Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1613
A refugee from his former lives, Malik Solanka seeks refuge in New York City, the mecca of immigrants. He has been a university professor in Britain and a historian of ideas, who has rejected the narrowness and sectarianism of academic life. Always fascinated by dolls, he becomes a dollmaker and conceives a character, Little Brain, who captivates the public. Finding his work coopted as popular entertainment, Solanka rejects his second career, feeling he has lost control over his creation, even though he has sought this broader appeal for his work. He also jettisons his wife Eleanor, a beautiful, shrewd, and patient woman he met through contacts in the publishing world. She has given birth to a charming young boy who longs for his father to return to New York. Eleanor wants Solanka to return to her, and he grieves that he cannot settle down to the married, steady life she has so splendidly arranged for him. He is restless and angry, and Eleanor does not have the vocabulary or the sensibility to soothe this fretful man. Solanka knows that to others, including his best friends in London, he seems irresponsible, yet he cannot overcome either his wanderlust or his uncompromising dissatisfaction with the status quo. He does not defend his actions; he simply cannot bring himself to behave otherwise. Eleanor is certainly not to blame; it is rather the nature of the world and of himself that is the problem. Solanka’s fury is directed both at himself and at the world, and his companions tend to be similarly displaced people, raging at their deracination and seeking unsatisfactory ways of assimilating themselves into the mainstream.
Mila, for example, is the daughter of an important Yugoslav writer, whose last name is unfortunately Milosovic. Although he is no relative of Yugoslavia’s former leader and war criminal, she feels tainted by the name and haunted by her father’s own gradual submersion in the mire of his native country’s breakup. Similarly, Jack Rhinehart, a brilliant African American war correspondent, forsakes his genius and is corrupted by fame, becoming a token assimilationist minority symbol and losing his beautiful lover, Neela Mahendra. She, in turn, repudiates Rhinehart’s degeneration and transfers her affections to Solanka, who still burns with the outrage she equates with sincerity and energy. To have Neela, however, Solanka must relinquish Mila, whose gentle and prolonged lovemaking has calmed him. By choosing Neela, Solanka again enters the maelstrom of history, ultimately following her to a mythical country, “Lilliput-Blefuscu”—the names Jonathan Swift gave to two opposing kingdoms in Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Like Gulliver, Solanka is a traveler seeking alternatives to his familiar world. There is a spirit of adventure and of novelty as Solanka describes the wonder of the new world (America, New York) just as Gulliver vividly anatomized the societies he encountered. Of course, Solanka is no Gulliver; that is, he cannot depict the world with Gulliver’s innocence and simplicity; yet like Gulliver he is searching for a utopia, a version of existence that can relieve his wrath at the world’s shortcomings. By involving herself in the revolution in Lilliput-Blefuscu, Neela tries to accomplish in the political realm what Solanka only dreams of doing in his work, and she abandons him precisely because he cannot commit himself exclusively to any movement or course of action.
Rushdie studs his protagonist’s thoughts with innumerable references to popular culture and world politics—the names and events of the last decade. Rushdie’s own experience as a political refugee, a hunted man marked for murder in Ayatollah Khomeini’s infamous fatwa, pervades the novel—as do details of his personal life. Like Solanka,...
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Rushdie left a wife and boy in London and moved to New York City. Like Solanka, he became involved with a beautiful woman (the novel is dedicated to her) and emerged as a flamboyant public personality. Indeed, reviewers of this novel, especially in Britain, have taken a dim view of Rushdie’s behavior and thus have treated his protagonist with considerable scorn.
Although the novel centers on Solanka’s consciousness and his gift for language, which rivals Rushdie’s own, Solanka’s moods are clearly meant to be a barometer of world culture. Indeed, certain passages inFury have a chilling, prophetic quality viewed in the context of the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. For example, Solanka broods on the “terrorist anger that kept taking him hostage.” The breadth and depth of Solanka’s anger is global: “Those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad. The Furies hovered over Malik Solanka, over New York and America, and shrieked. In the streets below, the traffic, human and inhuman, screamed back its enraged assent.” It is worth noting that before September 11, the operative term was “road rage,” used to describe the increasing irascibility of public life, which included American passengers attacking flight attendants and each other long before terrorists made such attacks a profession and a global concern.
