(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 29)

The publication of Imaginary Homelands, Salman Rushdie’s earlier essay collection, in 1992 was a significant event for two reasons. First, Rushdie, author of the Booker Prize-winning Midnight’s Children (1981), was arguably the most important and influential novelist—English, Indian, Anglo-Indian, or international—at the time. Second, the fatwa issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini for the alleged blasphemy of Rushdie’s fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (1988), was still in effect and very much a hot topic in the news and in literary circles, making the author not only a target for Islamic fundamentalist wrath but a test case for the freedom (and power) of the novelist. Unimaginable as it may seem in the West where, as Robert Coover once wittily and bitterly pointed out, books are sold much the same way condoms are—as consumer goods in a capitalist economy—Imaginary Homelands’ publication by Granta Books, an offshoot of the English literary magazine Granta, edited by Rushdie’s friend American expatriate Bill Buford, was not without risk. If Imaginary Homelands gave offense, it did so indirectly and mainly in essays written long before the fatwa, on secular India, on the multiple sources and narrative fallibility of Midnight’s Children, and above all on the postmodern immigrant’s postcolonial “mongrel” identity, “at once partial and plural.”

Although none of the essays in the new collection is quite as momentous as the best of Imaginary Homelands, the first one is every bit as good. Originally published in The New Yorker in the United States and as a British Film Institute pamphlet in Britain, “Out of Kansas” presents Rushdie the essayist at his very best: informal, informed, illuminating, able to combine personal reminiscence and close analysis, and unerringly and uncannily discovering in seemingly trivial details matters of considerable importance. The Wizard of Oz (1939), which Rushdie first saw when he was just ten, became a major influence on his writing, including this 1992 essay, written when, house-bound and under around-the-clock guard, Rushdie could have used his own pair of ruby slippers. Rushdie finds similarities, for instance, between The Wizard of Oz and Bollywood films, and important differences too: not just between novel and film or drab Kansas and colorful, blessedly secular Oz, but also in the fact “that a film that has made so many people happy was not a happy film to make.” It may not be a very happy film to analyze either, not as an adult for whom the film now means both more and less than it did thirty- five years earlier, for as adults and especially as parents, “We are all humbugs now.” It is humbling knowledge, especially for a writer so often accused of arrogance.

Just as none of the other essays collected here is nearly as good as “Out of Kansas,” Step Across This Line as a whole is not as good asImaginary Homelands, and not just because it lacks the other book’s urgency. It may be true that most major novelists make disappointing essayists and, except for Joan Didion, write best as essayists when they write infrequently, collect rarely if at all, and above all heed philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s sage advice: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereon one must remain silent.” Here, even more than in Imaginary Homelands, not only are the essays mainly occasional in nature but they also lack the scope Rushdie requires. That is why his novels are so much better than his short stories and why the longest piece in this collection is also the best.

The first, and by far the longest, of the book’s four sections is all over the map: reviews, articles, introductions, letter, even a commencement address, on topics as varied as Granta’s 1993 Best of the Young British Novelists selection, novelist Angela Carter, playwright Arthur Miller, the death of the novel, writing and nationhood, influences, murky titles, living in London in 1967, the rock groups the Rolling Stones and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, being photographed by Richard Avedon, being onstage with Irish rock band U2, being a Tottenham Hotspurs football fan, Princess Diana’s death, the need for journalistic disrespect, the billionth world citizen, hubris, and India and The Wizard of Oz. Part 2, “Messages from the...

(The entire section is 1803 words.)