The Ground Beneath Her Feet, by Salman Rushdie, New York: Henry Holt and Co., 575 pages, $27.50
The Ground Beneath Her Feet is, for all its flaws, one of the hippest novels of our time. Salman Rushdie has written--or has he composed?--a pun-filled MTV rockumentary. An inventive, gargantuan love story whose prose pulsates with enough rhythm to make your foot tap, the novel chronicles the rocky love affair between partial divinity Vina Apsara, a legendary half-Indian, half-Greek pop singer, and Ormus Cama, her part-divine musician soul-mate. Together, they form a band called VTO that becomes the most famous rock act in the world.
The novel retells the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in pop-cultural terms that sometimes border on the ludicrous: Ormus actually takes an "Into the Underworld" tour to find Vina, who has been swallowed by an earthquake. Narrated by the photographer Rai, a mortal wistfully obsessed with Vina, the epic romance of Ormus and Vina thunders its way through the cosmopolitan Bombay of the 1950s and the vivid London of the 1960s, only to fester capriciously in frenzied contemporary Manhattan and then plummet into oblivion and eternal grief. (Rushdie was never one to lack drama.) The plot hurtles unstoppably forward, save for a few wearying riffs on the history of rock 'n' roll and the music business, and several blathering passages on love, art, and death. Ultimately, the plot overruns a deeper, subtler examination of the characters' inner lives.
Vina is a formidable hybrid of bombshell rock star-à la Madonna/Whitney Houston/Courtney Love-and goddess-à la (according to Rushdie) Helen/Eurydice/Sita/Rati/Persephone. Her young lover Ormus, a visionary blessed and cursed with the capacity to see into worlds parallel to our own--a gift that drives him mad--is a sexy, hip-gyrating, Indian combination of Elvis, John Lennon, and Dylan, with an Orphic fate thrown in to sweeten the pot. (Fashion designer Sandy Dalal comes to mind for the movie role.)
Inventive, ambitious, and complex, Rushdie's novel speaks to the cosmopolitan experience of his audience. Cultures begin fusing from page one and continue mutating until the end. The novel depicts a world in which Mullens Standish, a once-married homosexual radio pirate with two children, can be found in the same scene as a bullock-driving, lunghi-wearing Indian country farmer. It is a world in which Ormus' father, Sir Darius Cama, an end-of-the-empire Anglophile barrister, devotes his later life to unearthing the similarities between Homeric and Indian myth. It is a world where Sam's Pleasure Island, a popular unwinding joint for music business honchos that doubles as a sci-fi dystopia, resembles the intergalactic bar in the original Star Wars--complete with space gods born on Martian asteroids. It is a place where Ormus, a Bombay-born-and-bred musician, flies to London wearing black European hipster jeans, but also a Yankees baseball cap and a cutaway Beat-generation T-shirt, as if to announce, "old England cannot hold me, it may pretend to be swinging but I know it's just plain hanged. Not funky but defunct. History moves on."
Rushdie follows up on that thought with a brilliant passage that reads--or rather sings--like a rock 'n' roll love paean to America's self-inventing chaos, complete with the yikitaka-yikitaka and boom-chicka-booms of Ormus' drumbeat-laden inner voice: "The Polish dances, the Italian weddings, the Zorba-slithering Greeks. The drunken rhythm of the salsa saints. The cool music that heals our aching souls, and the hot democratic music that leaves a hole in the beat and makes our pants want to get up and dance….Yay, America. Play it as it lays."
Ormus passes for Jewish, Italian, Spanish, Roman, French, Latin American, "Red" Indian, and Greek. "Race itself seems less of a fixed point than before," he notes upon arriving in Manhattan. And Rai observes, "Here he is at the frontier of the skin." Ormus and Vina's music crosses all frontiers, rising above the limits of family, clan, nation, and race and flying over the minefields of turf and taboo. Though Ormus has always hoped that humans would rub out the color line--not just cross it--it is Vina who ultimately brings about this larger sense of global kinship. Upon her death, mourners on the front lines of the world's armed conflicts lay down their weapons to embrace.
