04 November 2009

Salman Rushdie and Me

So I'm in the middle of The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie right now. It's my second novel, after my spin through Fury last year, and it's the second time I hate Rushdie. Why did I go back to him? Why is there a chance that I will again in the future? Why does he at once infuriate and hold me captive?

I know two reasons I came back, and probably will in the future. The first is the importance of his works. It's nearly impossible to have a discussion of significant contemporary literature and not mention Rushdie. He is undeniably influential, having won not only a Booker award, but a "Best of Booker" award in a public vote of past Booker winners. Any talk of controversial books has to mention The Satanic Verses (probably my choice for the next time I read him), which brought the ire of much of the Muslim world on Rushdie. His work is so often referenced that it almost feels irresponsible to not read him.

The second reason I have returned to Rushdie is that he undeniably has a way with words. There are times when his prose is achingly beautiful. His description of the singer Ormus Cama putting a song on tape using no musicians but himself was immediately arresting. (Note: bouncing refers to the process of mixing multiple tracks into fewer; used in the days when magnetic tape made possible only four tracks.)
Each time he lays down a track - he can play every instrument in the studio better than the sessions guys he's just fired - he comes into the booth, lies down on the seating unit, closes his eyes. The sound mixer moves his slides, turns his dials, and Ormus directs him until the music coming out of the speakers is the secret music in his head. Pull those up, push those back, he says. Bring this in here, fade that away there. Okay, it's okay. That's it. Don't change a thing. Go.

You're sure, now, the mixer says. Because this is it. No turning back.

Bouncey, bouncey, Ormus grins, and the mixer laughs and sings back at him.
This was one of the best scenes in any book that I've come across lately. Maybe it's just my fascination with what goes on in the recording studio, but Rushdie nailed it here.

The problem comes almost everywhere else. Rushdie tries so damn hard to force allusion into his writing that it becomes tiresome. I really get the feeling that he writes with the attitude of "No way in hell will you all get all of my references. Suckers." And for some reason (though I'm not sure why) his plot twists irritate me to no end. Ormus and co. live in a world where Kennedy was never shot and the Watergate scandal unfolded exactly as we know it... in the guise of a novel. But Ormus, after an accident, can see into a parallel universe. I'm fine with that idea. Science says there are probably parallel universes. The annoying bit however is: that otherworld is OURS.

Why does Rushdie, feel the need to dabble in other universes in his novels? In Fury it was a land of puppets! Here, it's US! Something of this just strikes me as incredibly pretentious, and I realize this may be unjustified. It is, however, the vibe I get from him. But I came back, didn't I? He certainly keeps me hooked, and he has moments of sublime beauty. If he could channel that for a whole novel, I'd tell everyone I knew to read the book. Rushdie at his best is unparalleled, no one can hope to match him. What good is his best, though, if it only happens rarely?


  1. I'm calling your bluff on this one. You picked this up b/c I sent you a review about how the book is about music. If it wasn't about music you wouldn't have picked it up.

  2. It's true, but it wasn't JUST that it was music. It was Rushdie too, and I kind of wanted to give him another chance.