be female, including the women he has left behind and those he will presently meet. For instance, in England, his first wife, Sara, who graduated from James Joyce and the French nouveau roman to megabucks in advertising. And his second wife, Eleanor, whose voice he fell for on the telephone before he ever embraced her body or was introduced to her parrot, her lamb shank, and her doctoral thesis on love gone wrong in Shakespeare’s tragedies. Or, more problematically in New York, green-eyed, spiky-blond Mila, the punk daughter of a dead Serbian poet, with whom Malik Solanka will play incest games when she isn’t moonlighting as the “webspyder” muse for a street gang of geeky dot-com whiz kids. And, finally, Neela, a documentary filmmaker, a South Pacific freedom-fighter, and a flower of the Indian diaspora so traffic-stopping drop-dead gorgeous that Solanka compares her favorably to a cold bottle of Mexican beer and “a galaxy on fire,” and will follow her all the way to the staging of a revolutionary coup in far-off, Fiji-like, Lilliput-Blefuscu.

As in the adultery novels of John Updike, these furious women get many of the best lines. If they all sound the same, so does everybody in a Greek chorus, chanting vehement dithyrambs. And while we don’t generally imagine our college professors to be such studs—Canetti’s misanthropic Kien? Nabokov’s cuddly Pnin?—there is always Roth’s David Kepesh. Or, a more plausible analogue, Bellow’s Moses Herzog. Solanka, between erotic seizures, likewise talks to the noble dead.

But the furies are also inside Solanka. He has run away to “Dream-America” because he found himself, late one London night, looking down at his sleeping wife with murder in his heart and a knife in his hand: “I endanger those I love.” How come? We aren’t ready yet for the childhood sex trauma that drove him from Bombay. We are fobbed off with career and connubial frustrations. “To be overpowered, outmatched” is what Solanka says he looks for in women—a “riverine abundance” and a “Gangetic, Mississippian inexorability, whose dwindling, he sadly knew, was what had gone wrong in his marriage. Overwhelming doesn’t last for ever.” But to give up on “his need for excess” means to agree to be dead: “And when the living agree with themselves to be dead, the dark fury begins.” In addition to which,

Life is fury…. Fury—sexual, Oedipal, political, magical, brutal—drives us to our finest heights and coarsest depths. Out of furia comes creation, inspiration, originality, passion, but also violence, pain, pure unafraid destruction, the giving and receiving of blows from which we never recover…. This is what we are, what we civilize ourselves to disguise—the terrifying human animal in us, the exalted, transcendent, self-destructive, untrammeled lord of creation. We raise each other to the heights of joy. We tear each other limb from fucking limb.

For a guy getting so much sexual exercise, Solanka is certainly on edge. Subject to blackouts, he even suspects himself of being the serial “Con-crete Killer” who is murdering young blondes in the better neighborhoods of “this city of fiery, jeweled garments and secret ash.” But maybe “his was not the only identity coming apart at the seams”:

The whole world was burning on a shorter fuse. There was a knife twisting in every gut, a scourge for every back…. Human life was now lived in the moment before the fury, when the anger grew, or the moment during—the fury’s hour, the time of the beast set free—or in the ruined aftermath of a great violence.

As a Pakistani taxi driver will explain in Urdu: “Hey! American man! You are a godless homosexual rapist of your grandmother’s pet goat!”


Which brings us to Solanka’s dolls. They, too, originate in his childhood trauma. But he rediscovers their microcosmic power on an adult visit to Amsterdam, in the “little theaters” of the Rijksmuseum. Such modesty of scale appeals to the philosopher in him and the sci-fi fabulist. He is inspired to educate the masses by creating his own Great Minds dolls—Socrates, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Bertrand Russell—and, to interrogate them, a saucy guerrilla-girl doll he names Little Brain, “an agent provocateur with a time machine,” a “hip, fashion-conscious, but still idealistic Candide” who goads the lofty thinkers into “surprising revelations.” (Averroes and Maimonides, for example, turn out to be Yankee fans.) At Galileo, Little Brain jeers: “If some pope had tried to get me to lie, I’d have started a fucking revolution, me. I’d have set his house on fire.”

Before you can say magic realism, Little Brain is a TV star, first as a doll, then as a puppet, then as an animated cartoon, and finally as an actress, talkshow host, and supermodel, with a fan base, a published memoir, magazine covers, and video games. She need no longer chat up Schopenhauer or Erasmus. Pinocchia has turned into a “Frankendoll.” Outraged by the commercial corruption of his pure pedagogical impulse, and maybe even by Little Brain’s escape from the con-trol of her creator, Solanka quits his own prime-time program—although he keeps his credit and his percentage of the merchandising income. Which is how come he can afford to hide out in an $8,000-a-month apartment in New York, where he will be found by the spiky-haired Mila, who has purposely modeled herself to look exactly like Little Brain—her i-doll.

