February 16, 2020
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Anatomy Of An Anti-Novel

Fatuous aphorisms, rehashed tabloid gossip and a self-important voice-Salman Rushdie's new novel just can't find the ground beneath its feet, says Pankaj Mishra

Anatomy Of An Anti-Novel
The Ground Beneath Her Feet
By Salman Rushdie
Jonathan Cape Pound Sterling 18
EARLY in Salman Rushdie's new novel, the narrator, a photographer called Umeed Merchant, makes the startling confession that he once believed the 'world to be unworthy of me'. It makes you pause. By then you have already been run a bit ragged by his self-important, all-knowing, portentous voice, and are getting anxious about his intention to give us, according to the cover blurb, nothing less than 'the whole of what is and what might be.' He has been going on, among other things, about the advantages of expatriation ("The only people who see the whole picture are those who step out of the frame"). He has been showing off his multicultural take on life and the world: Tolkien, Back to the Future, Gluck, Dumezil, Max Mueller, Hawthorne, Ava Gardner, the Norse Sagas, Aristotle and Vico are some of the names he drops in just a few pages ("Doorman Shetty doesn't know it," he bleats later in the book, "but he's echoing Plato"). The man is a prig, you suddenly realise, and wonder at the same time: does Rushdie know this?

The somewhat worrying answer is: he doesn't. For, if he did he wouldn't have made Merchant deliver, over 575 closely printed pages, the low-down on what the jacket calls our "shaken mutating times". As it turns out, in Merchant's hands, our times get shaken and mutated beyond recognition. This is primarily because he has an overly excitable mind, prone to crazy-cult-like visions of the world's end; and his outlook, for all his wide experience and learning, is decidedly narrow: for example, our mutating times are represented for him by the celebrity netherworld of drug-and-porn addictions, secret derangements, religious rebirths, suicide and murder (Elton John, Bob Dylan, Versace: they are all here, shaken and mutated).

In between, Merchant keeps referring to the story of the love between the rock stars, Ormus Cama and Vina Apsara, the great love spanning several continents that is ballyhooed throughout the novel ("never were there such lovers, never had feeling of such depth, such magnificence, been felt by other mortals"), but not actually shown in any detail. We do get some slick teaser-trailers: "For even as the German poet Novalis, 'he who clears new territory," took a single look at 12-year-old Sophie von Kuhn and was doomed, in that instant, to an absurd love, followed by tuberculosis, and Romanticism, just so that 19-year-old Ormus Cama, the most handsome young fellow in Bombay, fell for 12-year-old Vina, fell flat, as if someone had pushed him in the back."

We don't hear of Novalis again; he has been deployed in the same manner as the Flower Duet from Lakme in the British Airways advert: the glamour and prestige of a highbrow name used to varnish kitsch, such copywriter's phrases as 'the most handsome young fellow in Bombay'. Merchant carries on in this vein, nimbly and shallowly adapting other people's stories, now quoting Bakhtin, now Panofsky, "At my worst," he claims, "I have been a cacophony, a mass of human noises." Actually, even at his best, he remains a marvel of clotted sententiousness:

"Death is more than love or is it. Art is more than love or is it. Love is more than death and art, or not. This is the subject. This is the subject. This is it."

"The past is not less valuable because it is no longer the present. In fact, it's more important, because forever unseen."

"The pursuit of love beyond death is a harsh and joyless chase."

"Feet of clay will cripple us too, in our turn. Life's bruises demythologise us all. The earth gapes. It can wait. There's plenty of time."

"Time drips, floats, stretches, shrinks, passes."

What else does it do? The utter fatuity of these formulations seems not to bother Rushdie, or the fact that much of the novel proceeds by hearsay. "All this is well-known" is one of the lazy phrases used for glossing over a crucial event; the empty label "famous" is often clamped on to characters and events as the narrator fastforwards to more Great Thoughts on what is and what might be. At one point, the narrator, caught within the coils of one of his own spiralling digressions, starts reciting the news bulletin of the day in order to place the action, or lack of it: "Race riots in Watts...Edward Heath elected Tory leader..." and so on. Such famous historical events as the Kennedy assassination are tossed in for no apparent reason than to give a frisson to the news-weary reader alert enough to spot the clues.

Inserting fictional protagonists into world events is one of the gimmicks Rushdie picked up from The Tin Drum. But whereas Midnight's Children and Shame were idiosyncratic private histories of the sub-continent, lefty Forrest Gumps in prose, The Ground Beneath Her Feet is a garish collage of tabloid headlines about the lifestyles-as opposed to lives-of the rich and famous. Vina Apsara never quite breaks free from the reams of printed paper devoted in our times to Madonna, Yoko Ono, and-spot the clues here-the rich, famous and beautiful woman with the playboy lover, whose dramatic and tragically early death unexpectedly caused an explosion of grief across the globe.

