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Thursday, June 21st, 2001


 

The Ground Beneath Her Feet

by Salman Rushdie

Lost in the Punhouse

A review by James Wood

Goethe may first have spoken, in the afternoon of the millennium, of "world-literature," but its existence is quite recent. It was born with modernism, and now flourishes darkly in an age of postmodernism. When writers became exiles or emigres, when they began to write in their second or third languages, and above all when the experience of this displacement became the subject of their work, then world-literature was born, for better or worse. Salman Rushdie is the probably the purest example of this negative liberty. Literally homeless, Rushdie writes repeatedly about the actual and figurative centrifuges of modern life.

Infamous as a writer to millions who have never read him, Rushdie is ambiguously celebrated, by thousands who cannot read him or who find him unreadable, for the ambitious difficulty of his novels, which appear more or less like Five Year Plans. These books are international language-lakes, in which swim delightful hybrids and odd schools of syntax. Like Jose Saramago (who, like Rushdie, has offended one of the monotheisms), W.G. Sebald, and Roberto Calasso, all of whom produce balloons of "world-literature," Rushdie's importance lies in his fruitful impatience with conventional fictional narrative, his apparent belief that the novel is not limited by its distinguished genes.

In truth, the Greeks created the first world-literature, when they expanded their world into universal myth. Rushdie has championed Calasso's work on Greek and Indian myth -- he has clearly read Calasso with greedy care -- and his new novel moves smilingly between various mythologies, Greek, Indian, and the easier mythology of contemporary celebrity. This novel is, among many other things, the biography of two rock stars, Vina Apsara and Ormus Cama, and tells the story of their love for one another, and their near-deification during the 1970s and '80s, when, as the founders of a band called VTO, they became the most famous rock-and-roll act in the world. This tale is told by Umeed Merchant, a photographer who has loved Vina since they were children, and who watches in anguish as Ormus snatches Vina away from him.

But the novel is also saturated in Greek and Indian myth, and pays rich dues to Homer, Virgil, and Ovid. The story of Vina and Ormus is in part the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, because Ormus descends to a kind of hell, and loses Vina at the end. And Vina is in part Helen, over whom men start battles, and in part Persephone, lured by her father's brother to the underworld. The Ground Beneath Her Feet is a novel of mythology about mythology, which asks us to compare new myths and old ones, and to test each for their groundedness.

All kinds of criticism can be made against this novel, but it is certainly a considerable achievement, inventive and complex, a student of the ancient myths but beautifully truant with its apparently limitless allusions (to the history of pop music, to Anglican hymns, to various literatures, to popular culture, and so on), demanding in its spiraling anecdotalism, rigorous in its thematic persistence, and idiosyncratically intelligent. It is sentimental and at other times irritatingly anarchic, but the reader always feels a part of the caravan of a true writer's mind, as it travels along oddly. Buoyant, bonhomous, punning, Rushdie's book often imparts a creative joy, the most generous in such free pleasure since Midnight's Children. One suspects that it will become Rushdie's most enjoyed book, and (as Joyce promised of Ulysses) that it will keep the professors busy for years.

Like The Moor's Last Sigh, the new novel is an exiled writer's sigh for Bombay, where the novel's story begins in the 1930s. Umeed Merchant's parents are early property developers of the city; his father, V.V. Merchant, "one of life's subfusc burrowers," who delights in wordgames and artificial languages, is a historian of the city's earliest times. He shares this habit of intellectual archaeology with Sir Darius Xerxes Cama, a flamboyant barrister and sentimental supporter of the British Empire. After the war, Sir Darius, a keen scholar of ancient mythology, labors to cleanse the study of Indo-European myth from its Nazi taint. (Rushdie has praised Calasso's writing for the same hygiene.) His wife, Lady Spenta Cama, who gives birth to the musical prodigy Ormus in May 1937, busies herself with charity work. The two families, Camas and Merchants, become friends, and Ormus Cama and Umeed Merchant grow up in wary proximity.

Into both Ormus's and Umeed's lives comes the beautiful Vina Apsara, half-Indian, half-Greek, who was born in America but moved, in difficult circumstances in the 1950s, to India. Ormus and Vina love each other immediately, though in their relationship they will suffer years of separation. Umeed watches as Ormus goes to London in the mid-'60s (Rushdie provides a funny satire of swinging London: "it may pretend to be swinging but I know it's just plain hanged"), and begins to make a name for himself as a singer-songwriter. During the 1970s, based in New York, Ormus and Vina become hugely famous: contemporary gods. Even after Vina's death in 1989, or perhaps especially after Vina's death, the cult of VTO thrives.