I should tell you that “Derridada” is the only pun in Fury worth a Pop Tart. And that the serial-killer subplot—in which “living dolls” with private-school names like Sky, Bindy, and Ren, “so stuffed full of behavioral chips, so thoroughly programmed for action, so perfectly groomed and wardrobed, that there was no room left in them for messy humanity,” are bludgeoned and then scalped by an assailant in a Goofy, Robin Hood, or Buzz Lightyear Disney costume, while a man in a Panama hat loiters nearby—is a blond herring. Nor will I discuss the kinky games Mila plays with the memory of her dead father, the repressed fears of the sulky Solanka, and childhood seduction scenarios. Nevertheless, “What we did wasn’t wrong,” Mila assures him. “It was play. Serious play, dangerous play, maybe, but play.”

Mila is a pessimist: “My view is that not only does lightning not strike twice, it usually doesn’t strike once.” But she is also a networker. She snaps Solanka out of his funk by plunking him down with her cyberpunk whiz kids, her computer programmers, graphic artists, and gangsta hackers. For their brand-new Windows 451 Web site, he is encouraged to dream up a nonlinear narrative of lateral leaps like nervous breakdowns, which they will visualize and “hyperlink.” From his disorderly reading (Quixote, Gulliver, Ahab, and Alice! Ray Bradbury and Frank Herbert!) and his frazzled life (Bombay, London, New York), he imagines a planet drowning like Atlantis in a “dark quadrant” of the galaxy, where the earth mothers, sky gods, lotus eaters, and cyborgs who must negotiate the conflicting claims of a garrison state and the sovereign self just happen to resemble his wives, his friends, his lovers, his plumber, and the historian of ideas himself. Instead of philosopher dolls, Puppet Kings!

And lightning does strike twice. His Puppet Kings are an even bigger global smash than Little Brain. So successful is the new site that Mattel, Amazon, Sony, and Banana Republic want a piece of the action-figure pie, and Puppet King latex masks are all the world-wide-webby rage. And so, when Solanka disembarks in the real country of Lilliput-Blefuscu to rescue Neela from the insurgent clutches of the Filbistani Resistance Movement, he’s immediately arrested for impersonating the leader of that Resistance, who just happens to like wearing a Puppet King mask designed in the first place to look like Solanka. Neela, whose perfection inspired the Earth-Goddess Puppet Zameen, is wearing a mask of herself. And the streets of the capital city are patrolled by other figments of the puppetmaker’s imagination.

All this promiscuous hyperlinking leads Solanka into a delirium about

the shadow-play possibilities (intellectual, symbolic, mystificational, even sexual) of the two sets of doubles, the encounters between “real” and “real,” “real” and “double,” “double” and “double,” which blissfully demonstrated the dissolution of the frontiers between the categories.

So Solanka gets the money, gets the girls, and gets to mope, as if he were Woody Allen. It sounds more interesting in synopsis than it actually is to read.


Maybe it’s churlish to expect of Rushdie Roman candles every time he writes a novel. Surely he got enough grief from Indira Gandhi, when she sued him for slander upon the publication of his epic of emancipation, communal slaughter, and a pickle factory, Midnight’s Children (1980), into which Baby Saleem was born already partitioned, already cracking up. And still more from Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, “Old Razor Guts,” who banned the sale in Pakistan of Shame (1983), Rushdie’s book of beasts, in which Omar Shakil’s three mothers and his fear of flying cost him his head. And then the ultimate grief of a fatwa, because of The Satanic Verses (1988), wherein “a bum from Persia” named Salman blasphemed not only the Mad Thatcher (a detail the critics ignored) but also Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini (“the Untime of the Imam”), after which a license-to-kill was issued to the hashish-eating bounty hunters come down from Alamut, the eleventh-century Persian stronghold of the original assassins.

As if fanatics wouldn’t be killing one another’s children in India and Pakistan, in Rwanda and Timor, in Belfast and Sarajevo and Beirut, whether or not Rushdie had ever written a word, much less published a book they could hate instead of reading… As if he had to look a lot more like Jan Hus, Thomas More, Galileo, Socrates, or maybe one of those Buddhas the Taliban have rubbled, before the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Cardinal of Paris, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, and the Chief Rabbi of Israel’s Ashkenazis would speak up on his behalf, not to mention those slick journalists who thought he was too uppity.

If it makes me tired, imagine how Rushdie must feel when everything he has had to say in his metafictions—about the hatred of women in history; wog-bashing in the imperial cities of the gluttonous West; the displacement, deracination, and dismemberment of the modern intelligence in a world of permanent migration and mindless hybridizing; the triumph of the machinery of images in movies, television, and advertising over ancient myth, classical literature, and the social sciences; the loss of self and the death of love in a time without decency, borders, or roots—is lost in the spackle, static, and spam of celebrity shagging and globalized venom.

