Salman Rushdie’s new novel is the latest instalment of what might be called his American sequence, inaugurated 20 years ago, with The Ground Beneath Her Feet. That book, for all its jittery riffs, was recognisably the work of the author of Midnight’s Children and Shame. But the new direction soon revealed its vices, in Fury (2001) and Shalimar the Clown (2005), and has since culminated, or so one hopes, in a trio of crass, overstuffed, would-be satirical portraits of curdled plenty, drawing on ancient and early-modern texts, and published every other summer. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (after the Arabian Nights), from 2015, was followed by The Golden House (Apuleius’s The Golden Ass). Now we have the draining Quichotte, which has been granted a place – for reasons the judges may yet be required to explain – on this year’s Booker longlist.
Rushdie has turned to Cervantes’s novel for inspiration at a time when public life has itself become “quixotic” – in love with crazy schemes, out of touch with reason. Or as a minor mouthpiece character puts it, the “surreal, and even the absurd, now potentially offer the most accurate descriptors of real life”. In this so-called “Age of Anything-Can-Happen”, Ismail Smile, also known as Quichotte, an ageing salesman for a Big Pharma company addled by too much TV, decides to track down an Indian-American superstar, Salma R, and persuade her that she is his soulmate. Quichotte is joined on this quest by a young man called Sancho, who materialises from nowhere, declares himself Quichotte’s son (or at least his “parthenogenetic offspring”), and begins noting the startling excesses and contradictions of modern America.
Quichotte, the reader learns with some relief, is really a character in a book – the creation of an ageing thriller writer, DuChamp, also known as Brother, who shares many of Quichotte’s biographical particulars and has personal reasons for turning from espionage towards a story of American racial animus, fathers and sons, opioids, celebrity, fantasy and loneliness.
But Rushdie’s decision to frame his Cervantes homage as a fiction by no means resolves the problems established in the early chapters. The Brother passages do not afford, as they might, a richly illuminating and paradoxical vision of the creative temperament. It’s more a case of like for like – and, for the reader, of two defective novels in one – with almost every detail in the manuscript having a counterpart in Brother’s experience. At one point, we’re simply told that he was “wiping out everything he had invented to go along with the erasure of everything that mattered in his real life”. And the shift from the work of Rushdie’s mediocre novelist character to the novel proper never seems as stark as it should. Is the line “A city was a door, and it was either open or shut” taken from one of Brother’s “modestly (un)successful spy fictions”, a notably worse or more embarrassing bit of prose than Rushdie’s chapter opening “England is another country. They do things differently there”?
Even within Brother’s world reality takes quirky Rushdie-wrought forms. When Brother travels to London to visit his sister, Sister, a famous human rights lawyer – and the model for Salma R – he notices a restaurant called Sancho. A succession of Japanese characters are all given names associated with the relatively few works of Japanese literature and culture that have commanded recognition in the West.
We half expect the appearance of another Russian doll and the revelation that the Quichotte we hold in our hands, as well as the “Quichotte” that Brother is writing, is the work of a novelist who has lost his way. But no: it turns out we’re simply stuck with an author prone to lapses in tact and taste, and a lack of respect for the reader’s time or powers of concentration. (As late as page 145, we’re told that, “Quichotte was too lost in the deranged logic of his private universe of antiquated words, mystical thoughts, and TV addictions to be able to function properly, or even grasp what was really going on in the actually existing world around him.”)
Like his hero Thomas Pynchon, Rushdie is offering his own sensibility and, more broadly, “the picaresque tradition” as the cure to the ills he diagnoses. Where Pynchon is the pun-loving anti-utilitarian confronting war machines and corporate greed, Rushdie is the cold-eyed rationalist who views levity as the greatest product of seeing things as they truly are. Yet turn to any page and one finds not real wit or warmth but frail reflections on late-capitalist detritus – on brand names (“what was Victoria’s secret, anyway?”), on West Coast fitness obsession (“going to the gym as everyone in California was obliged to do by the state’s unwritten laws”), on marketing hyperbole (“the biggest thing since the last biggest thing”).
Creative freedom translates simply as a lack of rigour – a refusal to select or choose. If Rushdie wishes to promote the novelistic spirit as the last outpost of Enlightenment sanity and clarity, and to do for “our time” what Cervantes did for the late 16th century – which is how Brother phrases his own ambition – he needs to do considerably better than this.
Jonathan Cape, 416pp, £20
This article appears in the 28 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The long shadow of Hitler