Throughout the novel, Rushdie satirizes and celebrates American consumerism, showing us the wonder and absurdity of the "late capitalism" we take for granted as Americans. We eventually see Vina-Divina cheapened (and made wealthy) as Vina-Martha Stewart, complete with a best-selling diet book, celebrity exercise videos, and "Vina's Vege Table" organic meal series. When Vina dies, the American consumer machine cashes in. Scandals come to light under frenzied radio, TV, and press coverage. Drama and music critics immediately hold public panels. Then come the retrospectives, tribute albums, charitable donations, and memorial concerts. Gary Larson draws Vina's cartoon. Feminists, intellectuals, priests, cultural studies gurus, and psychoanalysts all weigh in on the Vina phenomenon. TV producers look for Vina look-alikes. Ironically, Rushdie himself has written a story worthy of a blockbuster marketing push: Bono has already set a movie soundtrack title song, "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," to music for U2's next album.
Rushdie's words aren't always as catchy as his tune, however. His main goal, he has said, was to write a love story, but the circumstances he designs make for an unbelievable one. His characters often lack comprehensible motive, which makes it hard to care much about them. For example, Rushdie provides no good explanation for Ormus' absurd 10-year vow of no-touch celibacy after Vina initially refuses to marry him, apart from bitter whimsy. (You're making me wait 10 years for marriage? Fine, I'll make you wait 10 years for even a caress.)
Then again, since Ormus and Vina are part-god, and as selfish, capricious, and temperamental as gods often are in ancient myth, maybe they're supposed to be exempt from the laws of motive that govern human character. But does this exempt Rushdie from the laws that govern human writers? Rushdie has tried to write a myth, but is this an achievable ambition for a single mortal? His efforts to squeeze human sentiment out of the predicaments of nonhuman characters often result in only tepid effects.
Worse, the supernatural incidents and metaphysical ramblings in the book seem to come not from a coherent worldview but from a confused and faithless one. Rai calls himself a skeptic/rationalist but turns out to be more superstitious than anyone by the end of the story, when he confides to the reader that he's convinced it was Vina who shot Ormus dead, explaining that Vina must have risen from the dead to kill her lover so they could be together in the Underworld.
Rushdie does capture the beauty of a love based on the mutual adoration of an art form. In this case, Vina and Ormus' love grows out of their mutual passion for music. The couple's shared knowledge of rock music, its lingo, its history, and its most inspiring artists creates a special form of intimacy between them that they don't trouble to explain to others. Any couple that shares a driving passion, whether it be for music or medicine or literature, will recognize this unique form of intimacy.
But Rushdie's choice of a first-person narrator as the left-out third of the love triangle ultimately stunts the emotional power of his story. The author speaks too transparently through Rai, a character similar to Saladin in The Satanic Verses, the Moor in The Moor's Last Sigh, and his other alter-ego narrators. Rai seems to speak for Rushdie when he explains how he "worships the God of the imagination," "has a hole inside where God could be," and gives in to postmodern pessimism: "The modern family is our shelter against terror and despair." At such transparent moments, Rushdie's Rai-mask falls off and all we're left with is the artless.
Toni Morrison has lauded The Ground Beneath Her Feet as a "global novel." That's a concept worth pondering: What exactly is a "global novel"? And who are the global novelists? On its surface, the term would seem to describe the work of those writers with mixed cultural backgrounds who seem not to fit into any of the usual modern regional traditions. Whole schools of "post-colonial" literature have arisen at the end of the century featuring novelists who draw on mixed cultural sources. This is especially apparent among Indian and Asian authors: the Seth/Ghosh/Tharoor/Roy/Amit Chaudhuri/Kiran Desai/Diva-karuni Indian expatriates who have earned their fame in the West by writing about an exoticized East. And there's the P.C.-obsessed "Asian-American"/diaspora writer tradition, the Amy Tan/Bharati Mukherji/Jhumpa Lahiri types, whose reputations have come from writing about American encounters between East and West.
Some readers may encounter a novel about expatriate displacement, or one that hops from place to place and produces a vague feeling of internationalism, and see "globalism." Such novels surely have their merits, but they are about the opposite of globalism: They are about difference. "Globalism," if the idea is to describe anything, is about cultural melding; about dynamic syncretism. At their core, such works are not merely geographically diffuse. On the contrary, they draw their strength from highly specific contexts of places and cultures in flux. (And if, in the end, they transcend the specific details of their settings to recognize the timeless elements of human nature amid such flux,then they are truly successful in their globalism.)
Cultural syncretism is at the core of Rushdie's work, and especially so in this latest novel. Yet the manner in which he has chosen to tell his story undercuts the power of his theme. Rushdie's thematic globalism is nearly undone by his stylistic postmodernism.