And yet he continued to write with a bull’s-eye on his back, with a ransacking exuberance. So what if he took it easy thereafter on Islam, making fun instead of Vasco de Gama’s Catholics and of the Zoroastrian Parsis who, while feeding their dead to the vultures, bet on the British and lost. (Note, too, his Sikh jokes: names like Will Singh, Kant Singh, Gota Singh, and Kitchen Singh.) He was still pressure-cooking. In The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), a sort of operetta, the mother of our fast-forward hero was India herself, his father went all the way back five hundred years to the fall of Granada and a spicy sexual tryst between Arab and Jew, and we met the Hindu hydrogen bomb several years before India had it. The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) was his Goodbye-to-India Novel, in which he quit “Wombay” forever on page 249. It was also his Hello, New York Novel, in which American literature was reversible, like an error or a raincoat. And his Rock-and-Roll Novel, a mystery train with blue guitars. And his Earthquake Novel, in which, on Valentine’s Day in 1989, Vina, Ormus, and Rai discovered cracks in the composure of the landmass, fissures in the body politic, faultlines in the human character, and “holes in the real.” You will remember that the Ayatollah slapped his fatwa on Rushdie on Valentine’s Day in 1989. Nor was it a good year for the stability of the nonprofit police states of Eastern Europe.

Messy, but wonderful, these books were, full of banyans, butterflies, and broken mirrors—an amazement from his underground. Fury doesn’t measure up. Slapdash is Eleanor, Mila, and Neela finding the professor irresistible, while the reader finds him merely irritating. Slapdash is thinking you’ve written a New York novel by naming a few streets, going to a couple of clubs or the Planetarium for the Big Bang, listening to a cabbie’s rant, dropping the names of Rudy and Woody, wearing sneakers, and noticing the cows.

Slapdash is telling us about the work station, the Mac PowerBook, the text scanner, the CD burner, the plug-in audio system and music sequencer and backup Zip drive, but not even bothering to introduce us to any of the whiz kids who create the Puppet Kings Web site.

Slapdash is substituting for the postcolonial politics of your previous novels a dystopian weariness, a Samuel Beckett sourpuss seen-it-all shrug, a wisecrack about “trickle-up economics,” and a throwaway précis of political science as Original Sin: “The state couldn’t make you happy…it couldn’t make you good or heal a broken heart. The state ran schools, but could it teach your children to love reading, or was that your job?”

Slapdash is finishing off your cursory effort by bouncing your hero high in the sky above his laughing young son, just as in Speak, Memory the young Nabokov watched his father rise and fall in their dining-room window from the heave-ho of loyal peasants, except that your hero has done absolutely nothing to earn the affection of children or peasants.

Slapdash is slack language, verging on gray cliché, like the following, about spiky Mila:

This was a woman of formidable self-control, to whom accidents most likely never happened—those sharp and somehow cryptic facial planes, that face which was most closed when it looked most open, that wise little private smile, at last revealed their secrets.

Which is not at all what we have come to relish from the author of phantasmagoric narratives and Monty Python sendups of history, religion, and popular culture, full of “immigrunt” identity crisis and modernist pastiche, Bombay bombast and stiff-upper-liposuction, babu babytalk and ad agency neologism, cinema gossip, elephant masks, pop jingles, rotten puns, kinky sex, and Schadenfreude. One way to have read The Satanic Verses was as a sort of Sammy and Rosie Get Laid in Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City.

And slapdash, finally, is broaching the subject of dolls in history—from rag and golliwog to voodoo and Barbie—without bestirring yourself to look up Babylon and its alabaster moving parts. Or Egypt and its clay-string hair. Or Greek and Roman Diana and Venus dolls in children’s graves. Or medieval crèches, Renaissance doll châteaus, and the mass production of wax and terra-cotta Parisian fashion dolls. Or Hopi and Zuni kachina dolls to carry prayers to gods. Or Japanese warrior dolls, Indian child-bride dolls, molded plastic and gutta-percha, ventriloquists’ dummies, toy soldiers and Humpty-Dumpty, not to mention the dollhouse Ibsen’s Nora fled from.

The old messy Rushdie would have done so for a hundred digressive pages, and included the tales dolls tell when squeezed. Indeed, dolls and action figures are the perfect surreal successors to the centaurs, wolfmen, spiderwomen, and chimeras in the Wonderland cloudforms of The Satanic Verses; to the winged bulls, salamanders, warthogs, gryphons, and amphisbaenae on the streets of his dreamy Jahilia; to the manticores, water terrorists, and chameleons in his London zoo; to the monkey kings, snake gods, and avatars of Vishnu in his Bollywood “theologicals”; to the shape-shifters, slip-sliders, scapegoats, androgynes, android rep-licants, hairy self-impaling charismatics, and cigar-store Indians in his rock-and-roll bestiary. As are Little Brain and the Puppet Kings, the TV show and the Web site, obvious morphs of “The Alien Show,” his situation comedy in The Satanic Verses: Pygmalien, Matilda the Australien, and the Alien Korns.

