The Book Club

Rockin’ Rushdie

Dear Tony,

You’re right, where to begin? How about with the book I finished just before starting The Ground Beneath Her Feet? Isn’t that, inescapably, the way we actually find ourselves reading so much of the time–reading a book through some other book we just put down? I mean as readers, not as critics or reviewers or bookish online chatters? Anyway, the book I was reading, pre-Rushdie, was Out of Sheer Rage, by Geoff Dyer, a little literary gem, I think, about–well, about reading (and about procrastinating, which is not what I’m doing now, I swear). It’s a memoir about how he, Dyer, can’t quite get around to writing this study of D. H. Lawrence he’s been wrestling with for years, and about halfway through the book he has this terrific riff–and an astonishing revelation for someone purportedly wrapped up in the fiction of a significant 20th-century author–that he really doesn’t like reading Lawrence’s fiction all that much. (He loves the letters.) Moreover, he doesn’t like reading much fiction at all, at least not beginning to end, book after book, in the way you’re supposed to read fiction. And he finds himself wondering why more novelists–especially novelists of ideas, which are the ones he’s drawn to–don’t just cut it out with all the plotting and characterization and so on and get more quickly (and linger for longer) with the ideas.

Which is what I found myself thinking about halfway through The Ground Beneath Her Feet. It is something of a mess, as you said–the slackest of his novels structurally, and also, later on, pretty slack in the sentences, too. Rushdie has always had this jones for Pynchon–see Grimus, his first novel–and the frustrating way the narrative of this new one veers off into a “truer” alternative reality, to say nothing of the pop-lyric allusions and hippie-dippy punning and word play in this new one, sometimes reads as though the last book Rushdie put down before beginning it was Vineland. (He praised it to the skies in the Times Book Review, you might recall.)

And yet and yet. Is there another author of my generation whose next book I more eagerly anticipate? (And this one has not changed me, in that regard.) And is he onto something important in The Ground Beneath Her Feet? He is! You called Rushdie a “magic realist.” I don’t think so. A magic realist is a writer of the village, or at least a teller of village tales. The stories become “strange,” in that surrealist way, when they are recontextualized in the container called the novel. (Greatest example: One Hundred Years of Solitude.) Rushdie is a novelist of the modern or, risking cliché, the postmodern world. He rides a jumbo jet, not a donkey. Contingency of identity, the multi-hyphenated Self, the collapse of borders East and West, North and South, life in the New Fast World–these are his great themes. That they happen to be the world’s great themes in the last 40 or so years of the century, and that he has approached them with generosity of spirit, inventive prose, and a seemingly boundless imagination–OK, I think Rushdie’s a great writer.

I’m still procrastinating? Enough. What I’m getting around to saying is that a magic realist would not–could not–write a novel of ideas about what I think is another great theme of this era, which, if it were scrawled on a wall in Paris in May 1968 might read, “Three Chords and a Downbeat = Liberation.” (OK, not even a stoned Sorbonne semiotician would have written that.) Pulsing through The Ground Beneath Her Feet is the notion, or better, the assumption, that there was a world before rock ’n’ roll and a world after, and that they are very much not the same. A hard sell just now, perhaps, as neo-fascist rock bands work up the crowds each afternoon in downtown Belgrade. But I happen to think Rushdie’s essentially right–that neo-pagan rock ’n’ roll advanced a crucial cultural politics, killed some old gods, and shook up the Self. And until the novel heads West to London, I was engrossed and convinced. And so to me, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, if his weakest since he found his voice in Midnight’s Children, is, as you said, rich and remarkably suggestive, if not ultimately successful. You know, like the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour.

I was taken with your close reading of the biographical aspects of the book, and would like to talk more about them–and about the broader question of whether the ever-hovering fatwa left Rushdie without not only a normal life but also a literature–a way of reading him without biography intruding. But maybe we should stick a bit closer to more literary matters for a while. Why has there been so little rock ’n’ roll in contemporary fiction? And what do you make of the way Rushdie deals with it?