Fury! The savaging of Salman Rushdie

Once he was the darling of literary Britain - then he moved to Manhattan, found a beautiful girlfriend half his age... and wrote a new novel. Now literary Britain is getting its revenge
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A couple of weeks ago, in a quiet corner of north London on a mild weekend night, I witnessed one of those sudden tornados of aggression that sweep through modern city life. A woman driver wanted to reverse into a side street; a man in an oncoming van (yes, I'm afraid it was a white one) refused to give way for a few seconds. Then, on this calm evening free of jams or crowds or deadlines or heatwaves, he unleashed at her an unprovoked torrent of the sort of violent obscenities that make you feel that murder lurks just a step away.

What's happening to us? Where does the blind rage of the safest and richest people in the history of the planet come from, and where will it all go? This is a fantastic theme for a major novelist: the chance to define and possibly account for the sort of hidden sickness that no pundit or politician can ever understand.

"What was true of him," thinks Malik Solanka, the wealthy but seething hero of Salman Rushdie's new novel, Fury, "might be true to some degree of everyone. The whole world was burning on a shorter fuse. There was a knife twisting in every gut, a scourge for every back. We were all grievously provoked. Explosions were heard on every side. Human life was now lived in the moment before the fury, when the anger grew, or the moment during... or in the ruined aftermath of a great violence, when the fury ebbed and chaos abated, until the tide began, once again, to turn. Craters – in cities, in deserts, in nations, in the heart – had become commonplace. People snarled and cowered in the rubble of their own misdeeds."

Good stuff? I think so, in (so it turns out) almost solitary splendour. It's true that Fury, Rushdie's eighth novel and the first set in his adoptive New York, fails to make good on all its promises. This feverish tale of mid-life crisis and renewal packs in too much, too breathlessly, to succeed as a whole. Plunging into the cultural whirlpool of millennial Manhattan, it mimics our current condition of frantic over-stimulation as much as it explains it.

All the same, Fury contains enough thrillingly fresh writing and ideas to show up most of Rushdie's contemporaries as parochial plodders. In particular, it finds clues to the loss of a settled sense of self – the loss that leads to these paroxysms of wrath – in the takeover of our emotional life by "simulacra and counterfeits". Giant celebrities, global brands and fictional figures, from Tiger Woods to Lara Croft and Jennifer Lopez to Luke Skywalker, dwarf and mock our being with their perfect digitised or pixellated existence. We cower, adoring but secretly enraged, in the glare of these artificial suns. No other writer has made this diagnosis so shrewdly, and so well.

I wrote in The Independent's review of Fury that "I would rather read one page of flawed Rushdie than 1,000 of the soporific pap that often passes for 'literary fiction' in Britain today". Even at his worst, Rushdie will wake you up; even at their best, many of his politer peers will send you fast into a dreamless, idea-free sleep.

So what became of this simmering novel, as crammed with passion and potholes as a New York street, on its recent publication? The answer is that the White Van Men (and women) of literary Britain stepped out to deliver a collective verbal mugging unequalled in its scorn, its savagery; yes, in its sheer fury. The ever-dyspeptic Tom Paulin accused Rushdie on television of murdering the English language. Elsewhere, Fury was denounced across the board as a "terrible novel", one that "fails on every single level", "a morass of bad writing", full of "pages and pages of gibberish"; a "ludicrously bad book" from "an overrated novelist". AN Wilson, once a pallid novelist of upper-middle-class manners and now a tabloid rent-a-mouth, even presumed to judge the state of its author's soul: "The experience of the fatwah has destroyed not only the imagination but also the inner life of this trivial monster-ego."

The last time I saw Salman Rushdie was at an Arts Council event in June. Then, this alleged spiritual wreck gave a graceful, generous speech to mark a writers' award named in honour of his first wife, Clarissa Luard, the much-loved and much-missed senior literature officer of the Arts Council, who died of cancer, aged 50. The "trivial monster ego" went out of his way to praise the coming generation of writers. At the time, I thought how astonishing it was that he had survived his 10-year purgatory so well.

