The Book Club

Libertarian Rock

Dear Tony,

You asked me about my favorite parts of The Ground Beneath Her Feet: The opening chapter is wondrous, as Rushdie’s openers tend to be. (Once you’ve read it, can you ever forget the spectacular fall to earth that opens The Satanic Verses?) I think the Bombay chapters are as lovingly and hilariously rendered as anything he has written–in particular the parents’ generation, which is interesting enough, given the book’s youthful themes. Rushdie gave us the culture clash of England and India on English turf in The Satanic Verses; here we get the collision on Indian turf a generation earlier–a gentler comingling in some ways, befitting the ennui-drenched, end-of-empire moment. Maybe the best rendered bits in the book–so outrageous, and then so sad–are those devoted to Sir Darius Cama’s “idiosyncratic art of Musical Muscle Control.” We seem him first at his aristocratic club, shirtless and making his pecs and abs jerk along to the music “like tango dancers with roses between their teeth.” (Nice.) But when he tries the same trick at a New India boho bash, a kind of Indian version of that famous party in Antonioni’s Blow Up, he made an ass of himself–and realized he, and his India, were finished.

Of course, the musical muscle dance is bequeathed to his son Orma, in whom it is transformed into rock ’n’ roll. Which brings me back to where I started, I suppose–to what I see as Rushdie’s central idea in this novel: The transformational power of the cultural politics inherent in ‘60s rock. If the parallel reality Rushdie creates in the book doesn’t, to my mind, quite work literarily, his meditations on what you might call a parallel 60’s paradigm does. We continue to talk and talk about the culture wars engendered by the ‘60s, but one of the things we never talk much about is the structure of that debate, which oddly leaves little room for culture at all. Most on the right and left–or at least those on the left who continue to control the microphone–are happy to fight this battle on the old left/right political terms, that is, to argue about communism and patriotism, Selma and Vietnam and on. Important stuff, to be sure, but what gets edged out of this discussion is what you might call the libertarian aspects of the ‘60s, which many on the political left back then had a problem with, which the right simply does not have a clue about, but which, in fact, is what most of the people who feel the ‘60s mattered to them actually felt was the ‘60s. And even a lot of these folks want to forget about it–the sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll of it. Hey, they’re raising kids of their own now!

The Ground Beneath Her Feet is about not forgetting, in the way Vaclav Havel is about not forgetting when he talks about the importance to the Velvet Revolution of Frank Zappa and Lou Reed (and people, right and left, snigger). The way John Lennon sang about how it wasn’t about carrying pictures of Chairman Mao but about freeing your mind instead (and people on the right hated him, and people on the far left hated him, too, that summer of ‘68). Through rock ’n’ roll and sex and drugs, a lot of young people back then did come to understand the exhilaration of self-transformation, did find new ways to belong (or not), did come to embody freedom.

“And music, popular music, was the key that unlocked the door for them, the door to magic lands,” Rushdie writes in The Ground Beneath Her Feet. I’m with him.