Orpheus Ascending


If Salman Rushdie’s last novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, was his retelling of the myth of Orpheus, the man endowed with superhuman lyrical gifts, then his new novel, Fury, is something of a coda to the ideas in that work.

This Orpheus, if you will, Malik Solanka, distinguished historian turned dollmaker, is more mundane than Ground‘s dazed and shadowy rock star Ormus Cama (think of saying kharma with a subcontinental accent). Solanka is more pretentious and something of a fuddy-duddy despite his bouts with blackout-inducing rage. And he is certainly less compelling than the comfortably troubled narrator of the last novel. But Solanka is another of Rushdie’s gifted and damaged men, men like Moraes Zogoiby of The Moor’s Last Sigh and Saleem Sinai of Midnight’s Children—for me, his two greatest books—who become fugitives, exiles from India, from family, and from their own talents.

The greatest Rushdie pursuers are furies, and of these, the most powerful is India herself, the fascinating, all-consuming, complex mother who is also coldhearted and abandoning. In The Moor’s Last Sigh, the Moor is chased out of India and imprisoned. He gives one of the finest soliloquies of modern literature—a Rushdie manifesto: “When my pursuers have followed the trail they’ll find me waiting, uncomplaining, out of breath, ready. Here I stand. Couldn’t ‘ve done it differently.”

Next to the flight of other Rushdie heroes, Solanka’s is small and neurotic. He is running from his most recent wife, and his discovery of his own lethal rage toward her.

It was precisely his back-story that he wanted to destroy. Never mind where he came from or who, when little Malik could barely walk, had deserted his mother and so given him permission, years later, to do the same. To the devil with stepfathers and pushes on the top of a young boy’s head and dressing up and weak mothers and guilty Desdemonas and the whole useless baggage of blood and tribe. . . . He had come to America as so many before him to receive the benison of being Ellis Islanded, of starting over. Give me a name, America, make me a Buzz or Chip or Spike.

If he was fleeing the entanglements of London by coming to New York, he has leapt from the frying pan into the fire. This Orpheus descends, presumably by way of JFK, into a West Side apartment: “Outside . . . the first hot season of the third millennium, baked and perspired. The city boiled with money.” Solanka’s hell is stinking with the overcooked tripe of disposable culture, the name-dropping superficiality of old gossip items and forgotten boldface names. It is a New York with the horrid painted cows of two years ago on the streets, of jokes like “George Gush and Al Bore” and peopled by names borrowed from Page Six. Some of it bores before it horrifies, some of it just doesn’t feel lived in.

Rushdie’s New York is a suit that looks good at the store but shows none of its virtues of cut and style without some flesh and blood inside. It is an observer’s New York, conversation overheard on a movie line, but unlike Woody Allen’s much-lived version of same, which tells us who he thinks is living here, Rushdie’s remains opaque. But this hot metropolis has a scary lower level (in the city’s highest aeries, of course), a group of men who call themselves “S&M” (single and male), whose loathing for women has nauseatingly cruel and depraved expressions.

Solanka’s underworld is one to which he fears he may belong, where women are the victims of the fury of men. His unwitting guide here is one of those Rushdie false brothers who often betray, but this one is an erudite black man, war correspondent, jock, and ladies’ man who is the desperate token of the white glitterati. Jack Rhinehart is one of the book’s most successfully realized characters, an immigrant from the hood (well, maybe not quite) whose assimilation is nearly complete, an outsider who is also one of the ultimate American insiders.

But if this hell is full of suffering women, this Orpheus is yet the victim of Harpies. He hears beating wings in his ears. (Is that Poe or an old B-movie?) On the periphery, one ex-wife pops up, then a spurned academic groupie bad-mouths him on Howard Stern. If the true end of Orpheus is being torn to pieces by a bunch of women, be they the women of Thrace, the Maenads, or the Three Furies Alecto (“Unceasing Anger”), Tisiphone (“Avenger of Murder”), and Megaera (“Jealous”), then Solanka is all set. There are three in Fury who act out the events following Orpheus’s ascent from hell. Mila Milo, the spiky blond seductress of West 70th Street, is the daughter of a possibly predatory, semi-famous Serbo-Croat writer. She is precocious with computers, PR, and Solanka’s dark side. Mila reminds Solanka of the wildly popular time-traveling doll he has created with the unfortunate name “Little Brain.” Little Brain is like a TV reporter Barbie who goes after the Great Minds of history (all boys, mind you: Bertrand Russell, Kierkegaard, Machiavelli, Socrates, Galileo, etc.). And she pursues them like a fury: ” . . . not so much a disciple as an agent provocateur with a time machine, she goaded the great minds of the ages into surprising revelations.” Their relationship is pure Blue Angel, Emil Jennings meets Courtney Love.

The real TV girl in his life is perhaps the avenger fury: Neela Mahendra, an independent producer-cum-revolutionary who embroils Solanka in South Asian politics and a romance that makes him quote Pat Boone lyrics. Lastly, Jealous would have to be Eleanor Masters Solanka, the Shakespeare scholar and jilted ex-wife. She haunts him on the phone and taunts him with the chance to be jealous himself. (And maybe it’s middle-aged me but I couldn’t help thinking that a novel like this with a female protagonist—not particularly fit or fine, a middle-aged, stuffy academic-cum-dollmaker who is nonetheless irresistible to the erudite, the kinky, and the fabulous—would not be taken seriously. But hey, we can hope.)

Suffice it to say that in Fury these creatures pursue Malik with zeal. If Rushdie brought Ormus, the Orphic musician of Ground Beneath Her Feet, to an end reminiscent of John Lennon’s, he goes by the mythic book this time and brings Malik Solanka fatefully to a staircase in the sky. Fury comes nowhere near the heights this brilliant novelist has reached before, lacking a real match between the mythic leanings of the author and the mysteries of his new home. I’d give him some time to get to know us and our gods and demons.