Reads Like Rock 'n' Roll
Salman Rushdie's latest novel weaves wonderful puns but recycles tired themes of exile and faith
By NISID HAJARI
From its first line we are invited to read Salman Rushdie's new novel through the prism of the death sentence levied upon him a decade ago: "On St. Valentine's Day, 1989, the last day of her life, the legendary popular singer Vina Apsara woke sobbing from a dream of human sacrifice in which she had been the intended victim." That same day Rushdie awoke to his living nightmare. Those who would see all his subsequent work as a reaction to having a price (now $2.8 million) put upon his head were diverted by Rushdie's first post-fatwa novel, The Moor's Last Sigh--a joyous carnival of a book, which made the ayatullahs' decree seem mere grist for his powerhouse imagination. And yet, and yet: not only did the fatwa sweep away the ground beneath his feet, but it took from him literature. One can no longer read Rushdie's books without thinking of his life.
His genius has been to recognize and to refract that reality, to bend the nightmare to his own fantastical purposes. The Ground Beneath Her Feet (Jonathan Cape; 575 pages), his sixth novel, finds yet another metaphor--rock 'n' roll--for that quality of outside-ness that was the subject of The Satanic Verses and that has been Rushdie's condition ever since. Vina Apsara is his muse--willful, free-spirited, golden-voiced and ultimately a doomed icon for all the world's obsession with celebrity. Her lover, Ormus Cama, is both foil and savior, Orpheus to her Eurydice. Their friend (and Vina's sometime backdoor man), Umeed "Rai" Merchant, is Rushdie himself, the photographer who makes his living from "What Actually Happens," the narrator whose tale sets out to tell "what is the case."
Of course, being Rushdie, Rai does nothing of the sort. From its outset in post-independence Bombay, where the three protagonists meet as children, the novel makes no pretense to orderliness. Ormus is born almost as an afterthought, the unexpected live baby that follows his dead twin. Rai's parents are split up by another "woman," Bombay--loved by one for its Art Deco past, by the other for its skyscrapered future. Tragic Vina arrives as the ward of the oily Piloo Doodhwala, a thinly disguised caricature of formerly jailed Indian politician Laloo Prasad Yadav. And amid the hubbub, the three kids plant the seeds of loves both heroic (between Ormus and Vina) and thwarted (of Rai, for Vina). All is described in the grand diction of opera and the baroque stage shows that rock star Ormus will later orchestrate from within, literally, a glass bubble.
That obvious echo of Rushdie underscores the writer's project: to reveal "what is" by approaching it from an angle. This has been Rushdie's strategy in his previous novels, when he has mapped landscapes--India, Pakistan, the uncertain ground of the exile--by tracing their more outlandish outlines. Here he makes that literary strategy literal. Ormus, who as a teenager hears hit songs 1,001 days before they are released in the West, can look into another dimension that seems a lot like our own. His double-vision, when illustrating the shakiness of our constructed world, can be revelatory as well as hallucinatory. This is after all, as the skeptic Rai notes, "the only belief that leads to truth, that is, the willing, disbelieving belief of the reader in the well-told tale."
What is allowed by the bizarre, however, is undone by the mundane. Reality--Rushdie's plaything--gets the better of his novel. When the action shifts from India to London and then New York, the narrative settles into a mild reworking of the myth of the '60s. Characters become composites of historical figures; reading their actions becomes an exercise in that time-honored strategy of rock criticism: guess the reference. The music itself seems amorphous, formulaic. Rushdie tells us how the duo's voices moved hearts, but gives no clear sense of what they sound like. They are merely a receptacle for all that was rock 'n' roll before punk, when guitarists could still be thought of as gods.
More importantly, the lovers are vehicles for Rushdie's standard themes--exile, hybridity, faith, fiction. At times he re-frames those issues in inventive ways, as when Ormus finally grasps "how to make of multiplicity an accumulating strength rather than a frittery weakness. How the many selves can be, in song, a single multitude." (Prince-like, he plays all the many instruments for his breakthrough single, It Shouldn't Be This Way.) But he is covering well-worn territory. Even his Bombay--familiar to him from his childhood, and to us from his previous novels--is old hat. We have learned from Rushdie before the virtues of not relying on clear, hard sureties. When he repeats the idea so often and so blatantly ("Instability, the modern condition ... now feels like possibility"), he begins to sound preachy.
What really falls between the cracks in Ground is not only the lovely Vina, but the story itself. Beneath Rushdie's brilliant wordplay has always lain an often sweet narrative, the anchor that has allowed the rhetoric to soar and swoop. But here the ideas get the better of the characters. "The best in our natures is drowning in the worst," Ormus' mother would say. That might be too harsh a criticism to level at Rushdie. But one could certainly wish that this time, he had given his higher concerns more solid ground to stand on.