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 …