According to the narrator, tragedy also attends the life of Ormus Cama, but we don't see or feel it: it lies trapped in the maudlin unauthorised biographies of John Lennon and Freddie Mercury from which Ormus Cama has been assembled. Both Vina and Ormus as well as assorted band managers, record company owners, bodyguards and groupies occupy hundreds of pages, slowly going through the motions of wasting their own and other people's lives, all of them just about as vivid as the grainy paparazzi pictures in Sun and the National Enquirer.

The tabloids are also at work elsewhere in the novel. There are unexplained supernatural happenings; weird dreams of the otherworld; doomsday millenarianism; freak births and twins; a mysterious fire.People have extra-sensory powers; they fall in love and hate at great speed, for no apparent reason; and before you can figure out who they are, they abruptly kill themselves, or are killed in spectacular accidents, when not murdered (serial murderers, suicides, mutilations, fratricide, parricide are now a regular feature of Rushdie's fiction, along with nymphomaniacs and ball-cutting women).Characters change their settings and identities as often as you turn the page (on one such page we are told that Vina Apsara was a deconstructionist professor in a "chic" East Coast college, on another page she is a vegetarian-food activist in the mould of Linda McCartney, elsewhere she is seen grabbing, Madonna-style, her crotch and revealing her bondage fantasies, and you almost expect to be informed next that she has campaigned for democratic reforms in Burma in addition to having hosted a chat-show empowering fat women in America).

The one thing that remains constant amidst this bewildering gallimaufry is the narrator's belief in the value of his story and ideas. But since it is only rarely shared by the reader, it tends to be at best a one-sided affair. Ultimately, The Ground Beneath her Feet is not so much a novel as a monologue-the culmination of a bad old habit, which has been exalted-through the dictum, 'Go for Broke'-into an artistic program by Rushdie.

The chief points, as once elaborated by Rushdie, of this peculiar strategy inspired by Gunter Grass are: "Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloodyminded. Argue with the world."

Rushdie has done a lot of this kind of writing, which is easy to do but hard to read, and which has spawned among Indian writers in English several easy imitations--novels blithely liberated from such considerations as economy, structure, suspense, irony, plausibility of events, coherence of character, psychological motivation, narrative transitions, in short, everything that makes the novel an art form.

The bloodyminded narrator who tries to do too much now makes even Midnight's Children hard going. To read the novel now is to read it without the excitement and novelty of finding the narrative techniques of Gunter Grass and Garcia Marquez adapted to India; and it is to realise that the problems of Rushdie as a novelist since then have been the problems of a novelist unable to break away from his own imitations and imitators. In later novels, where Rushdie was still trying to pull off the same big stylistic coup of Midnight's Children, social setting, character, and human connections were subordinated to big poster-bright themes: the ordeal of immigration, the death of the past, the encounter between the East and the West, the human condition, and that kind of thing. In Shame, he first assumed the now familiar tone ('May I interpose a few words here...') and inaugurated the tub-thumping ('I, too, know something of this immigrant business... Roots, I sometimes think, are a conservative myth'), which makes it hard now to recall, beyond the controversial bits, anything of The Satanic Verses, or The Moor's Last Sigh: they were miscellanies rather than novels, with authorial homilies on various problems faced by mankind filling up the hollow centre. The Ground Beneath her Feet rounds off the process: here, the authorial homilies are the centre, and everything else-story, characters, drama-has come to resemble aborted sublimations of the storyteller's obsessions, his prejudices and biases.

Examining these prejudices and biases only leads one to unlikeable conclusions. For instance, belonging and non-belonging, the one theme Rushdie returns to obsessively, as if to some perennially unfinished and urgent business. In so far as every writer presents an individual case, Rushdie is the colonial child who has had to reinvent himself for the West.He is not alone in this: all of us, growing up in colonised societies and cultures, and working with the imported form of the novel, all of us who have known the damaged and damaging modernity of colonialism, have had to become mimic men of sorts. These adjustments, made at so many levels of one's private and public life, can be traumatic, especially for people forced by many different kinds of deprivation to physically relocate themselves to the western metropolis. An example of such displacement is V.S. Naipaul who has alchemised the trauma of early poverty and unbelonging into a bristly but always accessible humanism, into an unsentimental concern with the condition of similarly displaced men.

