The Book Club

Writing Under Fire

Dear Gerry,

I think you’ve got to the source of our frustration with this novel: the globalization of pop culture–and pop music in particular–is a topic ideally suited to Rushdie’s interests and talents, and he somehow misses it. You’re also right about the plain technical difficulties of writing about music in general and rock ’n’ roll in particular. I will check out High Fidelity, which is one of the 5,000 books I’ve meant to read in the past few years but haven’t got around to. Out Of Sheer Rage is another, and your description of it the other day bumped it up to the top of the list. I’ve always had trouble with Lawrence’s fiction, though I like his poetry and think Studies in Classic American Literature is still the best book on the subject.

Shortly before I read your message yesterday someone told me that Bono had recorded some Ormus Cama tunes, and it doesn’t surprise me. U2 for me is a perfect example of the dangers of pagan (or, in their case, Christian) rock god messianism. They started out as a very loud and pretty good rock ’n’ roll band with an interesting political-religious vibe and ended up global ambassadors of self-importance. But enough picking on Rushdie’s musical taste. Whatever gets you through the night …

It’s impossible to read this book–or anything Rushdie has published in the past ten years–without being haunted by the conditions in which it was written. It’s hard to be critical of a writer who has endured what Rushdie has, which is an altogether unprecedented kind of persecution. Throughout history, of course, writers have been silenced, censored, imprisoned, bought off, and killed by governments, but usually by their own governments, and usually through agents of those governments. The Iranian government, which had no imaginable claim of jurisdiction over Rushdie, basically said that any Muslim who killed him would get lots of money and a ticket to Paradise. And Rushdie, who had been an outspoken champion of the rights of racial and religious minorities in the UK, had to watch crowds of the people whose rights he had defended burn his book and call for his head. He then had to endure lectures from the British government and the Tory press about what an ingrate and a hypocrite he was for seeking protection from a government he had criticized as reactionary and intolerant. Then there were the people on the multiculturalist left (to which Rushdie had, in some measure, always belonged), who decided that, yes, The Satanic Verses was offensive after all, others who said Rushdie didn’t do enough to call attention to the plight of other writers who had it much worse than he did, and still others who accused him at various points of giving in to the fatwa (by delaying paperback publication of TSV, by writing a somewhat conciliatory essay called “In Good Faith,” etc.).

And that’s just the public discourse–what’s called the Rushdie Affair. But what I think you were gesturing toward at the end of your message was Rushdie’s life–the daily effort of trying to be a productive writer and a functioning human being (father, husband, friend) in such circumstances. It beggars imagination. Not to put you on the spot, but didn’t you do a profile of Rushdie a few years back? What was he like? Did he have anything to say about the effects of the fatwa on his writing?

Rereading some of Rushdie’s pre-fatwa essays (as collected in Imaginary Homelands, which every Slate reader who cares about literature or politics should buy [click here! Right now!]), I’ve been struck by what a political writer he was in the 1980s–unapologetically a “man of the left.” (Not a phrase you hear much anymore.) And it occurs to me that the fatwa was issued just as the political landscape of the world was beginning to undergo a cataclysmic alteration (that earthquake metaphor again). Both The Ground Beneath Her Feet and The Moor’s Last Sigh seem to turn away from politics, almost to flee from it. Since, as you’ve rightly insisted, Rushdie is a novelist of ideas, I wonder how the circumstances of his own life and the redrawing of the world’s ideological map have combined to change the way he thinks about the world. Any thoughts?