18 October, 2019 • • 40.6FictionLiterature

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In the Age of Anything-Can-Happen

Will Loxley

Salman Rushdie 


America is Salman Rushdie’s country now. It has been for some time. It was Christopher Hitchens’s country, and is probably also Martin Amis’s (that controversial couple left because the “piss and vinegar” had gone out of British culture). From Isherwood and Auden to Zadie Smith, the most high-profile British authors have frequently made an exodus stateside. The implication seems to be that our concerns are small fry, but rescale them to fit a country the size of America, a country as new and schismatic as America, and they become the real deal. The reason Rushdie gave for his departure in the new millennium was almost verbatim of those Auden had given in 1939: he despaired of the “narrowness, infighting and ultimate provincialism” of British literary life. God help them, I say, and God help those of us who are left behind.

Quichotte (pronounced “key-shot”) is Rushdie’s fourth novel of American life. The first, Fury, was published in 2001, and was the project he had been working on at the time of leaving London for New York. It follows Bombay-born Malik Solanka, a former Cambridge academic who now finds himself working in showbusiness. Malik has recently left his second wife, and, without any substitutional sense of purpose, has begun to drink too much and to pursue beautiful women. The New York that ensconces him is loud and harsh: “Garbage trucks like giant cockroaches moved through the city, roaring. He was never out of earshot of a siren, an alarm, a large vehicle’s reverse-gear bleeps, the beat of some unbearable music.” And yet, as far as urban hellholes go, this one at least affords him a bit of privacy, the ability to disappear into anonymity. Fury is a novel of modern disorientation, of the twenty-first century immigrant, successful and habituated, but separated by five decades from his Southern Asian childhood. The book marked the beginning of a second phase of Rushdie’s career, and his new concern for the melting pots of the west – in this case the world’s most successful immigrant society. Rather than his prehistory, the subject matter now reflected the author’s present reality, the desires and complexes of the information age, and how identity is negotiated over the course of a lifetime. In his review of Fury, John Sutherland conjectured that Rushdie, like Thomas Mann or D. H. Lawrence, was assembling an oeuvre that would best be treated as a single project. Across twelve novels, his voracious pen has devoured cutting-edge astrophysics, history, religion, literature and popular culture, all kinds of folklore, arriving always at the position of the individual in a changing world. Rushdie’s scope, or far-sightedness, says Sutherland, makes him “less ‘Bookerable’ than Nobelabilis … [that is,] eligible for the big Swedish one.” As it happens, however, Rushdie is probably the first name that most of us now associate with the Booker Prize, and the Nobel went instead to his Granta “Best of Young British Novelists 1983” compeer Kazuo Ishiguro.

Quichotte, a rather tentative selection for this year’s strange Booker shortlist, hardly deviates at all from the essential themes and scenarios of Rushdie’s three previous America novels. We pick up with Mr Ismail Smile, a travelling opioid salesman of Indian origin whose life takes place in the tawdry roadside hotels of flyover America. In this eternal predicament, Ismail, now getting on in years, has suffered “a peculiar form of brain damage” caused by his excessive consumption of “mindless television”. Specifically, he is now unable to distinguish reality from entertainment, or reality from “reality”. And yet, this seems a reasonable problem to have in what the narrator calls “the Age of Anything-Can-Happen”, where “men who played presidents on TV could become presidents” and “it was no longer possible to predict the weather, or the likelihood of war, or the outcome of elections”. Less forgivably, though, Ismail, with his obsession with the television screen, has developed an unhealthy fixation on “a certain TV personality, the beautiful, witty, and adored Miss Salma R, an infatuation which he characterised, quite inaccurately, as love.” Miss Salma R is an Indian American talk-show host, and the face of young, liberal America. Ismail – or Quichotte, as he decides in the first chapter to call himself (a running motif for Rushdie, it would seem: “Americans … constantly decided what they wanted to be called and who they wanted to be, shedding their Gatz origins to become shirt-owning Gatsbys and pursue dreams called Daisy,” he wrote in 2017’s The Golden House) – plans to track the television host down across the country in the hope that she will “return the love of a foolish old coot”. It will be his last, most foolish adventure, the narrator tells us.

