The emperor's new clothes. Salman Rushdie has written an alarming new kind of anti-literature, with banal obsessions and empty bombast, pseudo-characters and non-events
The Ground Beneath Her Feet
Salman Rushdie Jonathan Cape, 448pp, £18
Early in Salman Rushdie's new novel, the narrator, a photographer called Umeed Merchant, confesses to having 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 becoming anxious about his intention to give us, as the blurb puts it, nothing less than "the whole of what is and what might be". Merchant has been going on, among other things, about the advantages of expatriation. He has been showing off his multicultural take on life and the world. Tolkien, Back to the Future, Gluck, Dumezil, Max Muller, Hawthorne, Ava Gardner, the Norse Sagas, Aristotle and Vico are casually dropped in just a few pages. The man is a prig, you suddenly realise, and wonder if Rushdie knows this, too.
The worrying answer is that he emphatically doesn't: if he did he wouldn't have made Merchant deliver, over 448 closely printed pages, the low-down on what the dust jacket calls our "shaken mutating times". As it turns out, in Merchant's hands, our times are shaken and mutated beyond recognition. This is primarily because he is excitably prone to crazy, cult-like visions of the world's end; and his outlook, for all his wide experience and learning, is narrow - our mutating times are represented for him, in essence, by the celebrity netherworld of drug-and-porn addictions, secret derangements, religious rebirths, suicide and murder. Elton John, Bob Dylan and Versace 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, a great love spanning several continents but which isn't actually shown in any detail, in spite of the teaser-trailers: "For even as the German poet Novalis . . . 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 invoking 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." "Time drips, floats, stretches, shrinks, passes."
What else does it do? The utter fatuity of these formulations seems not to bother Rushdie, nor 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 fast-forwards to some 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. Such famous historical events as the Kennedy assassination are tossed in for no apparent reason other 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 Gunter Grass's 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 distinct from the lives, of the rich and famous.
According to the narrator, tragedy attends the lives of Vina Apsara and 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 Cama has been assembled. He and Vina, as well as the assorted globotrash of band managers, record company owners, bodyguards and groupies, occupy hundreds of pages, but all of them are in the end about as vivid as the grainy paparazzi pictures in the News of the World.
The tabloid sensibility is also at work behind the diffused weirdness of the main events. There are unexplained supernatural happenings, 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 discernible reason; and before you can figure out who they are, they kill themselves, or are killed in spectacular accidents, when not murdered (serial murderers, suicides, mutilations, fratricide and parricide are an interesting 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 page we are told that Vina Apsara was a deconstructionist professor at a "chic" East Coast college; on another she is a vegetarian food activist in the mould of Linda McCartney, and so it goes on).
The one thing that remains constant amid 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. So 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 programme 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 bloody-minded. Argue with the world."
Rushdie has produced much of this kind of writing, which is easy to do but hard to read, and has spawned among Indian writers in English several facile 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. To read Midnight's Children now is to read it without the excitement and novelty of finding the narrative techniques of Grass and Gabriel GarcIa Marquez adapted to India; and it is to realise that the problems of Rushdie 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 stylistic coup of Midnight's Children, social setting, character and human connections were subordinated to poster-bright themes: the ordeal of immigration, the death of the past, the encounter between the east and the west, the postmodern condition. In Shame, he first assumed the now familiar tone ("May I interpose a few words here . . .") and inaugurated the tub-thumping that makes it hard 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 interpositions on the various problems faced by mankind filling up the hollow centre. The Ground Beneath completes the process: here, the authorial interpositions are the centre, and everything else - story, characters, drama - has come to resemble aborted sublimations of the author's obsessions, his prejudices and biases.
Examining these 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. Well, 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 mimics of sorts. These adjustments, made at so many levels of our private and public lives, can be traumatic, especially for people forced by various deprivations to relocate themselves to the western metropolis. V S Naipaul, an example of such displacement, 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.
With Rushdie there had always seemed something too self-dramatising about his frequently bemoaned "loss of the east", about the repeated invitations to feel - this, when he was still an expatriate - the exile's pain. This kind of rhetoric in later novels reached the point where homelessness ceased to be the grievous condition it is for millions; it turned into a slick metaphor for the human condition, which on closer examination turned out to be the Rushdie condition, that is, the various social-psychological conflicts and disorientations of the colonial in the imperial metropolis.
It is hard now not to see Rushdie's enlisting in what he calls "the great traditions of secular radicalism" as part of the same private drama of the self. The solitary and heroic figure of the metropolitan expatriate is inseparable from all the different avatars of this radicalism, which first took its cues from a trendy anti-orientalism and then from an equally trendy DIY postmodernism that celebrated hybridity, impurity, the uncertainty of the modern, the virtues of expatriation. In all cases, it hardly went beyond some vehement personal dislikes and denunciations. As Merchant puts it, "Freedom to reject is the only freedom. Freedom to uphold is dangerous." Ditto, Rushdie who wrote in an essay defending The Satanic Verses (the tone and rhetoric of Rushdie's fiction and non-fiction are remarkably similar): "What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist."
