Rushdie has been described as the man who "redrew the literary map of India." The enormous ambition required by a project of those dimensions is evident in the complex intermixture of themes in The Ground Beneath Her Feet. His vision of the human universe at the end of the twentieth century is one of chaos and instability verging on the edge of cataclysmic, even apocalyptic occurrences. Using the recent prevalence of major earthquakes as a sign of psychic disorder, Rushdie laces the narrative with literal, graphic descriptions of tremors rocking the deceptively placid surface plane upon which people unknowingly walk with confidence, leading toward a pervasive feeling of unease as the foundation structure of society is revealed as rotten and unstable.
Significantly, Rushdie has described his ordeal during the darkest days of the fatwa as "terribly bewildering. I had to find my feet again," and explains that after this shattering of his life's frame, he "had to learn to fight back. I had to find the strength to get back to writing." In a classic sense, Rushdie wrote to control chaos, using art as a means of re-establishing the order of his life. Similarly, the protagonists of The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Cama, Aspara and Merchant, employ their artistic attributes in an effort to resist the terrestrial uncertainty of their lives, a task complicated by the freedom and the free forms of their chosen professions.
Characteristically capitalizing on the multiple meanings he relishes, Rushdie has cast Cama and Aspara as the core of an exceptional rock band so that they are actually both contributing to and seeking to control the rocking and rolling of the milieu in which they operate by gathering, absorbing and focusing the wild impulses of energy flowing around them. Rushdie has called rock music "the first globalized cultural phenomenon," spoken of it as "the soundtrack of my life" and maintained that during the Vietnam War music was "simply affirming love during a time of death." These comments indicate the importance of rock music as a crucial social construct during the second half of the twentieth century, but Rushdie is also interested in music as a primal artistic impulse which expresses a person's "heart's truth" and which can open the doors of perception for an avid audience. Speaking as an omniscient commentator, Rushdie remarks:
Our lives are not what we deserve; they are, let us agree, in many painful ways deficient. Song turns them into something else. Song shows us a world that is worthy of our yearning, it shows us our selves as they might be, if we were worthy of the world.
Rushdie makes his meaning clear shortly after this paean by positioning his narrative imagination at "the gate of the inferno of language" thereby locating song, with speech, at the threshold of human consciousness. On many occasions, Rushdie has emphasized his life-long commitment to a language-driven view of existence, mentioning that "when I was growing up, everyone around me was fond of fooling around with words. It was certainly common in my family, but I think it is typical of Bombay, and maybe India." In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, the construction of a song becomes an analogue for the arrangement of words in a sentence, the grouping of units of meaning to reveal some important versions of truth about the world.
In citing Bob Dylan as one of his earliest influences, Rushdie talks about Dylan's music in terms of its "strange phrasings" and "the extraordinary surrealism of his lyrics," and he accepts the challenge of Dylan's well-known songs as a standard by frequently presenting Cama's songs not only in their final form but also in their preparatory stages. The songs grow out of his response to the phenomena of the world and the signals from his subconscious mind. In addition to claiming that rock is an international language, Rushdie has also asserted that "Rock is the mythology of our time" and that he found it "interesting to contrast it in the novel with that older mythology." The story of the love-relationship of Cama and Aspara is drawn from the Orpheus/Eury dice myth, including particularly prominently the power of Orpheus' song to inspire creatures to vivid wakefulness; to draw light from darkness; to arouse jealousy among the Gods (who are reduced to corporate manipulators); to continue on into eternity after Orpheus' death. "You can destroy the singer, but you can't stop the song," Rushdie insists, as Orpheus/Cama follows Eurydice/Aspara toward Hades' realm after she has vanished during the earthquake in Mexico.
The mythic parallel is also the basis for a wider doubling motif as Cama is born after the death of his twin brother. He is led into a shadow world where he "hears" songs not yet composed on earth and is contacted by entities from another world set at an oblique angle to the "reality" of the novel. The realistic detail of the corporeal world in The Ground Beneath Her Feet is built on a series of familiar figures and references, often set slightly askew. For example, John Kennedy survives the assassination attempt in Dallas, but is killed with his brother— now President—Robert Kennedy by one bullet in 1968. As Rushdie observes, "I may have pushed it to the limit with two sets of twins, and indeed, a twin world, an entirely parallel world as well as the real world."
The intricate interweaving of the central themes of The Ground Beneath Her Feet— what Rushdie has called "the full orchestra"— required the creation of a clear narrative consciousness to give the reader a fixed position amidst the strains of the story. Umeed Merchant, who functions as an involved and a semi-omniscient narrator, and the singing spirit of VTO, Ormus Cama and Vina Aspara, are all developed with Rushdie's fondness for massive descriptive detail, for elaborate scenes of characters in action, for extensive examinations of internal psychological motivation and with a solid grounding in terms of family history and environmental/cultural forces. As usual, their characterization begins with...
(The entire section is 2500 words.)