But Ormus and Vina are sucked from below by the unearthly pull of the underworld. Neither really has the ground beneath his or her feet. The title of the novel comes from one of VTO's most cherished rock anthems, "Beneath Her Feet," a snatch of which Rushdie provides: "What she touches, I will worship it./The clothes she wears, her classroom seat./ Her evening meal, her driving wheel./ The ground beneath her feet." The publicity for the book tells us that U2 will release their version of this song on their next disc. Cui bono? On the evidence supplied, Rushdie should cleave to his day job.

Both Ormus and Vina are haunted, as is Umeed, by family disasters -- parental suicides, murders, and lies. In Homeric fashion, all three are followed, and finally ruined, by their battling, selfish, quasidivine parents. Indeed, Rushdie's novel is at its most moving and simple when elaborating Vico's idea that the ancient myths represent the world's childhood, its family album. Rushdie personalizes and inverts Vico's idea, turning the childhoods of Vina, Ormus, and Umeed into mythology, and presenting the parents of these three as godly, larger-than-life characters.

In so doing, Rushdie, who has learned much from Bulgakov and Russian formalism, "lays bear the device," for he makes explicit what is merely implicit in most novels, which is that a writer's childhood, refracted through his characters' childhoods, is godly. As Umeed charmingly explains, "for many Indians, our parents are as gods." The pompous V.V. Merchant and the ridiculous Sir Darius Xerxes Cama are false gods, but still they imprint themselves religiously on their children. And behind Umeed we feel the autobiographical pangs of Rushdie himself, who cannot easily return to Bombay, his childhood city. When you have been exiled from the Alhambra of your youth, as both Umeed and Rushdie have been, then the sepia glow of childhood myth is severe indeed: "When you grow up, as I did, in a great city, during what just happens to be its golden age, you think of it as eternal."

It is difficult to summarize this vital, bounding novel, which moves between Bombay, London, and New York, which connects Plato and earthquakes, rock music and mysticism, and manages to present an alternative history of the last forty years, in which Oswald's gun only jammed, and Pierre Menard actually wrote Don Quixote, and the Watergate affair is only a trashy novel of the same name, and most of American literature has been written by the alter egos of our famous American novelists: "Nathan Zuckerman's Carnovsky, science fiction by Kilgore Trout, a playscript -- Von Trenck -- by Charlie Citrine...the poetry of John Shade. Also Europeans: Dedalus, Matzerath. The one and only Don Quixote by Pierre Menard. F. Alexander's A Clockwork Orange." And this high-spirited passage in turn continues one of the book's Homeric concerns, which is with twins, doubles, siblings, alter egos, the relationship between the phenomenal world and the otherworld, and of course Plato's two halves of the one soul, embodied in the fabled love-affair of Ormus and Vina.

There is a danger, in all of this, that the dazzled reader, turned by the presence of so much activity, simply credits the existence of pattern, which is how Thomas Pynchon is too often read. This is certainly a ferociously self-conscious novel, so that when one encounters this sentence about Ormus hearing some music -- "The music is a great bird calling out to the bird of the same species that lies hidden in his own throat, in the egg of his Adam's apple, hatching, nearing its time" -- one may be inclined not to notice that it is somewhat forced as a sentence, in the rush to prove it an allusion to the Greek myth that Helen (Vina) was born from an egg, Zeus having visited Leda in the form of a swan. Perhaps Rushdie does indeed mean us to find that reference; there are hundreds like it in the book. But pattern is both the premise of any work of art and the easiest embroidery. To make the figure in the carpet a figure is the novelist's animistic task.

Rushdie, to be fair, does achieve life. He achieves it not in his cartoonish and allegorical characters, but in his language, which is innocently alive, and which he awards to all of his characters, so that they begin to share some of the vitalism of their author. All of Rushdie's characters are word-gamers and punners, and have been from Midnight's Children onward. This can create an oppressive sense of a novel without any internal borders, since all the histrionic characters, plus the author, are noisily making the same mummers' music. But it is more often delightful.

Continually throwing off cuttings from its mown prose, the novel frolics in word-play. Umeed is an angry photographer, "a choleric snappeur," who resents playing second fiddle to the brilliant spectacle, and final demise, of Ormus and Vina: "second-fiddling while Rome burns." Umeed tells us that when he was growing up in Bombay in the 1930s, he assumed that the Art Deco style of many of the buildings was unique to Bombay, an "art dekho," dekho being the imperative of the verb "to see." Elsewhere in the novel, the mother-city Bombay becomes "Wombay," and Ormus's mother, Lady Spenta, goes off to have "chariteas" with a friend, morning teas at which the ladies plan their charity work. To this can be added "General Waste-More-Land," a group of thuggish Sikh bodyguards known as "Sikh jokes," Ormus's love of English bread or "bread of leaven," Umeed's term for Vina and Ormus, the "two scoops de theatre." There is also a young man called Waldo Emerson Crossley, not named, as one might assume, after Emerson, but after a Waldorf salad, "as eaten by his presently divorced parents on the night he was conceived."

