The Book Club

Rock ’n’ Roll Grad School

Dear Tony,

The not-so-subtle name game Rushdie works up in The Ground Beneath Her Feet was a distraction for me too–it’s a tick that bugged me when I was 16 and reading On the Road–so what do you think it’s about? Am I supposed to feel wised-up because I know that Jesse Garon Parker is Elvis–or a parallel-universe Elvis? (Parker is the “Colonel,” of course; Jesse Garon was Elvis’ twin brother who died at birth.) Is this Rushdie’s way of being able to people his own pagan pantheon, outside history, as he constructs his Orpheus-myth update? Or is this a way to lend rock ’n’ roll the quality of timeless literary transcendence we’ve come to expect from “big novels”?

It’s my last question that I’ve been thinking hardest about, spurred by your well-placed skepticism regarding even the possibility of a novel of ideas about rock ’n’ roll. Maybe there is something about pop–with its imperative to make things new, right now, and if it’s cool for just three months, fine–that keeps the literary impulse at bay. There’s also the problem of writing about music, fiction or nonfiction–and, for that matter, whether the music is rock or jazz or 18th-century chamber music. How to describe it so someone unfamiliar with it knows what you’re talking about? It’s harder, I think, than describing a painting, say. Another problem are the kinds of people making the music: the rock musicians, weirdish youths, historically, who, as you nicely put it, aren’t having Big Thoughts but having a fine time making noise. These aren’t the pent-up kids of so many fine coming-of-age novels–they’re happily venting, thank you, with drums and guitars and (increasingly) soundboards and turntables. Interestingly, perhaps my favorite novel set in the realm of rock ’n’ roll is Nick Hornby’s very entertaining High Fidelity–and maybe why it works is that the hero is already in his 30s and isn’t a musician but a record-shop-owning aficionado.

You brought up and questioned Rushdie’s musical tastes as they’re expressed in the novel. I’d heard at one point that he had joined U2 on tour to get some first-hand feel for the world of pagan rock gods, and I think the book has a number of deft and convincing scenes of the backstage-and-hotel-room variety. (I also hear U2 may write a song or two based on Rushdie’s lyrics. Hmm.) I guess what I think is missing here, and what Rushdie was uniquely situated to explore, is the globalization of pop, which only barely existed in the ‘60s but is a big part of things now, especially in India and England. Cornershop, for example–these cut-and-paste mixologists are … well, right out of a Rushdie novel, with their hyphenated ethnic identities and melange aesthetics: hip-hop, Punjabi folk music, Velvet Underground guitar drones, you name it. But they, or anything like them, are nowhere to be found in TGBHF. Maybe Rushdie is just a ‘60s guy and isn’t interested.

Or maybe this is the kind of thing you don’t get a chance to get interested in if it happens to develop while you’re in hiding. What has it done to him, living and working the way he’s been forced to do? Maybe we should talk tomorrow about Ten Years After–not the group but the fatwa.