For a decade after February 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini called on Muslims to kill the "blasphemous" author of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie stood at real risk of assassination. Plenty of writers throughout history have been persecuted, jailed and murdered; but the exquisite long-term cruelty of the Iranian fatwah has virtually no parallel. Yet the British response to his plight has pretty often been to blame the victim.

This prickly boat-rocker refused to pipe down and hide away. However tight the Special Branch security – to which he made a large financial contribution – Rushdie stayed as prominent as ever. His survival as a writer rested on the courage to go on working, as a novelist, commentator and controversialist, as if he did not live under a sentence of death imposed by a foreign government. Of course, that called for a degree of pomposity and arrogance; but surely it was that arrogance, in the most excruciating circumstances, that saved his creative life.

Through the fatwah-shadowed Nineties, Rushdie produced richly imagined novels of migration and modernity (The Moor's Last Sigh; The Ground Beneath Her Feet); a delightful children's tale (Haroun and the Sea of Stories); critical essays; an anthology of Indian writing; even a study of The Wizard of Oz. The heartless, spineless Tin Men who disapproved of him already (and they were legion) have never really forgiven this impenitent desire to remain well above the parapet. No good deed, as they say, ever goes unpunished.

And then this upstart Bombay-wallah (known, so inventively, as "wog" at Rugby School) compounded his many offences – making a record with Bono, appearing in Bridget Jones's Diary – by leaving his wife and child for a beautiful, Indian-born model. Padma Lakshmi, the dedicatee of Fury, lends a few of her features to the hero's great love, Neela, including the long "herringbone-pattern scar" left on her arm after a road accident (the scar that caught the eye of the reliably perverse fashion photographer Helmut Newton). Yet the critics who accuse Rushdie of penning a thinly veiled memoir and flaunting the traffic-stopping loveliness of his heroine don't appear to have read to the end. In the finale of Fury, Neela becomes a fanatical guerrilla leader in a South Pacific ethnic war, plainly based on Fiji's. As far as I can tell, Ms Lakshmi has no immediate plans to quit the catwalk for the barracks.

The truth is that for Rushdie, as for many other modern writers, chunks and fragments of autobiography join the rich mix of sources that ferment behind this or any novel. When, in Fury, Malik Solanka devises a cult science-fiction website, he explains its various inspirations in a way that applies to Rushdie's fiction, too: "Its creator's personal history, scraps of gossip, deep learning, current affairs, high and low culture, and the most nourishing diet of all – namely the past." That's how novels really come to fruition, not from the desire to parade a girlfriend in public.

Yet fame of this order leaves scars of its own. Under the unblinking searchlight of the media, no fêted writer can live an entirely private life. And the fatwah advertised in bright red letters what every writer should grasp: that, in modern times, fiction may always seep out into the world of law and politics to "grow monstrous", as Fury puts it. This seepage often happens, and it often hurts. Thomas Hardy gave up fiction in the 1890s after respectable opinion attacked the "immorality" of Jude the Obscure; as a novelist (maybe as a man), DH Lawrence was permanently damaged by the legal suppression of The Rainbow for "obscenity" in 1915. The ayatollahs merely proclaimed to the skies (and the headlines) a danger that authors already knew in their bones.

While his murder remained a clear and present danger, remnants of good taste and good sense among our own literary prelates kept Rushdie safe from the bile of his enemies. Now that he seems secure (though who knows what freelance zealots could still have in mind?), he looks like the perfect scapegoat for anyone who feels at all enraged by the contemporary world. Nationalists who despise his relish for a mixed-up global culture; older philistines who detest his voracious intellectualism; younger careerists who resent his continuing celebrity; conformists afraid of nay-sayers and trouble-makers; here they come, tumbling out of the old white van with curses on their foaming lips. Fury is very far from a perfect novel, but it does dig for the roots of modern rage with an uncommon intensity. The hysterical response to it has only proved how smart Rushdie was to choose this timely theme.