This is the Joycean side of Rushdie -- the Joyce who made genteel English Tennyson into "Alfred Lawn Tennyson" -- and some readers may find it too farcical, or just inconsequential. But the pun is central to Rushdie's metamorphic and metaphoric vision, where words and objects are continually discovering their unwanted political ghosts. The pun is subversive, as Shakespeare's Fools know, because it reminds power that it rests on the instabilities of language, and language is unstable in part because it is so continuously, so democratically in use, like the Vauxhall Gardens. Joyce joked that the Catholic Church was founded on a pun (Peter/ petrus), thus implying that the rock of ages was just the mineral of a few letters. In fact, Rushdie's novel uses pun in much this spirit, punning indeed on the word "rock" as both the final stability (the ground beneath one's feet) and the unstable movement inherent in the verb "to rock" -- the less obviously mobile half, as it were, of the now collapsed binarism, rock and roll.

It is punning that is the engine of this book, that encourages the writer and the reader to make impertinent connections between different objects, and between old and new stories, and which above all licenses the novel's strong vein of anarchic fantasy. We can see Rushdie's verbal freedom put to use glancingly, as in the comment about '60s England that "it may pretend to be swinging but I know it's just plain hanged." More deeply, punning invades Rushdie's discussion of earthquakes. The novel opens with the Mexican earthquake that claims Vina's life in 1989, and the narrator interrupts every so often to offer an idea or two about earthquakes. Umeed notes that their incidence has become more frequent as the millennium ages. Perhaps earthquakes are a kind of mythic curse, or even God's punishment for our Original Sin, since the world seems to be built on the idea of Fault -- that is, it lives in error. Again, this is no more than a conceptual pun on the word "Fault."

Or take one of Rushdie's funniest chapters, in which Ormus, having just arrived in swinging London, agrees to work for an American called Miles Standish (references to Longfellow of course ensue), who is running a pirate radio station. This radio station is run offshore, on a boat, and is partly based on an actual English pirate radio station called Radio Caroline, which was set up on a boat as a way of evading British jurisdiction. Miles Standish expands this into a pompously grand, and unwittingly funny, vision: "A complete encirclement of England and Scotland is envisaged, seagoing conditions permitting." It will be a kind of "war" on Britain, promises Standish. Punning on the word, and the idea, of piracy, Rushdie satirizes a certain kind of bogus radicalism, and spins a comedy from the inflated disco-discourse of the 1960s rock world.

Rushdie is almost always at his strongest as a novelist when he is most satirical, and weakest when he is earnest, didactic, or merely conventional. His characters do not really exist as human beings, and so when he attempts to make them moving the effect is sometimes sentimental. Yet his punning leads his talents in the right direction, toward a kind of Swiftian ingenuousness, in which the writer always seems to be a little surprised by his own peculiar metamorphoses. It is what Shklovsky called "shaking up the object," as Ivan the Terrible sorted out his henchmen. "It is necessary to turn over the object as one would turn a log over the fire."

The novelist who drew a sharp utopian fantasy in The Satanic Verses about how London might Indianize itself if its temperature rose a few degrees, inverts the technique in his new book when he has a servant wonder, in effect, how India might Englandize itself. This Gulliver of a servant innocently asks his master Sir Darius about the state of things in Britain:

When Sir Darius Xerxes Cama returned from his spirit-destroying trip to England he was interrogated about that country by his butler, Gieve, who had heard certain lies which he knew were too absurd to be true; but he needed Darius to confirm their falsehood:

"They say, sir, that in U.K., if a man does not have a job, the government gives him money. If he does not have a house, the government gives him a pukka residence, not a jopadpatti shack on the pavement but a solid construction. If he or his family are sick, the government pays for the hospital. If he can't send his children to school, the government sends them free. And when he is old and useless, the government gives the good-for-nothing cash money every week for the rest of his life."

The idea that a government might behave in such a way seemed to offend his sense of the natural order. When Darius confirmed the approximate accuracy of the assertions, Gieve couldn't stand it. He smacked his brow, shook his head, couldn't speak for a moment. Then he said, "In this case, sir, why is anyone in U.K. ever unhappy?"

