Rushdie's Receding Talent | The Nation


Rushdie's Receding Talent

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Alas, there is not a single real, intimate moment between characters in this book; not a single scene or situation unfolding according to its inner laws, away from the disheveling hurry of the novel's judgments and opinions; and barely any dialogue. Shalimar the Clown is nearly all exposition. Rushdie hastily comments on his characters and their milieus from the outside; he never gives them an inner life out of which they can act and speak for themselves. Even Rushdie's playful antics have descended into boorish attempts at being funny: "The Russian super was as broad of mind as she was of behind."

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Lee Siegel
Lee Siegel is the author of four books, including, most recently, Are You Serious? How to Be True and Get Real in the...

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Max, for example, seems less a character than somebody's ego-ideal: i.e., the construction of a flawless self-image in response to feelings of humiliation and shame. He is a "brilliant storyteller of infinite charm," a "brilliant young economist, lawyer and student of international relations, the master forger of the Resistance, the ace pilot, the Jewish survivor [Rushdie misuses the word "survivor" in this context; Max was never in a camp], the genius of Bretton Woods, the bestselling author, the American ambassador cocooned in the house of power." He is also a great lover, a sort of democratic socialist suspicious of American influence abroad and a real charmer. His only flaw is his weakness for women, which Rushdie conventionally portrays as just another part of the hero-genius package. True to one of the novel's two epigraphs--"a plague on both your houses"--Max does become the object of some anguished reflecting on the part of Kashmira:

She learned, now, of another Max.... Max the occult servant of American geopolitical interest. Invisible Max, on whose invisible hands there might very well be, there almost certainly was, there had to be, didn't there, a quantity of the world's visible and invisible blood...had justice been done to Max...?

The impossibly trite, almost cartoon-like sentiments are bad enough. They are also incoherent, given that up until now, as well as immediately following this passage, Rushdie has portrayed Max as a figure of monumental integrity. Kashmira's sudden expression of a certain kind of political piety exists vacuously in this novel alongside "iron" fanatical mullahs, grim Islamist suicide bombers, Hindu victims of Muslim violence, Muslim victims of Hindu violence--all thrown into the story with a mechanical and morally pretentious display of "balance" rather than with real conviction, except for Rushdie's belief that "our lives, our stories, flowed into one another's."

But Rushdie himself apparently doesn't believe that we're all connected, because he portrays some of the people in this novel's world as if they lived on an alien planet. Here is the dialect he puts in the mouth of a Russian immigrant in LA: "Say him yes, my gorgeous. Sure, why not. You will be very happy, ten percent probability minimum, and if not, bah." Perhaps Rushdie's world-historical concepts have stopped up his ear for the way people speak. Here is Mrs. Shanti Dickens (more boorish humor), an Indian housekeeper in London: "Newer min', eh.... Nobody being 'urt, 'at is the mai' thing, hisn't it." And here is Rushdie's evocation of LA, an "everywhere" now part of Kashmir and London:

[Max] commanded [his driver] to stop the car outside the gates of an embattled high school past which even police cars would fearfully accelerate at certain times of day...until the driver, seeing the weapons emerging from their hiding places, the unsheathed knives like sharks, the unholstered snouts of the handguns, decided without waiting to be told to floor it and get out of there before the bad guys could start up their motorbikes and hunt them down.

Forget the ridiculous caricature of LA. Does Rushdie really believe that the military and terrorist brutalities afflicting Kashmir are the equivalent of the Los Angeles public school system at its worst? In that case, maybe all that Kashmir and other "hot spots" need is a few really tough substitute teachers. Along with being a lazy literary shortcut, the conceit that after 9/11's "collisions and explosions" every place and every person resembles every other place and person is a kind of artistic hysteria, a sort of martial law imposed on the imagination. Shalimar the Red Alert.

But so confused is this book beyond its complacent clarities, beyond its easy, all-embracing, platitudinous politics that its story finally undermines its theme. (Even the name "Noman," seemingly heavy with all kinds of significance, drifts through this mess of a novel into a portentous meaninglessness.) By attributing, as Rushdie does, the central violence in Shalimar to jealousy rather than to ideology, he is unwittingly affirming that people's stories are not alike; that whereas ideology funnels diverse thoughts and feelings into a single, pinpoint intensity, experience--for example, the experience of jealousy--shapes each person in a different way. Only tyrants delude themselves into seeing people and places as one undifferentiated mass, to be manipulated at will. Only tyrants, that is, and writers whose egos have been scarred and then inflated by the fury of tyrants.

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