Critics have grouped Rushdie among those artists that turn the multicultural and hybrid into an entire aesthetic. But an aesthetic that is bound by the rigidities of a perishable, voguish political ideology risks inherent limitations, and Rushdie's novel falls prey to them. His use of a gimmick-ridden postmodern style, with characters who can talk about their identities only in terms of "constructing themselves," threatens the subtle, meditative art of the novel by revealing the skeleton of his work, if not of his very imagination. In the course of so much self-conscious allusion making, his characters often come across as cartoonish cutouts.
Sometimes, Rushdie's own characters seem to have concluded that postmodernism is no longer a fertile aesthetic, so maybe this novel documents his own realization of its limitations. At one point, Rai says, "We've reached the point in the century when we must eschew all ironic communication." Later he says, "Lead us not into exotica, deliver us from the nostalgic." He understands the global: "A kind of India happens everywhere, that's the truth too; everywhere is terrible and wonder-filled and overwhelming if you open your sense to the actual pulsating beat." He notes the similarity between Bombay's amputees and "the many mutilations of soul to be found on New York street corners." In Ormus, Rushdie has created an artist who (at least for the term of this novel) is more successful than himself in manifesting globalism. An irritated Ormus asks the category-happy record producer Voight, "Do I have to be a color? Can't we get beyond, finally, I mean can't we get under our skins." The other side of the same paradox is that Rushdie's book ultimately bends to the very notions it satirizes, and he begins to resemble the jargony professors and sound bite makers he ridicules.
Yet, to give him credit, Rushdie can sometimes make the approach work. Here is the most moving passage in the novel, in which Rai (probably speaking for Rushdie) bids India a stunningly passionate farewell, as if he's divorcing a much-loved wife: "My home is burned, my parents dead, and those I loved have mostly gone away….I go-I hunt-alone….Oh, why must everything I say end up sounding like a…goddamn cheap Bollywood song? Very well, then…India, my terra infirma, my maelstrom, cornucopia, my crowd. India, my Hug-me, my fable, my mother, my father, and my first great truth. It may be that I am not worthy of you, for I have been imperfect, I confess. I may not comprehend what you are becoming, what perhaps you already are, but I am old enough to say that this new self of yours is an entity I no longer want, or need, to understand. India, fount of my imagination, source of my savagery, breaker of my heart. Goodbye." He calls the chapter "The Decisive Moment."
Not surprisingly, the material that Rushdie is currently contemplating is set solely in the West. His farewell comes after several famous novels set in India, including the Booker Prize-winning Midnight's Children (1981), Shame (1983), The Satanic Verses (1988), and The Moor's Last Sigh (1995). East-West, a 1994 collection of short stories set in India and England, may highlight Rushdie's dilemma as a writer. In "The Harmony of the Spheres," the narrator tries to explain his fascination with the occult: "In that world of magic and power there seemed to exist the kind of fusion of world views, European Amerindian Oriental Levantine, in which I desperately wanted to believe." In the final story, "Courier," the narrator observes, "I, too, have ropes around my neck, I have them to this day, pulling me this way and that, East and West, the nooses tightening, commanding, choose, choose. I buck, I snort, I whinny, I rear, I kick. Ropes, I do not choose between you. Lassoes, Lariats,I choose neither of you, and both. Do you hear? I refuse to choose." Perhaps now, Rushdie is choosing after all.
But Rushdie's cultural choices are unlikely ever to exclude the global. He addressed its personal significance in a speech he prepared for the first anniversary of the fatwa against him. "Those who oppose The Satanic Verses the most vociferously today are of the opinion that intermingling with a different culture will inevitably weaken and ruin their own," he wrote. "I am of the opposite opinion. The Satanic Verses celebrated hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization, and fears the absolute of the Pure. Melange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world…change-by-fusion, change-by-conjoining. It is a love song to our mongrel selves."
A decade later, Rushdie no longer needs to draw attention to "mongrelization" as though it is the appealingly risqué exception to the norm of our present condition. Rather, cultural fusion in this novel is the natural state of things, and he writes of it as the everyday occurrence it has become. Maybe, as Rai says, the only people who can see that picture whole are, like Rushdie, the ones who step outside the frame.
Kanchan Limaye (email@example.com) is a New York writer.