In several respects, though, Rushdie's novel represents a characteristic postmodern defeat. One notices that Rushdie needs Umeed to tell us again and again that Vina and Ormus are like Greek and Indian heroes. Not only is the amount of explicit reference wearying, but it works against the novelistic, and crushes the human from Vina and Ormus, so that the reader comes to believe about them only Umeed's bullying -- that they are indeed mythical figures, but not human figures at all. Modernism was more confident, or more elitist, about such matters. Joyce's characters do not know that they are Homeric, and the reader is not directly informed (other than in the novel's title) about their pre-history. Thus they remain human. Rushdie's characters, by contrast, are too often cartoonish gods.

Allusion, in a work such as Ulysses, is certainly willful, but it leaks out gradually, like the resin of something living. It is private, intermittent, and mangled, as it is in real life. Allusion is elusive in Joyce, but it is only allusive in Rushdie. For in postmodern writing -- perhaps we should now call it high postmodernism -- such as Pynchon's, Rushdie's, and Grass's, allusion is alluded to. What we are supposed to register is above all the existence of the allusive.

It is difficult for human beings to exist inside this web, and Rushdie does not attempt to make his characters human in the traditional realistic sense. (An acute problem only arises when Rushdie, like William Gass, wants to extract a human pathos from characters who are not really human.) The vitalism, as I say, is transferred from Rushdie's words and charmingly imposed on his people. This is an acceptable form of bullying, until Rushdie uses his narrator to remind his characters that they do not know enough -- that they, in effect, do not belong in the book, which is the inevitable danger of such writerly imposition.

At one point, for example, Rushdie writes of Umeed's mother that "her word games said more than she knew." This is because Umeed's mother has "discovered" that Ormus Cama's name may yield all kinds of buried meanings: she nicknames him Ormie da Cama, after Vasco da Gama, the explorer, "and it was a short step from Gama to Gana, song, and between Cama and Kama, the god of love, the distance was even less. Ormus Kama, Ormus Gana. The embodiment of love, and also of song itself." Well, this is the human price, the characterological price, that the reader pays for the robust and active presence of the writer, who has decided in advance that the character's "word games said more than she knew."

We accept it because the writer tells us to, and we turn away from the characters, who could not possibly have conceived these puns, toward the writer, who promises to give us more of such fun and games. We develop a kind of learned dependency, and become, in effect, characters of the author, shaped and led by his intricacies. But it is a warning sign, and one is not surprised when, near the end of the book, the narrator says of Vina's father, "Doorman Shetty doesn't know it, but he's echoing Plato," and then continues: "This is what the great philosopher has Phaedrus say in the Symposium's first speech about love." At such moments, the writer seems to be scourging his characters, as Matthew Arnold did the early Romantic poets, for not knowing enough.

Such gestures, of course, not only limit the novelistic, they actually abolish it, since the novel exists precisely to act as the most beautiful absorptive evasion of this kind of discursive writing. When Rushdie communicates to us through the diffuse vitality of his language, moreover, he communicates not as Rushdie-the-man but as a literary person. (No reader really imagines that Rushdie speaks in real life as he writes, or as his characters speak.) But the interpolation of passages of erudition leads us uncomfortably away from the novelistic creation that is Rushdie the joyous writer to the much feebler man called Salman Rushdie, balancing his dog-eared copy of the Symposium on his knees somewhere in London or Long Island and tapping chunks of it into his word processor. Postmodernism, it seems, only knows this strange clumsy way of beefing itself up intellectually. Like a man who takes so many classes that he has no time to read, postmodernism's very ambition, at such moments, threatens the novel.

And so Rushdie's novel, for all its many delights, suggests at times an important difference between modernism and postmodernism. Joyce's experimentalism, in particular his development of the stream-of-consciousness, was the very culmination of novelistic realism, of the realism that took the human to be its object. The stream-of-consciousness is the stutter of the soul, the novel's noble and finally doomed attempt to represent publicly our intolerable privacies. The tradition from which Rushdie gains most inspiration, though it might seem to be the modernistic, is in fact the eighteenth-century novel, with its buoyant, cheerfully external, picaresque profusions.

Rushdie's variety of postmodern novel, again following Russian formalism (which chose Tristram Shandy as the most characteristic of all novels), sees novels as labyrinths of stories rather than as corridors of consciousness. But when this belief is programmatic, as it is nowadays, rather than instinctive, as it was with Sterne, then characters may become victims of a writer's narrative rather than tellers of their own tales. This is a human difference. Rushdie always flies very high, but his seductive ribaldry lacks the ground beneath its feet.


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