Salman Rushdie’s new novel – already longlisted for the Booker Prize – is a sprawling behemoth, feeling finally as big in scope as Midnight’s Children, which twice won the Best of Booker. If that was an allegory for India’s independence and then partition, Quichotte goes as far as to align the death of the author with the end of the entire world.
Quichotte is an Indian man of advancing years, living in America and working as a travelling pharmaceutical salesman: following a stroke, he’s lost his grip on reality and become addicted to reality TV. As a result, he believes he’s destined to be with a beautiful, Oprah-like talk show host named Salma R (yes, really), also from India but living in New York. Rushdie’s novel is a modern take on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and so Quichotte sets off on a quest to prove himself worthy of Salma’s love. To accompany him on his journey, the childless Quichotte invents Sancho, an imaginary son. But Sancho is soon on his own Pinocchio-style mission, determined to become a real boy – with the help a talking cricket named Jiminy (yes, really).
But alongside this picaresque narrative, which takes them across America, revealing – non too subtly – its current tides of racism, populism and the opioid crisis, Rushdie also unfolds another framing story. Quichotte is in fact a novel being written by Brother, an author who usually writes thrillers. We also follow Brother’s narrative, as he makes contact with his own estranged Son and Sister, and attempts to finish the book. The two stories reflect one another and intertwine in an increasingly volatile fashion. It’s all enjoyably layered and clever.
Rushdie’s novel is many things beyond just a Don Quixote retelling. It’s a satire on our contemporary fake-news, post-truth, Trumpian cultural moment, where the concept of reality itself is coming apart. It’s a sci-fi novel, a spy novel, a road trip novel, a work of magical realism. It’s a climate change parable, and an immigrant story in an era of anti-immigration feeling. It’s a love story that turns into a family drama. It’s a fast-spinning postmodern double Catherine wheel – impossible not to be dazzled by, but also making a lot of choking smoke.
Are you tired by this long list of descriptions? Believe me, it ain’t got nothing on Rushdie’s longlisted, long-listing actual novel, which is bogged down by fatiguing accumulations of examples and explanations.
He references The Beatles and Paul Simon, Andrew Marvell and William Wordsworth, Shakespeare and Arthur Miller, Driving Miss Daisy and Men in Black. There are endless litanies of reality TV shows, double acts, sci-fi novels, one-hit wonders. He’ll rarely give one description when five will do. Five? Oh, glorious understatement. At one point, Rushdie lists 41 increasingly daft varieties of snoring: “the fireworks display, the tunnel at rush hour, the traffic jam, the Alban Berg, the Schoenberg, the Webern, the Philip Glass...” All which feels exhausting, especially in the overwritten first half. As the book goes on, thankfully such fussiness relents.
And while Rushdie may bring together the most astonishing array of button-pressing hot takes on contemporary culture, he never misses a chance to make sure the reader really, really gets it. On page 356, for example, Brother explains what he wants to do in the book he’s writing: “The decay of the Earth in the novel would be a parallel to the decay – the environmental, political, social, moral decay – of the planet on which he lived.” Yes, great – but this parallel has of course been apparent for many of the previous 356 pages. There’s no need for Brother, or Rushdie, to spell it out.
Quichotte is at its best when it deals in matters of the human heart, in fundamentals like love and death, rather than the self-satisfied satire of societal ills. Nonetheless, as it hurtles to its conclusion, the book does gather an enormous momentum. The final portion is a wild ride: characters, narratives and worlds collide and come apart in spectacular fashion, while Rushdie maintains an exhilarating control over it all. But it’s a long journey to get there.
Published by Jonathan Cape, £18.99
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