By now, there is something ritualistic about reviewing a novel by Salman Rushdie. Reviewers often begin by declaring Rushdie’s genius as a teller of flamboyant tales. They note his trademark style of interweaving ancient myth, old story and contemporary incident. They praise his eclectic fabulizing and invoke the novels Midnight’s Children and Shame as Edenic perfections of Rushdie’s storytelling gifts. Then they recount Ayatollah Khomeini’s calls for the novelist’s assassination as punishment for the latter’s disrespect toward Islam in the novel The Satanic Verses, and Rushdie’s years in hiding, and his anger and bitterness, and the lifting of Khomeini’s fatwa, and Rushdie’s re-emergence. The paradise of early achievement, the hubristic fall, redemption–such an arc is the grandiose way some people like to describe Rushdie’s journey, which they also like to suggest mirrors the mythic trajectories of his novels. And then they venture to say, with varying degrees of delicacy, that Rushdie himself has begun to see his path through life in similarly fantastical terms, with disappointing artistic consequences.
Indeed, since The Satanic Verses Rushdie’s novels have become more self-consciously public, more ramped-up with the desire to speak in something like world-historical terms. Yet his expanding ambitions seem like unconscious attempts at covering up Rushdie’s lack of interest in his own art. The lofty, world-historical generalizations seem like a way to impatiently dismiss the world, and also to wave off art’s requirements of patience and subtlety.
It has almost become a sadness to review a novel by Rushdie. He has such a wonderful fictionalizing mind, and Midnight’s Children and Shame–in particular Shame, his best novel, with its deft fusion of political parable and psychological intimacy–are beautifully written books, whose plentiful meanings are impossible to formulate outside the tales in which they are embodied. But the sprawling, generalizing, connection-drawing Rushdie of The Moor’s Last Sigh and The Ground Beneath Her Feet and especially the barely readable Fury imposes a presumptuous clarity on experience. Early on in Shalimar the Clown, a character states the novel’s theme–in that unstable half-authorial voice that seems increasingly to speak through Rushdie’s principal characters in his recent fiction, making them all seem part of some cosmic personality:
Everywhere was now a part of everywhere else. Russia, America, London, Kashmir. Our lives, our stories, flowed into one another’s, were no longer our own, individual, discrete. This unsettled people. There were collisions and explosions. The world was no longer calm.
And again, more than 200 pages later: “Everyone’s story was a part of everyone else’s.”
In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie wrote stories that flowed into each other; they tempted the reader’s imagination with the chimera of a universal human destiny resonating out of particular fates. Everywhere in the novel seemed a part of everywhere else. Now Rushdie seems to perceive reality itself as having been constructed along the lines of Midnight’s Children. As a result, he no longer seems to be making art. He seems to be writing novels that insistently annotate and reiterate what he believes to be a priori truths about life. It is as if his artistic vanity were too great to accept the fact that the upheaval of his life had no rhyme, reason or large significance, and so he defensively has to make reality look like a function of his creative will.
He does this by overriding reality with a Promethean concept around which he then writes a novel. The concept is often breathtaking, as it was in Fury, where Rushdie tried to trace the path of contemporary rage through representative conditions of contemporary life, from depersonalizing celebrity, to the impossible expectations roused by commercial society, to the extravagant betrayals of the spirit by material success. There is something poignant about this writer straining his intellect to compensate for the mysterious retreat of his imagination. Thomas Mann, asked by an admirer to discuss his portrayal of the Enlightenment in The Magic Mountain, replied that he had read what he had to in order to write the novel and then forgot all about it. Fiction uses and then burns knowledge and ideas like fuel. At the end of Fury, however, and now of Shalimar the Clown, you are left with swollen concepts that have sucked the life out of the story.