Books: Very good vibrations

`This is the Ulysses of rock'n'roll.' Ruth Padel comes back from the shaking showbiz underworld to hail a novel that really makes the earth move poetry anthologists to get over their and place
The Ground

Beneath Her Feet

by Salman Rushdie

Jonathan Cape, pounds 18, 578pp

This is a fabulous, glowing, witty and brilliant epic about instability. "There's a whole lotta shakin' going on" is the motto, with everyone's life lived on shaky ground. Salman Rushdie's seventh novel is about the blurring of every frontier: colour, death, East and West, imagination and reality; about fame, death-defying love and the nature of spin; about celibacy, corruption and alternative realities; about the Sixties and the Nineties. And about myth and catastrophe - although it ends gently, with the thankful ordinariness of domestic love. This is the first real rock`n'roll novel.

The first real one, because it treats rock music not in isolation, but as a door to other worlds. Rushdie goes deeply into those worlds for their own sake. Post- partition Bombay, early Sixties England, late Sixties Manhattan, and increasingly fundamentalist India are just a few of them. He sets rock - the whole thing, from Elvis to how you "bounce down" tracks electronically onto layers of tape - in a lavish range of detailed, grainily fascinating contexts, while haunting semi-quotations from songs lilt through the whole fabric all the time. Rock'n'roll, jewel in the kaleidoscopic, multicultural, crazily international crown of the last half-century, is what gives our own age its myths, its meaning.

The book's narrator is Rai, a Bombay photographer whose name (so we discover) means "music". Rai is the "ungodly forbidden sound of joy." Rai singers are hunted and shot down in parts of the world where "you can be murdered for carrying a tune". Rushdie has made his own voice - hunted down for "singing", for "carrying a tune" - the voice of music itself. "Music" is telling the story, giving us the picture. And, since we are talking rock'n'roll, this is a love story.

Rai's tender parents separate, their home burns down, mum dies, dad commits suicide, a happy childhood goes up in smoke. Ormus Cama, a few years older, has less love from the start. His father, a remote scholarly Parsi, sires two sets of twins. The older ones become a murderous psychopath and a gentle idiot, respectively. One of the younger ones dies at birth. Ormus, unloved by mum, ignored by dad, nearly murdered by his psychopathic brother, is the survivor.

Vina Apsara, the girl Rai and Ormus both love, trumps everyone in childhood misery. After unspeakable awfulness in America, she finds her orphaned way to Bombay and is looked after by Rai's mother. Vina is a tough, ripplingly beautiful loudmouth; Rai is in love with her instantly.

Alas, Vina and Ormus fall in love with each other in a Bombay record store. Ormus vows not to touch Vina until she is 16. They have one night of love but, due to devastation in her own life, Rai's mother - the one person Vina trusted - lets fly at Vina and she leaves India to become a rock star. Ormus leaves too, followed by Rai.

There are a thousand other characters, Indian, English and American, voiced hilariously, cruelly and subtly (Rushdie is a master of ventriloquy), but these three are the novel's centre. In England, Ormus becomes a DJ, cuts a brilliant single (a love song to Vina), falls into a coma after a car crash and is woken by Vina. After ten years of separation, she hears the record and rushes to his side. His voice has called her back from her other world.

They swan off to New York and form a rock group. Ormus's songs and Vina's voice are fantastic together, they are profoundly in love - but Vina only agrees to marry after yet another 10 years. Ormus, sexy as hell himself, vows to stay celibate until then. While publicity around this dotty vow markets the group to the stars, Vina sleeps with everyone, especially Rai. And Ormus never knows. When Vina dies in an earthquake, Ormus believes she is reborn in Mira, a 20-year-old singer ("Mira on the wall," that chapter is called). He re-starts the group with Mira as lead singer.

This is the Ulysses of rock'n'roll. Instead of Ulysses stumbling upon Sirens in a Dublin bar, we get the monsters who bedevilled the Argonauts as they sailed to find the Golden Fleece (the wealth of rock), with Orpheus as singer in residence. The novel is a cave of Greek myth - Medea is the witchy owner of a Chelsea boutique, Castor and Pollux the dead-and-alive twins - but, as in Joyce's Ulysses, the people and events are thoroughly of our own world.

And the myths are not just Greek. Fairytales leap out at you (Rushdie was a close friend of Angela Carter): Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, glass coffins, visitors from otherworlds, and dream-like doublings - two houses burnt down, two pairs of twins, two absences.

There are supple glimpses of Indian myth, too. For the book is about the way rock has made our own age literally fabulous. Ormus is Orpheus, the singer. As a child he hears in his head the phantom voice of his dead twin, singing all the great hits before they reached Bombay: all the notes, just different words. When Ormus hears Elvis in the record shop he is outraged - this is his song! Same syllables, different lyrics. (Rushdie has brilliant fun with this, and with "Yesterday," which his dead twin whispers into Ormus's ear before it is released, and so gets him accused of copyright infringement.) But, like Orpheus, Ormus keeps losing his girl, visiting other worlds to find her, calling her from the dead.

The novel is also about becoming a myth, as Rushdie had to do. The earthquake that destroys Vina happens on Valentine's Day 1989, the day of the fatwa. The Satanic Verses broke frontiers between fiction and life when it forecast the fate of a writer. This book blurs the same frontier deliberately, ultra-creatively, by releasing its own songs - well, Ormus's - on a CD, set to music by U2. It seems that Rushdie's alchemical imagination can't help moving outward from word to world, making fiction real in extraordinary new ways.

The glittering writing - humane and very funny, erudite, crazily plural and fizzingly demotic - juggles every metaphor further than you thought it could go, letting it mean new things throughout the novel. There are many lost worlds in here: Fifties Bombay (in a heartrending serenade to that vanished city), Kipling's Waigunga River, Sixties Chelsea with its rag trade and black lipstick, stately England, green and white and gracious, rusty pop-station radio boats, and tequila factories swallowed up by the Mexican earthquake. And there is such dizzying delight in creating these worlds, with their languages, humour, complexity and tenderness - but always, that simple love triangle at the bottom.

When you get to the end, it is as if George Eliot had twisted your heart and mind in several directions at once. This may be the first novel Rushdie has written that English readers in large numbers will know at once, without being told, how to love. It is luminous with humanity, wit and longing, and does exactly what Orpheus was said to do - it transforms sorrow into joy through music and through love.

`Heroes and Shadows', Ruth Padel's study of rock'n'roll, maleness and Greek myth, will appear in April 2000 from Faber