Fury exhausts all negative superlatives. It is a novel that is indeed likely to make even its most charitable readers furious and that could hardly be worse if a secret committee bent on discrediting Salman Rushdie had concocted it. It is also, among other things, a flailing apologia, telling the story of an Indian professor, Malik "Solly" Solanka, who has recently left his English wife of 15 years, and their three-year-old son, and flown from London to Manhattan. Professor Solanka, who has made a lot of money by inventing and marketing a puppet, comes to America desperate to erase his past, to start over again, and to bury the guilt he feels not only about his separation but about a moment of "fury", in which, after an argument, he had held a knife over his wife's sleeping form and imagined stabbing her.
In Manhattan, however - the boiling, zany, money-fattened Manhattan of the end of the millennium - Professor Solanka finds not peace but only a universal fury, and he wanders the streets, a tormented flaneur, angrily observing the madness of contemporary American life, inflamed by "the everywhereness of life, by its bloody-minded refusal to back off, by the sheer goddamn unbearable head-bursting volume of the third millennium". Solanka has an affair with a furious Serbian woman called Mila Milo (shortened from Milosevic - you see, even her name is furious), and then with a beautiful Indian woman called Neela, "by some distance the most beautiful Indian woman - the most beautiful woman - he had ever seen". But Neela is furious in her way, too - she is a political activist - and after some wild adventures, Solanka loses her to that fury. The novel ends with Solanka returning to London, taking a suite at Claridge's, where he "lay wide-eyed and rigid in his comfortable bed, listening to the noises of distant fury". The next day, he spies pitifully on his estranged wife and son as they walk on Hampstead Heath.
Fury seems an apologia, if an unstable one, in part because the novel is nimbused by a dirty cloud of reality; many readers know that Rushdie himself has separated from an English wife and child, embarked on a new life in America and has a beautiful Indian girlfriend whom he met at the launch party of Talk magazine. Quite apart from these meshings of subject and theme, the novel seems to want us to read it as a species of feverish diary. For instance, Fury might as well be time-stamped, and indeed might as well be entitled Talk; most of it is relentlessly set in the New York of last year, and records, as if offering the pages of a calendar, the city's large and small events: we read about the Puerto Rican parade that ended in multiple rapes, Rudy Giuliani, Hillary Clinton's run for Senate. In addition, there are references to Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Ford of Gucci, the separation of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid, Donatella Versace, the film Gladiator, the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the film The Cell, J-Lo, Angelina Jolie, Tommy Hilfiger and so on. It is a novel that contains the sentence: "Thanks to Buffy on TV, vampires were hot." Flourishing its glamorous congestion, Fury is already obsolete; its trivia-tattoo has already faded. But presumably, all this weightless volume of reference is supposed to be part of "the fury" - the white noise to Solanka's black noise.
It may seem unfair to make Rushdie identical with Solanka. But the novel's own corruptions force the identity. There is, throughout the book, a grievous uncertainty about whose voice is speaking, Solanka's or the author's. On the one hand, we are introduced to a fastidious, European voyeur: "old-world, dandyish, cane-twirling little Solly Solanka in straw Panama hat and cream linen suit went by on his afternoon walk". Solanka is essentially an Indian version of Saul Bellow's Mr Sammler; he even has the Jewish nickname, Solly. As in Bellow, descriptions and critique are generally prefaced or suffixed by an almost irrelevant "Professor Solanka thought". But what does Solanka see, and how does he represent it? What is Mr Solanka's Planet? Here the novel disastrously wavers. It seems, in fact, that "old-world" Solanka is enormously interested in, and au fait with, the celebrity houses on Long Island, the fancy new Manhattan restaurants Nobu and Pastis, Ellen DeGeneres, Tony Soprano and Jennifer Lopez. At one moment, Solanka reflects that he was "avoiding head doctors. The gangster Tony Soprano might be going to a shrink, but fuck him, he was fictional. Professor Solanka had resolved to face the demon himself." At another, he sees posters for The Cell and thinks: "It sounded like a remake of Fantastic Voyage, starring Raquel Welch, but so what? Nobody remembered the original. Everything's a copy, an echo of the past, thought Professor Solanka. A song for Jennifer: We're living in a retro world and I'm a retrogade girl." So Solanka, who seems to think that the corrective possession of deep historical memory would consist of a familiarity with a Raquel Welch movie, also knows his Madonna.
And then there is the language. For an Indian professor, a former Fellow of King's College, Cambridge (Rushdie's own college), who has never before lived in America, his language has gone peculiarly native. Solanka uses "gotten" not "got", thinks of "his pal, his best buddy", recalls getting "jiggy beside a big-assed Puerto Rican girl", talks of shrinks and head-doctors, of "industry mavens", of "goddamn" noise and "the cheesiest daytime soap".
