The Ground Beneath Her Feet
One can imagine the dismay of readers who, having been enthralled by the prepublication excerpt of Salman Rushdie’s new novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, in the April 5, 1999 issue of The New Yorker, stumbled upon any of the several high-profile reviews, including that of the usually unerring Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, which had nothing good to say about this “decidedly disappointing” and “strangely hollow” book. How was one to account for the discrepancy between an excerpt which clearly shows Rushdie at the height of his powers and the harsh views of Kakutani or the longer, more detailed list of shortcomings provided by Tim Parks in The New York Review of Books, especially when those most enthusiastic about the book seemed so vague and unconvincing by comparison? The puzzled reader may well wonder whether the Iranian government’s recent (and arguably irrelevant) lifting of the death sentence imposed by the late Ayatollah Khomeini on February 14, 1989, released, if not Rushdie from the threat of assassination, the reviewers who had spent the previous decade dealing more gently with the shortcomings of the conciliatory fable Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990); the collection East, West: Stories (1994), short stories not being the expansive Rushdie’s strong suit; and The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), with its lamentably weak ending, than they would have had the immensely talented and ambitious (as well as at times notoriously arrogant) Rushdie not become the poster boy of imaginative freedom in an age of neocensorship.
Now imagine that same reader buying the book, overcoming any residual Parks- and Kakutani-inspired fear and trembling, and actually beginning to read it. Imagine the relief as he or she relives the earlier euphoria. For what is the excerpt but the novel’s first chapter, minus a brief concluding paragraph, plus much of chapter 15 and the title, “Vina Divina,” from chapter 16, all worked into one seamless, seductive, whole beginning. “On Valentine’s Day, 1989, the last day of her life, the legendary popular singer Vina Apsara woke sobbing from a dream of human sacrifice in which she had been the intended victim.” In a single sentence, Rushdie draws the reader into his narrative’s sinuous depths, evokes a world of intertextual references (Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936), autobiographical parallels (the nightmare of the fatwa from which Rushdie has just begun to awake), and postmodern-postcolonial history. None of this should surprise the reader, for Rushdie has long been the master of a narrative combinatory logic which, after the false start of his first novel, Grimus (1975), he himself so artfully assembled from Günter Grass, Gabriel García Márquez, Thomas Pynchon, and others and made entirely his own. It is the narrative equivalent of what in The Ground Beneath Her Feet he calls
Bombay’s garbage argot, Mumbai ki kachrapati baat- cheet, in which a sentence could begin in one language, swoop through a second and even a third and then swing back round to the first. Our acronymic name for it was Hug-me. Hindi Urdu Gujaurati Marathi English.
Like the fantastical Uncle Sam in Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977), Rushdie has “got a lot of style, a lot of styles.” He is the bricoleur par excellence fashioning a hybrid art of (im)purest contingency, a Pynchonesque deviser and debunker of paranoid fantasies (whether personal, political, or religious), and an extoller of relationships—both cultural and familial—forged by chance and circumstance rather than by design. The shape of Rushdie’s carefully constructed roller-coaster prose, like the shape of his characters’ lives, is, at every level, “neither simply linear nor wholly disjunctive nor endlessly bifurcating, but this bouncey-castle sequence of bumpings-into and tumblings-apart.” Characters, plots, and frames of reference cross paths with wild abandon in the omnigatherum of Rushdie’s narrative global village: Disney rubbing intertextual elbows with T. S. Eliot. Rushdie’s range of reference, which is more exhilarating than exhausting (or daunting), is redeemed by his comical approach and thematic purpose. Even as he wallows in the liberating transformational possibilities of postcolonial, postmodern freedom, Rushdie deals sympathetically as well as critically with what results when things “cease to cohere”—when, in William Butler Yeats’s famous phrase, “the center does not hold”— especially when the center is either one’s “dailiness” or a rock star like Vina Apsara. Thus, one of the questions raised in this important but seriously flawed novel (its exhilarating opening aside, Parks and Kakutani are right about The Ground Beneath Her Feet), is “How to find moorings, foundations, fixed points, in a broken, altered time” of earth- and system-shattering events, of “the breakdown of boundaries” of all kinds, from fatwas to the Berlin Wall?
The relative weakness of the novel derives largely from the inadequacy of the vehicles Rushdie has chosen for exploring this theme: The love affair of Ormus Cama and Vina Apsara, the modeling of that affair on the Orpheus-Eurydice myth (with Vina swallowed up in an earthquake), and the casting of postwar history in terms of the history of rock music. Ormus Cama, the son of an Anglophile Parsi, is haunted by the stillbirth of a twin brother and has the gifts of precognition (which...
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