Rock of Ages

In Midnight's Children Salman Rushdie's hero was born at the inception of India's independence. Ormus Cama, the expatriate protagonist of Rushdie's sprawling, omnivorous, and millennial The Ground Beneath Her Feet, is exactly the same age as another great and indefinable bastard nation: rock and roll. Like some overwhelming Rhino Records box set, the novel tries to encompass four decades of pop culture as well as the clash of East and West through Ormus Cama's imagined life and career. But this overloaded ark of a novel does more than span goatherders in Bombay and the New York of Lou Reed and Andy Warhol: Rushdie bumps his ship into the realm of alternate history—usually the province of genre experts like Philip K. Dick and Robert Harris—and in one big, sloppy leap colonizes it.

Cama, born to a convoluted and fabulous Bombay family, is, like Elvis Presley (and Philip K. Dick), the surviving sibling of a dead baby twin. He's also a paradigmatic child of rock and roll, born fingering an air guitar and mouthing nonsense lyrics that foretell the hit songs about to transform the culture of the far-off United States. Ormus is a godlike amalgam of Gatsby and Dylan and Orpheus, and by the end of the book he's a little bit of David Bowie's character in The Man Who Fell to Earth as well. His significant other is Vina Apsara, an orphan emigrant-in-reverse who ascends to Madonna-esque stardom singing lead vocals in Cama's music and dies in an earthquake, then becomes the center of a Princess Diana–sized posthumous cult.

Can anyone say larger-than-life? The third leg of the triangle at the book's center is the narrator, another Bombayan, and a Weegee-like photographer who conquers the worlds of frontline wartime photojournalism, fashion, and high art in turn. He serves as footman, documentarian, and confessor for the rock-star couple, all the while carrying a torch for and carrying on an affair with Apsara. He's also Rushdie's mouthpiece for a series of ruminative discourses on exile and loss.

The man who fell to Earth: Salman Rushdie resumes his fall toward Western pop culture.
meg handler
The man who fell to Earth: Salman Rushdie resumes his fall toward Western pop culture.

  

And so farewell, my country. Don't worry; I won't come knocking at your door. I won't phone you in the middle of the night and hang up when you reply.... I have walked your filthy streets, India, I have ached in my bones from the illnesses engendered by your germs. I have eaten your independent salt and drunk your nauseatingly sugary roadside tea.

These passages have a vibrant, humble reality that threatens to inadvertently expose the hot air of the rock-star characters' genius-is-pain, fame-is-hell concerns.

Because he's part Pynchon, Rushdie's language cascades and spirals, a cornucopia of referents, puns, and rhymes; because he's part John Irving, his narratives are clotted with backstory, genealogy, and momentum-slaughtering foreshadowing. The notion of telling us only what we need to know, of laying his royal flushes on the table one tantalizing card at a time, never seems to cross Rushdie's mind. Because he's both Pynchon and Irving at once he's never met a coincidence or doubling he didn't like.

Rushdie cues his alternate history by trotting out an old warhorse: in his reality, Kennedy survives the assassination attempt (Oswald's rifle jams, while Zapruder conks the grassy-knoll gunman on the head with his movie camera). But Rushdie's concerns are less political than cultural, and most of the subsequent embellishments are less JFK than The Doors or Natural Born Killers: Dionysian rituals of communion and hallucinatory ruptures in the fabric of reality. Ormus Cama is the reluctant witness to this gap between the worlds, and though his music is inspired by these visionary glimpses, he—in one of the nicer touches—takes to wearing an eyepatch to cut down on the double vision.

The novel's sense of which historical moments are worth tweaking, as well as which rock and roll matters, reveals Rushdie as a real '60s guy. Punk (renamed "Runt") is dismissed in a brazenly silly one-page aside, and though Ormus's band has some glammish '70s overtones, Rushdie's notion of that decade clearly centers on '60s lions in maturity or decline: Andy Warhol, the Rolling Stones, and Lennon. The '80s and '90s are a summary blur. Rushdie only pauses to praise U2 (flimsily disguised as "Vox Pop"), who are, in the bizarre alternate reality we all inhabit, reportedly about to record one of Rushdie's fictional set of smash hit lyrics.

Ah, the lyrics. Rushdie can't avoid the trap that snared Don DeLillo, Scott Spencer, Norman Spinrad, and dozens of others: his genius's song lyrics die on the page. He shouldn't feel bad—so do many of Dylan's. The music's inaudible, for nearly 600 pages. This leaves Rushdie stranded in a protests-too-much valley of hyperbole, asserting the greatness of a soundtrack we'll never get to hear:

...it was the voice that did it, it's always the voice; the beat catches your attention and the melody makes you remember but it's the voice against which you're defenceless....Never mind what kind of voice. When you hear it, the real thing, you're done for, trust me on this.

In a sense Ground resumes Rushdie's interrupted fall toward the culture of the West, after the relative retreat into allegory and the East of Haroun and the Sea of Stories and The Moor's Last Sigh. The notorious earthward tumble that opens The Satanic Verses is recapitulated here, not once but many times: between earthquakes (which plague Rushdie's alternate present), helicopters, jets, and the upsweep of global fame, Rushdie's characters have ground beneath their feet less often than not. It's probably telling that several of the most closely observed and finely written passages take place on airplanes. Plenty of recent writers have turned out novels that show evidence of being written during grueling book tours; Rushdie has, by direst necessity, gone them all one better. If he now identifies mainly with martyrs and exiles, who can blame him?

Martyrs and exiles are one thing, but these characters are also practically pantheistic deities. They're exempt from the problems of just plain folks. Again and again Rushdie makes it clear that for Cama and Apsara the only real obstacles lie within; for these titans mortal dilemmas are shrugged off as easily as their thousands of discarded lovers. Maybe the photographer-narrator was meant as an audience surrogate, a paparazzo to play off against Princess Di. If so, Rushdie blew it by making him nearly as famous and as much a genius as his subjects.

The novel form, baggy and panoramic as it may be, thrives on privacies, on moments of humble particularity that play against the banners of history and legend. In Rushdie's breathless vision of worlds in collision his players touch gritty earth too infrequently, and his wide-screen spectacular finally has not quite enough in focus in the foreground. Earthquakes and the history of rock and roll: their scale ultimately defies fiction, unless tempered by the worm's-eye view—or the ignominious fan's. In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, as in the real world, the hits (of various kinds) just keep on coming, but we're left yearning for the story behind the top 40.

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