So Zia-Ul-Haq and Indira Gandhi were demonised, Mrs Thatcher turned into "Mrs Torture", David Lean and Paul Scott got it in the neck for their allegedly misleading representations of India, and even poor old George Orwell received a tongue-lashing for not being radical enough. In recent writings, Rushdie's targets seem to be people who belong some place and who, perversely, have no interest in developing the cosmopolitan outlook of an expatriate. Merchant keeps wondering if home and kinship are a "scam", a "piece of brainwashing". "Life is elsewhere. Cross frontiers," he exhorts, "fly away." This echoes the refrain in The Satanic Verses: "To be born again you first have to die."
As radicalism, this is essentially adolescent stuff. In a strange inversion, it seeks to understand the world - few radicals want to change it any more - by shunning most of it, and thus cannot accommodate such a simple fact as this: that expatriation to the west is a luxury few people in the "east" can afford; and that most people there have no choice but to stay within the many frontiers they know from birth. If the lack of nuance makes you uneasy, you begin to feel acute discomfort when the expatriate's glee over having successfully crossed frontiers degenerates into something approaching contempt, even hostility, for the people he has left behind him. In one of the many disquisitions on belonging/ unbelonging in The Ground Beneath, Indian 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 fleeing India, for not being like "slaves voting for slavery, brains voting for lobotomy"; and Indian complaints against American pop culture are marginalised as the "noisome slithers of the enslaved micro-organisms, twisting and hissing as they protect the inviolability of their sacred homeland".
Once again, it's hard not to notice, behind such strident upholding of the traditions of secular radicalism (of which American pop culture is clearly a sturdy new pillar), an unattractive egoism, whose unchecked growth has much to do with the critical tenderness offered to Rushdie in the aftermath of the fatwa. It is beginning to seem as if Rushdie cannot define himself as a radical writer or intellectual except through extremities. "Something in me wants the dreadful, wants to stare down the human race's worst-case scenarios," runs one confession in The Ground Beneath.
In one of his essays, Rushdie describes eating a ham sandwich to "prove one's new-found atheism", and concludes that "no thunderbolts arrived to strike me down". His recent record is marked by more re-enactments of this kind of petulant bad-boy behaviour. In Rushdie's introduction to his recent anthology of Indian writing, he accused literatures in Indian languages of "parochialism" - a false and arrogant presumption, if there ever was one. In the same introduction - ridiculed in India for its many blunders - Rushdie recommended 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, as with many other of Rushdie's aphorisms, is that they sound equally valid when turned upside down.
What's more interesting is that Rushdie's uncontrollable urge to denounce both the idea and praxis of "belonging" invariably leads him back to India, to which his farewell is announced after every book he has published. At the same time, he exerts an oddly proprietorial claim over India before his audience in the west.
In The Ground Beneath, Ormus and Vina left India because they couldn't tolerate being slaves voting for slavery. Merchant, the narrator, offers a more tortured explanation for his own departure: that he loathes the new politics of India. This is fascinating since nothing in Merchant's beau monde background hints at any kind of political anxiety about his country. As with Rushdie's other novels set in the sub-continent, the politics remains merely the pretext for exotic stories about crime and corruption, with shrill slogans masquerading as analysis and insight. The unequal distribution of novelistic attention - always revealing of the novelist's true sympathies- turn the Indian characters in The Ground Beneath into contemptible figures. Full humanity is offered only to western or west-bound characters.
So there are long descriptions of the grotesqueries of a rustic new Hindu politician, Piloo Doodhwala, who for Merchant represents the "Caligulan barbarity" of India, and who speaks the kind of English that was previously only heard in Peter Sellers' The Party. Such crude and witless buffoonery is how the Indian chi-chi class - which serves as "India" in Rushdie's fiction - responds to the unwashed millions staking a claim to political power. What startles is that it comes from someone who once complained about orientalist representations of India; the embarrassment we feel while reading it is mostly on the writer's behalf. The strong blast of snobbery hints at a writer not in control of his writing self, of indeed someone who has been overpowered by it.
Towards the end, as random and gratuitous violence dominates, the narrator talks compulsively of earthquakes (the world whose destruction is inevitable exists everywhere in Rushdie's writings, and partly accounts for their peculiarly claustrophobic quality). "Maybe this time it's the Big Crunch," he intones, "and we are the ones who won't make it."
Then, abruptly on the last page, he lapses into a kinder, gentler tone, as if wanting to leave us with a less minatory impression of himself. "The mayhem continues," he tells us, but he at least has found peace in "ordinary human life". He has always been keen on America and he has settled down with a woman and a child in a posh New York apartment - his "islands in the storm". He celebrates the "goodness" of "drinking orange juice and munching muffins"; he stresses the importance of "ordinary human love".
But it's too late by then; and the invocation of love and family values and freshly squeezed orange juice as a shield against the uncertainty of the modern takes its place with the cartoon-like simplicities of the rest of the book. As for ordinary human life, the novel has already arrived there by a different route, by repudiating the order and logic of its form, by approximating instead the senseless disorder of life outside art.
With its banal obsessions and empty bombast, its pseudo- characters and non-events, its fundamental shapelessness and incoherence, The Ground Beneath Her Feet does little more than echo the white noise of the modern world. In doing so, it not only ceases to be literature but invites scrutiny as an alarming new kind of anti-literature.
Pankaj Mishra is a writer based in New Delhi and Simla. His first novel, "The Romantics", is to be published by Picador