This is no small complaint; not just the critic fussing on about "point of view". For this instability of voice infiltrates and infects the fabric of the storytelling. A cartoonish and inauthentic voice produces a cartoonish and inauthentic reality. Consider the following fluorescences: "this glowing six-foot Cruella De Vil fashion plate of a mother"; "erect, wiry, with Albert Einstein white hair and Bugs Bunny front teeth"; "the owner-manager, a Raul Julia lookalike"; "she had become the Maya Angelou of the doll world"; "a petite Southern belle . . . who was a dead ringer for the cartoon sexpot Betty Boop"; "tall and skinny, with a sexy John Travolta quiff"; "a Stockard Channing of the near-at-hand" (a particularly unfortunate echo of Augie March's self-characterisation as a "Columbus of those near-at-hand"). All these vulgarities, these hazy swipes at vivacity, are characters (so-called) in Fury, and all are seen in these terms by Professor Solanka.
Striving to be vivid, this writing only produces something smaller than life, because distanced and mediated by anterior images: when a man is described as having Bugs Bunny teeth, you see Bugs Bunny, not the man. In a way, this cartoonishness, which has been Rushdie's weakness throughout his career, and which has been lucky enough, over the years, to be flattered by the term "magic realism", proves only that Rushdie is incapable of writing realistically - and thus oddly confirms the prestige of realism, confirms its difficulty, its hard challenge, its true rigour.
Rushdie might reply that he is making a point about the society of spectacle, about the ineradicably mediated nature of the contemporary American world. Look, even Professor Solanka cannot escape this corruption: he sees Jennifer Lopez and immediately thinks of Madonna! But to poison a whole book is a very lengthy way of making a point about a single modern germ; and besides, Solanka is the one supposedly complaining about "this age of simulacra and counterfeits". Alas, Solanka's unlikely vulgarities, taken alongside his equally unlikely American argot, are so distorting that they abolish him as a character, and leave him only as a figment of Rushdie's painful confessional urge. Fury does not seem to present Mr Solanka's Planet so much as Mr Rushdie's Planet, all secret numbers for Nobu and fancy houses in the Hamptons.
Solanka/Rushdie reverently calls New York, at one point, "a city of half-truths and echoes that somehow dominates the earth", but this idea of Manhattan is no deeper than the idea of the man who is "a Raul Julia lookalike". Indeed, the Manhattan of Fury is a city of half-truths precisely because Solanka/Rushdie peoples it with cartoons. And not just Manhattan; America is seen cartoonishly in this book. Solanka, you recall, has come to America "to be devoured . . . He had come to America as so many before him, to receive the benison of being Ellis Islanded, of starting over. Give me a name, America, make of me a Buzz or Chip or Spike. Bathe me in amnesia and clothe me in your powerful unknowing. Enlist me in your J. Crew and hand me my mouse ears!"
What luxurious condescension in this banal apostrophising. This idea of America, as a place of amnesia and "unknowing", represents a perfect coincidence of old-fashioned European disdain and new-fashioned postmodern naivety: in the older vision, America is disapprovingly seen as the country with no real history; in the newer vision, America is approvingly seen as the country of no real history, as one enormous Disneyland, handing out Mickey Mouse ears to all its grinning immigrants. Rushdie seems not to realise that actual Chips and Spikes live in America, that amazingly enough they have histories, even American histories, and do not stride through clouds of "unknowing". Why, they might even not know what Nobu is.
Given this view of things, it seems preposterous when, towards the end of the book, Solanka/Rushdie plumes himself up as a moralist, excoriating America's corruption by materialism: "O Dream-America, was civilization's quest to end in obesity and trivia, at Roy Rogers and Planet Hollywood, in USA Today and on E! . . . Yes, it had seduced him, America; yes, its brilliance aroused him, and its vast potency too, and he was compromised by this seduction."
This is supposedly a moral critique, and perhaps a form of confession, but is it not really cousin to the earlier condescension? Rushdie's view of uncorrupted America is as vulgar as his vision of corrupted America. The uncorrupted "devourer" was Mickey Mouse; the corrupted civilisation, against which he supposedly pits himself, is Roy Rogers. You take your pick. And, most importantly, Fury speaks the language of corruption anyway, and so has no rock from which to launch this moral armada. It has apparently been corrupted by the very corruption it decries. It is Rushdie/Solanka who seems to have his head filled with Tony Soprano and J-Lo. Indeed, one might say that, in this book, Rushdie manages the remarkable feat of being simultaneously Euro-condescending and American-debased.
Now, it is one thing to write an allegory or apologia about how America has seduced and even, on occasion, compromised one's soul; but it is quite another to publish a novel that so emphatically re-enacts that compromise.
James Wood is the author of The Broken Estate: essays on literature and belief (Pimlico, £12.50)