Monday, November 24, 2014

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“FURY” by Salman Rushdie (first published 2001)

            Two years ago, there arrived on my desk Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton [look up my take of it via the index at right], his over-long third-person account of his years dodging the fatwa. I reviewed it with mixed feelings. Acknowledging that Rushdie’s cause – essentially freedom of speech – was a just one, sympathising completely with the man who had been threatened with death and forced into hiding, I nevertheless found the man’s attitudes and outlook egotistical, preening, gushy about friends, often smug and superficial about pop culture. Of course much could be forgiven a man who had suffered a decade under real threat. But – like somebody babbling hysterically after a near-death experience – Rushdie burbled on for over 600 pages, with amazingly little self-awareness, settling scores against former wives and lovers, and in bad need of an editor to tell him to cut it back a bit.
            I admit that I have long had mixed feelings about Rushdie’s work. It all began back in 1981, when I first read what is still his most famous – and best – novel Midnight’s Children (the one that was much later judged “the Booker of Bookers”). I was then new to “magical realism” – which is what Midnight’s Children really is, even if Rushdie rejects the term – and I was stimulated and delighted by the novelist’s take on early Indian independence, his celebratory tone about all of India’s various cultures and his lament for the way things turned out in terms of partition and sectarian violence. His next novel, Shame, was almost as good, drawing on Rushdie’s Indian Muslim background for a less-than-starry-eyed view of the origins of Pakistan. But thereafter, for me as a reader, things went downhill. I have not read The Satanic Verses (which gave Rushdie’s Islamic accusers their excuse for the fatwa). But when I read The Moor’s Last Sigh I felt that Rushdie was recycling the literary ploys which he had used better in his earlier novels. The magical realism had become a sterile game, a bag of stylistic tricks. The characters were artificial constructs, not people with whom one could engage. The tone was more often sardonic and condescending than celebratory. A big part of Rushdie, the Western secular liberal, was now looking down on the exotic societies which were his heritage. Rushdie as Mr Smug had arrived; and Mr Smug seems to have stayed in control of the man’s literary output.
            The Moor’s Last Sigh was written during the years of the fatwa.
            Fury was written a few years after the fatwa was lifted. Unhesitatingly I call it Rushdie’s very worst book to date, which is my only reason for giving it a spot here.
So overwhelmed by clearly autobiographic details, so determined to be hip in topical pop culture references, Fury simply does not fly.
Malik Solanka (born in Bombay like Rushdie) and aged 55 (like Rushdie at the time novel was written) teaches at King’s College, Cambridge (where Rushdie was a student). A professor of philosophy, he has grown rich on the proceeds of something he created for television (perhaps a sly reference to Rushdie’s early career as an advertising copywriter). Malik Solanka created a puppet show called “Little Brain” in which philosophers were discussed in accessible pop terms. But he is now disgusted with himself for being involved in the world of television, where he is now being muscled by the producers to “sex up” the format of his show.
Suffering a sort of breakdown, and raging against the inanities of pop culture, he de-camps to New York deserting his (second) wife and small son (just as Rushdie did). In New York he is beguiled and disgusted by both pop culture and the money culture. He has blackouts and forgets things. One plot has him wondering if, during his blackouts, he could have become the serial killer who goes around beating up and killing rich young women – but the serial killer turns out to be three perverted and wealthy young men who also kill a reporter friend of the protagonist. Another strand of plot – which gradually takes over as the main one – has Malik Solanka succumbing to the suggestion of a beautiful model girl; and creating the franchise for an on-line computer game. (Rushdie was involved with a beautiful model girl at the time.)
But this is a postmodern world. When “perception is everything”, people take media inventions for reality. Malik Solanka’s invented characters in the computer game are appropriated as inspiring symbols by ethnically-Indian rebels who topple the government in a Pacific state which bears more than a passing resemblance to Fiji. By this stage the protagonist is involved with an Indian woman who befriends the rebel leader but becomes disillusioned with him and helps topple him.
She dies in the process, reaffirming that the fictional world which absorbs those who play computer games is not the real one.
The novel ends with the main character, having worked through his fascination with New York and its fantasies, wistfully stalking the wife and son he had deserted.
This is a thoroughly confused and ultimately annoying novel. It is very topical, which means that, thirteen years after it was first published, its hip pop cultural references are already dated ones. Like the novels of Zadie Smith, it will in a few years time – if it is still being reprinted – require footnotes to be understood. It has very much what I would call the “Dennis Potter effect”. You may remember that Potter scripted TV series (Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective, Lipstick on Your Collar) built around placing recordings of old pop songs in incongruous contexts for dead obvious ironical effect. Potter repeatedly told interviewers how much he regarded the old pop songs as trash – yet they were the very things that made his teleplays popular and gave them point. Like Potter’s TV series, Rushdie’s Fury feeds upon the very thing it affects to despise. Rushdie (and his main character) are fully aware of this paradox. Pop culture is attractive and absorbing, but it is also superficial and corrupting.
The novel suffers from cheapjack psychology – the professor, it transpires, is filled with rage because he was sexually abused as a child. The first model girl he has in New York is trying to re-enact an incestuous relationship with her father. Translation? Rushdie wants to spice up his limp and scrappy tale with soapy sensation.
After the very knowing depiction of New York, the episodes set in the state resembling Fiji are jarringly different in tone – a fantasy world. Had Salman Rushdie ever been to Fiji? I do not know. But on the evidence of this novel he clearly understands little about the place and maybe that is why he does not identify his fictitious state with any real state.
All the time I was reading this woeful production, the word I kept reaching for, deprecatingly, was “clever”. Rushdie knows about, and can quote at length, pop culture references. He does incidentally say some wise things about the blurred line between fantasy and reality in a media-saturated age. But the novel adds up to little more than a clever conceit and a rave. To give a really recherché pair of comparisons, much of it reminded me of the in-group shriekings of Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero and Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God.
Yes, great writers can turn their private lives into great literature; but in Fury Rushdie merely turns his private life into gossip and a series of op.ed.pieces.

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