Rushdie himself has sought to overcome his 'loss of the East' by enlisting in what he calls 'the great traditions of secular radicalism'. But it's hard to avoid noticing something too absolute and self-dramatising and exclusionary about Rushdie's adopted radicalism: it is not a program for political change, and as a worldview it hardly ever goes beyond some vehement dislikes and rejections. "Freedom to reject is the only freedom," Merchant says, "Freedom to uphold is dangerous." Ditto, Rushdie, in one of his essays: "What is the freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist." Merchant keeps wondering if home and kinship are a 'scam,' a 'piece of brainwashing'. "Life is elsewhere. Cross frontiers," he exhorts, "Fly away. I flew away to get myself born," he tells us, echoing the refrain in The Satanic Verses: "To be born again you first have to die." He makes much of the unparalleled virtues of 'outsidedness': apparently, to get the best results out of it, you not only have to get of the frame, but have to 'break the rules, deny the frame-story, smash the frame.'

All this is basically adolescent stuff. The simple fact hardly ever occurs to Rushdie: that expatriation to the West and its giddy existential freedoms is a luxury few people can afford; and that most people have no choice but to stay within the many frontiers they know from birth. If the lack of nuance makes you uneasy, you feel acute discomfort when the expatriate's glee over having successfully crossed frontiers and flown away degenerates into something like contempt, even hostility, for the people he has left behind him. In one of the many disquisitions on belonging/non-belonging in The Ground Beneath her Feet, society is likened to 'a squirm of germs on a glass slide' and people who live in it are pitied as 'moronic micro-organisms'. Vina and Ormus are commended for getting out of India, for not being like 'slaves voting for slavery, brains voting for lobotomy'; and Indian complaints against American pop culture are described as the 'noisome slithers of the enslaved micro-organisms, twisting and hissing as they protect the inviolability of their sacred homeland'.

Rupert Murdoch couldn't agree more. But even he would care to tone down the hysteria a bit. Behind such strident upholding of the traditions of secular radicalism, of which American pop culture is clearly a sturdy new pillar, one senses an unattractive egotism, whose unchecked growth has a lot to do with the critical tenderness offered to Rushdie in the aftermath of the fatwa.It is now beginning to seem as if Rushdie cannot define himself as a writer or intellectual except through extremities, by smashing some frame or other. "Something in me wants the dreadful," goes one ominous confession in The Ground Beneath her Feet, "wants to stare down the human race's worst-case scenarios." It is almost as if Rushdie has to continually re-enact the petulant bad-boy daredevilry of eating, as once described in an essay, a ham sandwich to prove one's 'newfound atheism'.

The recent record doesn't look too good. In Rushdie's introduction to his recent anthology of Indian writing (titled "Damme, this is the Oriental Scene for You!" in The New Yorker) he accused literatures in Indian languages of 'parochialism'-a false and foolish presumption, if there ever was one. In the same anthology-whose many blunders went unnoticed by Rushdie's admiring constituency of critics in England and America--Indians were derided as people whose 'identities are so rooted in their regional identities.' Rushdie went on to recommend world travel for all writers and claimed that 'Literature has little or nothing to do with a writer's home address.' (The trouble with this-quite apart from the little-or-nothing hedge-as well as with many other of Rushdie's aphorisms, is that they sound equally valid when turned upside down).

What's interesting here is that Rushdie's uncontrollable urge to denounce both the idea and praxis of 'belonging' invariably leads him back to India ('that place obsessed by place, belonging-to-your-place'), to which he has announced his farewell in, and after, almost every book he has published. ('And so farewell, my country,' goes yet another valedictory dirge in the new novel, 'I go-I hunt-alone'). At the same time he stakes an oddly proprietorial claim over India in the West ("India," he recently told the LA Times, "is like my kid sister"); and the number of expertspeak assertions beginning 'In India it is often said....' continues to grow in recent books, where leave-taking itself is a subject-or, more accurately, an occasion for reiterating one more time the general unsuitability of India for people wanting to get reborn, remade etc. In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Ormus and Vina leave India because they couldn't tolerate being slaves voting for slavery. Merchant, the narrator, offers a more tortured explanation for his own departure. It is because he can't stand the new politics of India ('this new self of yours is an entity I no longer want, or need, to understand').

This is fascinating since nothing in Merchant's Baba-Log background and Go-West inclinations indicates any kind of political anxiety about India. But as with Rushdie's other novels set in the subcontinent, the politics remains merely the pretext for exotic stories about crime and corruption, with shrill slogans (Down with Dictators! Down with Fundamentalists!) masquerading as analysis and insight.

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