Books: Underworld gossip
Sunday 11 April 1999
by Salman Rushdie
Cape pounds 18
`A tale of love, death and rock 'n' roll"; thus Salman Rushdie's huge new book was first advertised. It's certainly that, but perhaps a stronger description of what's going on lies buried deep in its many pages. "Eschatology and gossip: the uranium and the plutonium of the late twentieth century," we're told. swims in a sea of gossip: pop gossip, high culture gossip, name and myth dropping, the celebrity scene. It's also rich on eschatology, joining all those big-theme novels that have taken the millennial shaking of the world, the sense of historical transition, the collapse of old orders, the signs of apocalypse, the tug of the underworld, as the stuff of timely chiliastic fiction.
With all the benefits of his reading and intelligence, all the riches of his crossover imagination, Rushdie is out both to construct and deconstruct a large popular myth. In contemporary form, it's the myth of the life, fame, glory and death of the celebrity pop diva, a people's heroine whose strange death evokes public mourning, obsession, clones, imitations, necrophilic imagery (not hard to see where much of this comes from). In its classical form it's the tale of those who are swept off to the other world, or the underworld. Above all that means the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, which gives the novel one of its many mythological underpinnings.
Eurydice is Vina Aspara, an elusive, much-celebrated American rock singer who one day in 1989 disappears in Mexico amid a terrible earthquake. Her Orpheus is an Indian musician, Ormus Cama, born in Bombay, who wins musical fame in the West, and spends much of his life pursuing, gaining, losing, gaining and re-losing Vina, both in this world and the next. Third party to the story is the narrator, Rai, an Indian photographer, also Vina's lover.
Rushdie comes at the millennial story with all his grand epic sweep, and covers many of his familiar scenes, materials, points of reference. There are early episodes in pre-Independence Bombay, where previous characters mingle with a tribe of new Rushdie-ans in some of the most vivid material of the book. The story switches to Britain in the age of offshore pirate radio stations and the dawn of the modern pop scene. Then it moves to the bigger stage of America, the multi-megabucks world, global influence and fame.
The Satanic Verses started with a plane from India to London exploding into debris, and a new song coming into existence, the song Gibreel sings as he falls from the sky: "To be born again/first you have to die ...". extends that notion. It tells of the breaking of old cultural membranes, takes in religious, political, social, even bodily fragmentation. It sees a world where truths are no longer whole but partial and fantastic, an age in cosmic upheaval. East meets West, gender confronts gender, even the tectonic plates of the Earth are grinding and shattering into each other and upsetting history.
Rushdie is again dealing with the wild novelty of global popular culture, the magical multiplying of images and identities, the crossovers and mixtures, the frantic extravagances and hyper-realities, the debris of the soul. As usual his stock of mythic, literary and cultural reference is vast, his kitty of stories endless, his stock of characters enormous. Critics will have great time doing coded readings: all these references to Longfellow, Dickens, Nabokov, Melville, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Pynchon.
For much of the time Rushdie keeps it going wonderfully. The devices, the multiplicity of intelligent references, the bravura set pieces do now have a certain familiarity; we know what to expect. Still, much of the early part of the book - the scene of the Mexican earthquake, the Bombay episodes of childhood and grand reminiscence - is splendid, full of Rushdie's fluency as a storyteller, his formidable energy as a generator of good prose. There are glorious set pieces: the great goat-scam near the beginning, the touring performance scenes at the end.
Yet somewhere midway signs of tiredness appear. It seems possible that this has to do with a process of transition from a comic social hyperbole to visionary euphoria; our narrator convinces himself that matters of the highest cosmic importance, grand transcendental wisdoms about love, death and the cosmos are in his grasp. Perhaps it's that the mode changes: writing of a predominantly American world, Rushdie's style, ever avaricious, assimilates some of that self- celebrating vanity that marks the one-note writing of Jack Kerouac, and adds the redundancy and over-encrypted quality of the big books of Thomas Pynchon.
As the words multiply, the inter-textualities grow, the jokes and allusions fly, the characters grow more Pynchonesque (names like Mull Standish, Yul Singh; even a scene in San Narcisco). Some of the shades, delicacies, ironies, touches of subtle observation vanish, and the mythic energy fades into the Pynchon world of too much.
"Give me a copper and I'll tell you a golden story" - so, as Rushdie (or Rai) reminds us, Pliny explained the promise of the great tale-tellers of myth, magic and metamorphosis, tales "adorned with every kind of extravagant embellishment and curlicue, flamboyant, filled with the love of pyrotechnics and display". Rushdie draws attention to the phrase in order to allow Rai to insist that his story isn't false but true, just as double-visioned Ormus always knows fact and fancy are one.
Ormus becomes a strange figure. The Bombay boy chasing his muse becomes, in Britain, the victim of an accident that sends him into seclusion. After this he has to be imprisoned onstage in a plastic bubble, to protect his damaged hearing. He pursues Vina by way of a 10-year public celibacy; he is then drawn into the world of death by her loss. He is double-visioned, capable with one eye of seeing into the other world, losing the frontier between real and imaginary.
Since Vina is essentially a mythic embodiment, he is potentially the more interesting character. Yet he doesn't quite come alive; so finally it's the narrative embellishment and curlicue we are likely to remember. It remains a wonderful adventure with new pop material, just as Rushdie remains one of our very best writers. But where The Moor's Last Sigh was a triumph, this book is a pyrotechnic pleasure.
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