He is still worried that metamorphosis may be devolution. Or, as he put it in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, what people get wrong about “transformation” is that we are not all

shallow proteans, forever shifting shape. We’re not science fiction. It’s like when coal becomes diamond. It doesn’t afterward retain the possibility of change. Squeeze it as hard as you like, it won’t turn into a rubber ball, or a Quattro Stagione pizza, or a self-portrait by Rembrandt. It’s done.

In other words: “Metamorphosis isn’t whimsy. It’s revelation.”


Halfway into Fury, Solanka expresses what seems to be the novel’s preoccupation and Rushdie’s, too:

We are made of shadow as well as light, of heat as well as dust. Naturalism, the philosophy of the visible, cannot capture us, for we exceed. We fear this in ourselves, our boundary-breaking, rule-disproving, shape-shifting, transgressive, trespassing shadow-self, the true ghost in our machine.

But he has already written a better novel about the same dilemma, his very first notes from the underground after the fatwa, the delightful and neglected Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), which was read, when at all, either as a children’s book or for auguries, double meanings, hidden agendas, and Freudian slips. And maybe the slyboots conspired at those misreadings. Nevertheless…

A storyteller, Rashid, and his son, Haroun, are deserted by their nasty wife and mother. The sorrowful storyteller can no longer speak, except to say “Ark.” His loving son embarks on a dream journey, leaving behind the awful-tasting “glumfish” and the “factories of sadness” in a city that has forgotten its own name, for the wonderland of Kahani, where he will save the Ocean of Stories from pollution, and from which he will bring back speech and a mother.

To get to Kahani, Haroun must cross all of Alifbay, which means “alphabet” in Hindustani, from the Town of G to the Valley of K through the Pass of H and a Tunnel of I, assisted by characters called Iff and Butt, one of whom is mechanical, like a computer. (References are also made to P2C2E and M2C2D—“A Process Too Complicated to Explain” and “Machines Too Complicated to Describe”—not to mention Princess Rescue Story G/1001/RIM/ 777/M(w)i: Rapunzel.)

Kahani is Earth’s second moon, divided into Day and Night. The Children of Light, Guppees, are custodians of Stories. Their parliament is called a Chatterbox. Instead of an army, they have a Library; and instead of soldiers, Pages, whose smaller units are called Pamphlets. The Creatures of Darkness, Chuppees, worship the I dol of Bezaban (“tongueless”), and are enslaved to Kattam-Shud (“finished”), Foe of Speech, Prince of Silence, Arch-Enemy of All Stories, who has sewn up their lips with twine in a Cult of Dumbness.

For R2P2G (“Reasons Too Preposterous to Get Into”), Gup and Chup go to a war that involves Water Genies, Shadow Warriors, gryphons, manticores, trolls, seaweed, chessboards, “hunger artists” called Plentimaws, a lovely young female Page named Blabbermouth, and “an outbreak of talking helicopter anecdotes.” Haroun learns that by Naming we create Being, and that the world is full of things we haven’t seen but still believe in, like Africa, submarines, Mount Fuji, kangaroos, pagodas, and the North Pole, as well as the past (“did it happen?”) and the future (“will it come?”).

Western readers saw in Haroun the Brothers Grimm, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Phantom Toll Booth, Star Wars, and even Moby-Dick. Eastern readers knew perfectly well that Rashid and Haroun are out of the Arabian Nights; that Dull Lake is borrowed from the legendary Dal Lake and its floating gardens; that the Ocean of Stories belonged originally to the eleventh-century Katha-Sarita-Sagar, from which the Hindu epic Ramayana also derives. Geopoliticians had no trouble spotting the Ayatollah Khomeini and a fable of popular democracy. And children didn’t care, so long as Haroun brought back his mother.

I read Haroun as a parable about oppositions and moieties, each needing to complement the other, to become a Shiva. It spoke, as does Fury, to the usual dichotomies—of light and dark, self and shadow, speech and silence, East and West, eros and thanatos, thesis and antithesis, Abbott and Costello. But dichotomies are seesaws. You can’t play on them alone. Chup requires Gup. In Fury, Solanka sits down on one end of the seesaw and tries to bounce himself to heaven with a tantrum. The slapdasher who wrote Fury is not the same Salman Rushdie who, in Haroun, encouraged the previously silent Shadow Warrior to stutter “Gogogol” and “Kafkafka”; who, in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, brought back love from the dead.

I wish I could tell him to come home again, but I don’t know where that is.