Where to begin? A conversation about this sprawling, jam-packed mess of a novel could unspool in a number of directions. It has now been ten years since the fatwa that transformed Salman Rushdie from an acclaimed second-generation magic realist into a global icon of the unfettered imagination (albeit an icon who for a long time could hardly show his face in public), and The Ground Beneath Her Feet does, in a manner at once oblique and insistent, invite us to revisit the whole sorry and confused business of the Rushdie Affair. The novel’s first words are “On St. Valentine’s Day, 1989”–which was of course the day the Iranian government pronounced its death sentence on Rushdie for the blasphemies of The Satanic Verses.
This would be easy enough not to catch (I myself caught it only because I’d read Rushdie’s short piece in the Valentine’s Day issue of The New Yorker), but if you do catch it you may spend a good deal of the rest of the book waiting for the other shoe to drop: The day that is announced as the last day of international rock ’n’ roll diva Vina Apsara’s life is also the day, in the real world, that her creator was sentenced to death. This must mean something. But what? While Vina Apsara is herself an icon of the unfettered imagination, she is hardly a stand-in for the author (that role belongs to his narrator, the photographer Umeed Merchant, Vina’s childhood friend and sometime lover). There is not much emphasis on politics here–as in The Moor’s Last Sigh, Rushdie is content to leave the tumult of post-1947 subcontinental politics, which dominated his earlier books Midnight’s Children and Shame, mostly in the background. Nor does religion play much of a role in the story, though the Zoroastrian background of Ormus Cama, Vina’s soul mate (Orpheus to her Eurydice) and the third of the book’s main characters, does furnish some interesting mythological motifs.
In fact, the book’s commitment to paganism is linked to its disavowal of politics:
The old religions’ legacy of living stories–the Ash Yggdrasil, the Cow Audumul, Ouranos-Viaruna, Dionsysus’s Indian jaunt, the vain Olympians, the fabulous monsters, the legion of ruined, sacrificed women, the metamorphoses–continues to hold my attention, whereas Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Marxism, the Market, utterly fail to enthral. These are faiths for the front pages, for CNN, not for me. Let them struggle over their old and new Jerusalems! It’s Prometheus and the Nibelungs, Indra and Cadmus, who bring me my kind of news.
A passage like this says, to the literal-minded reader chasing after autobiographical resonances and topical references, Back off. But there are plenty of other passages that say Press on:
Where the plate of different realities met, there were shudders and rifts. Chasms opened. A man could lose his life.Nineteen eighty-nine was also the year everybody else’s picture [of the world] broke, the year we were all plunged into an unframed limbo: the formless future. But that’s politics and seismology, and I’ll come to it later. I’m talking now about what happened to me.
The person speaking is, of course, Umeed Merchant (also known as Rai, which means hope). But I think we’re meant to hear Rushdie’s own voice projecting through the mask, like the Kansas carny behind the great and powerful Wizard of Oz. (One of the movie-mad Rushdie’s favorite pictures, and the subject of a terrific little book he wrote for the British Film Institute.)
(Politics and seismology–the earthquake metaphors that pervade The Ground Beneath Her Feet down to its title–are matters we will perhaps also come to later). Rushdie is less like Oz than like a Las Vegas stage magician who can’t decide whether the audience should be paying attention to his tricks or to him. And while this is some of the fun–his stage patter can be amusing, and some of his more daring imaginative flights are made even more so by the fact that he in effect says, “Hey! Watch this!” before he unleashes them–it is, I think, the source of a lot of the confusion, incoherence, and downright sloppiness that in the end make this a frustrating performance.
In any case, I think Rushdie quite cunningly and deliberately invites us to read this book as autobiography by other means and then makes such a reading impossible to sustain. Maybe I shouldn’t say “us,” since you may have an entirely different take on the novel. But I think we can agree that the relationship between reality and imagination, or between different orders of reality, is at least in part what the book is about. (It’s also about social relations in post-independence Bombay, rock ’n’ roll, the intertwining of Western and Eastern mythologies, the boons and burdens of exile, the nature of love, and a great deal else besides, and I hope we’ll have time to get to some of these, since the book, for all its frustrations and loose ends, is remarkably rich and suggestive in its themes). And I guess the main problem I have (and it’s a problem that I’m afraid will require a fair amount of summarizing to explain) is that the boundaries of its imaginative terrain are not very clearly mapped. The world of Ormus, Rai (as Umeed is known), and Vina for the first half of the book seems to be a fairly intelligible magic-realist distillation of the world as we know it. But then it turns into something like science fiction, before reverting at the end to a kind of Tom Wolfe-style Big Realism. There is also, once the novel and its characters quit India, a fatal loss of vividness and sensuous detail. The evocations of an imaginary Bombay (the Bombay of Rushdie’s childhood) early in The Ground Beneath Her Feet are so much more satisfying, so much more real, than the potted sketches of “swinging” London in the 1960s and Manhattan in the 1980s that follow. I don’t think the book holds together, but then maybe it isn’t meant to and I’m missing the point. What do you think?