Rushdie's Receding Talent
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.
Still, at first glance, you can't help but admire the dazzling, baroquely deployed conceits that frame this novel, set in Kashmir from the 1960s to the present, in Strasbourg and Paris during World War II and in present-day Los Angeles. Shalimar the Clown uses the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir to protest nationalism, religious fanaticism and imperialism--the post-fatwa Rushdie is taking no chances--and it begins with the assassination of a fictional American counterterrorism chief named Max Ophuls, at the front door of his illegitimate daughter Kashmira's apartment in Los Angeles.
The name Max Ophuls is an ingenious, if precious, stroke. The real Max Ophuls was the famous German-Jewish director whose films dramatized the transience of sentiments, ideals and especially love; his son, Marcel, has made historical documentaries whose obsession with war crimes and the search for justice seem like angry replies to his father's charmingly cynical Old World romances. What's more, Max Ophuls liked to structure his movies around a series of chance encounters that rise to a consequential climax in which the story's random-seeming strands are suddenly connected. In those films, everyone becomes a part of everyone else; everyone's lives, stories, flow into one another's.
After briefly describing Ophuls's murder, Shalimar the Clown circles back in time--a favorite narrative technique of the real Max Ophuls--to Kashmir, where a Hindu girl named Boonyi and a Muslim boy named Shalimar fall in love. Shalimar is a clown, an acrobat; Boonyi is a dancer; Shalimar's father, Abdullah Noman, is a famous actor from a town of actors, who--as Kashmir slowly slides toward civil war--are "obliged by necessity to become actor-counterfeits of the magnificoes we once were." In this Kashmir, on the eve of both Hindu and Muslim atrocities, Hindu actors play Muslim characters, and vice versa. Abdullah's most famous play is, in fact, about a Kashmir in which Hindus and Muslims live peacefully side by side.
In Shalimar, the true Paradise is art: the cultural harmonies portrayed by Abdullah's troupe; the real Max Ophuls's sense-making; Rushdie's transparent appropriation of Ophuls's art for his own. Trouble in this novel begins when Boonyi uses her performance to seduce Max Ophuls, who at that moment is the married American ambassador to India. Her seduction leads to the birth of an illegitimate daughter raised by Max's estranged wife, Margaret, and to Boonyi's destruction back in Kashmir. Both she and Max mistook the allure of art for a real possibility in life.
Like Marcel Ophuls, Kashmira--Margaret tries to name her India--becomes a documentary filmmaker seeking vindicating facts through all the romance and intrigue of her father's life (he was also a famous French Resistance fighter!). Shalimar, Boonyi's husband, also has come to inhabit the world of facts. Deformed by jealousy and hatred of Max, he trains to become an assassin working for Islamic jihad and swears to someday kill him. After her father's murder, Kashmira herself gives up filmmaking and undergoes a military training of sorts, learning martial arts, archery and how to use a gun. The novel thus turns on a very special article of faith: Since life's naked, literal facts are inherently violent (Kashmira versus Shalimar), only the clement spirit of art (Abdullah's actors et al.) can make possible a fulfilling life. Yet this very conviction is the reason Rushdie no longer seems to be able to write a successful novel. He seems to abhor experience. Art--i.e., Rushdie's identification of his created world with the real world--rather than experience has become the starting point for his fictions.
Having conceived of the novel on such an elevated, abstract plane, Rushdie seems content with his concepts. He appears to want to triumph over the world with his abstractions rather than to come down into the world and contend with its palpable particulars. So impatient is he to get through his story once he's laid down its premises that his style lurches from the sloppily colloquial--"In those days before the crazies got into the act"--to an unnerving flippancy when describing violence--"He was taken outside and rifle butts were applied to his person. The father, B, tried to intervene and he also required vigorous physical attention.... Everyone who could scream or cry was doing so.... Others, less vocally capable, contented themselves with moans." Less vocally capable. Rushdie appears to be so caught up in his highly publicized protests against the world's injustice that he has become indifferent to actual human suffering.
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."
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.