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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.

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