15 November 2010
The Ground Beneath Her Feet
As someone whose background has a few things in common with Salman Rushdie's--South Asian, heavily Westernized, bluntly secular, roughly similar in age and both writers by profession--I'm ambivalent about the man. Some of what seem like virtues to his Western critics look like faults or cheap tricks to me, and vice versa.
I am also a lifelong lover of rock music, so I was suspicious of this book in particular. The Ground Beneath Her Feet is the story of the rise and fall of the two greatest rock stars who never lived, and of their fated, fatal love for each other. High-culture attempts to get under the skin of rock are rarely, if ever, successful, being usually either blandly patronizing or quivering with embarrassing wannabe enthusiasm. Though he avoids both these awful extremes, it turns out that Rushdie is no better at writing about rock than any other grown-up author or critic. His vision of the Rock Life is pretty tabloid, and the song lyrics he comes up with for his fictional band, VTO, are beyond dire. If you're a rock fan who doesn't read much high-class fiction, and you're attracted to this book because of its rock subject matter, my advice is: forget it.
Worse, the damn' thing is science fiction, and a stock example of a stock sub-genre at that: the alternative history novel. I guess Rushdie figured that two Bombay Indians could never become the world's biggest rock stars in this universe, so he created a whole new one for them.
Third, the book starts really, really badly. Rushdie's prose in these opening pages is overburdened and clumsy, and the metaphoric imagery that is so vital to the magical-realist project is in some cases more worthy of Rushdie's imitators than of the man himself. There were times when I was reminded of...Ashok Ferry. No, really. But thank goodness, the style settles down after the first forty pages or so, and after that the book becomes a real pleasure to read. The pleasure is alloyed, however, by further, though occasional lapses into, well, if not quite Ferryism, at least Arundhati Royism. Salman, that's so not a good look...
In the end, however, I found The Ground Beneath Her Feet to be a damn good read, and it made me think. It is one of the most philosophical of Rushdie's novels, and its discursive first-person narrator often digresses to share with the reader his opinions on this and that; and I found these philosophical interludes and observations on life amusing, enjoyable and very much to the point; there were several times when I caught myself reading with a nodding head and a rueful grin on my face. This is not how Salman Rushdie usually takes me.
The book sort of falls apart at the end. Its narrative arc is that of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and as the narrator informs us fairly early on in the proceedings, that myth makes for lousy showbusiness because it has an unhappy ending--Orpheus's attempted rescue of his lover from Hades fails; he lives out the remainder of his days disconsolate and is ultimately torn to pieces by a group of maenads, crazed female devotees of the god Dionysius. This dog of an ending clearly had Rushdie seriously worried while he was writing the TGBHF--so worried he actually shares the problem with the reader a couple of times, maybe so as to prepare him for disappointment. In the end he contrives a happy ending of sorts without straying too far from the narrative arc of the original Orpheus legend, but only at the cost of having to introduce a new major character to us in the dying chapters of the book. And that is all that I'm going to say about that little trick.
Despite its faults, I really enjoyed reading this book. Very few people in the world can write so well--on his day--as Salman Rushdie, and well-made prose is always, I find, and regardless of content, a joy to read.