Although Rushdie clearly foresaw that this rage has been ratcheted up in recent times, his references to “the gods” and to “the furies” provide a wise reminder of just how prone history has always been to the anarchy of anger. Thus Solanka soliloquizes: “Life is fury . . . Fury—sexual, Oedipal, political, magical, brutal—drives us to our finest heights and coarsest depths. Out of furia comes creation, inspiration, originality, passion, but also violence, pain, pure unafraid destruction, the giving and receiving of blows from which we never recover.” These last words strike a blow at American triumphalism, the idea that America will always overcome tragedy, but they are also Solanka’s self-criticism, for just like every other immigrant he has come to America to renew himself, and he wants to believe in the American myth of rebirth in spite of his skepticism.
Indeed, Solanka comes to New York—as Rushdie did—at a time when the city seems most glamorous and secure. Crime is down; the stock market is up. New York is what is fashionable. It seems huge and inviting and Solanka wants the city to swallow him up. Yet in the heady atmosphere of wealth and glitter and power, people seethe. If Solanka shares their fuming, boiling, steaming, and stewing—the adjectives tend to pile up on this novel as its protagonist works himself up to his stupendous fits—he can also observe this concatenation of hysterics with considerable humor. For the fury can just be everyday and trivial, that is, in excess of what provokes such passion. Rushdie loves outrage in and for itself, even when it is ridiculous. Solanka enters a taxi and hears the driver swearing in Urdu: “Islam will cleanse this street of godless motherfucker bad drivers.” Then the diatribe becomes ugly: “Islam will purify this whole city of Jew pimp assholes like you and your whore roadhog of a Jew wife too.” Yet the driver is a young man who is aghast when Solanka answers him in Urdu and suggests the driver watch his words. The driver is not presented as an unpleasant person; indeed, he truly seems innocent of how much he has engulfed himself in fury. He is just blowing off steam, and expressing his exuberance—or is he? Fury, this novel demonstrates, can be therapeutic and malevolent—funneled into terrorist attacks or fueled into just words.
Unquestionably, Rushdie’s novel has touched a nerve in contemporary life, although reviewers have justifiably complained that it is congested with detail and with rather superficial social, political, and psychological commentary. It is also difficult to believe in some of the characters, for they seem rather like stereotypes, projections of Solanka’s concerns. They are his dolls, so to speak. They leave little resonance at the end of the novel. Perhaps Rushdie realizes this defect and tries to make a virtue out of it, treating the characters not only as a emanations of Solanka’s fantasies but rather like the furies who have come to seal his fate. Toward the end of Fury, Solanka muses on his friends as though they are the characters in the science fiction novels he cherishes: “The masks of his life circled him sternly, judging him. He closed his eyes and the masks were still there, whirling. He bowed his head before their verdict. He had wished to be a good man, to lead a good man’s life, but the truth was he hadn’t been able to hack it.” Even Lilliput-Blefuscu becomes “reinvented . . . in his image. Its streets were his biography, patrolled by figments of his imagination and altered versions of people he had known.” This last passage again hints at the autobiographical sources of Rushdie’s novel; it is a veiled reference to the way the novelist has created a fable out of his own life.
Fables of the writer’s life are enticing, since what better material could he have than himself? Nonetheless, autobiographical fictions have a tendency to be solipsistic, since the writer may have difficulty getting outside himself to make his story both individual and universal. Rushdie seems caught between his particular fate and the world’s, and though such a predicament has its own interesting tension, it fails to transcend the writer’s own tics—or does so only fitfully, so that Rushdie’s work seems only half-created and thus only half-convincing.
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic Monthly 288 (September, 2001): 138.
Booklist 97 (June 1, 2001): 1798.
The Christian Science Monitor, September 6, 2001, p. 14.
The Economist 360 (August 25, 2001):66.
The New Republic 225 (September 24, 2001): 32.
New York 34 (September 10, 2001): 170.
The New York Review of Books 48 (October 4, 2001): 35.
The New York Times, August 31, 2001, p. E31.
The New York Times Book Review 106 (September 9, 2001): 8.
Newsweek 138 (September 17, 2001): 68.
Weekly Standard 7 (October 1, 2001): 35.