References to Miguel de Cervantes’s text in Quichotte are, thankfully, only symbolic. At their best, they are played for clever irony. Don Quixote’s buffoonish chivalry becomes insidious when seen in the light of modern gender politics. Quichotte is clearly the ‘good guy’ whom no woman wants to be around. Sancho, ostensibly Quichotte’s son, is in fact a grouchy imaginary teenage boy who wills himself into proper existence in order to escape the tiresome and delusional “old man” who has been driving him around. Sancho represents the moral, even judgemental, centre of the book, having to adapt quickly to an unfamiliar world that now seems especially delirious and difficult to follow. He is furious, as Quichotte is too desensitised to be, at the treatment of South Asians in a brutalised post-9/11 America, for the quixotic journey the pair undergo is one that entails hate killings enacted by drunks in bars, and cops who side with the racists.

Rushdie is best on the palimpsestic nature of racism in the media-entranced west, and how these rewritings determine that identity for non-whites is something constantly in flux, an external process for which they are only ever spectators. After the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, we are told, “it turned out that hindoos were not to be a major target of American racism after all. That honour continued to be reserved for the African American community, and Indian immigrants … were almost embarrassed to find themselves excused, in many parts of the USA, from racial abuse and attacks, and embarked on the path of becoming model citizens.” Then came September 11, 2001, and:

young men started wearing T-shirts reading DON’T BLAME ME, I’M HINDU, and Sikh men were attacked because their turbans made them look Islamic, and cab drivers put flag decals on their windshields and stickers on the glass partitions between themselves and their passengers reading GOD BLESS AMERICA.

Rushdie’s characters, with their disposable names, temporary residences and indeterminate origins are symbolic of identity’s slipperiness. Sancho has only been in the world for a matter of days before he is accused of its grandest historical crimes. For this he blames the “potentially lethal otherness” of his skin: “Keep your voice down,” he tells his skin, “everyone can hear you.”

Quichotte is a difficult book to write about because, simply put, there’s so much going on. The perspective lurches from man to sister to sister’s husband to sister’s daughter, or some similarly chaotic formulation. The narrator excuses this by explaining that “so many of today’s stories are and must be of this plural, sprawling kind” because “a kind of nuclear fission has taken place in human lives and relations, families have been divided”, and in fact it is owing to this tentacular strategy that we meet one of the book’s best characters, Miss Salma R herself, a high-functioning opioid addict who happens to be chasing the fentanyl high that only the salesman Quichotte can provide. There are also, as we discover in the second chapter, two narratives, of which Quichotte, Sancho and Salma’s represent the inner one, the story within the story. A writer, pen name Sam DuChamp, but referred to as “Brother” in the book, is revealed to be Quichotte’s creator, thus demystifying what seemed to be that narrative’s magical elements (Rushdie announced after the publication of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights that he was stepping away from the fantastical). The metafictional layering is fertile ground for Rushdie’s deconstruction of post-colonial identity; Quichotte becomes like the echo of Brother, the ugly manifestation of his deepest-repressed memories. Their backstories become interchangeable, and, as with Quichotte and his television, “the boundary between art and life [becomes] blurred and permeable.”

Quichotte’s journey takes him to New York, the cusp of madness, and the end of life on planet Earth. In this sprawling, unhinged modern world where television stars become presidents, all meaning is broken down. Sancho opens the window of his hotel room one day to find himself in a different place to the night before. Towns are terrorised by prehistoric behemoths. Great gashes – in fact, black holes of existentially-terrifying nothingness – are torn in the fabric of space-time, causing people to avoid looking up. Brother, in turn, must travel to London to make amends with his estranged sister, the only surviving link to his Bombay boyhood. The book covers an incredible amount of ground, and Rushdie shines with the big subjects. In the conundrum of diminishing reality, and imminent death of the world (not climate change, but a kind of metaphysical deterioration), this book has a deep and anxious core. Quichotte sets out on what he thinks of as his quest because “there are people who need to impose a shape upon the shapelessness of life.” There is no longer a unified culture, only conflicting and polarising fragments. Flicking through the hundreds of alternative realities shown on television, Sancho yearns for certainty and solid ground; he is “really trying to understand which this is America now.” He realises that “something’s badly off, not only with him, but also with the world outside the motel room.” And my favourite description:

If the two guiding principles of the universe were paranoia (the belief that the world had meaning, but that meaning was located at a concealed level, which was very possibly hostile to the overt, absurd level, which meant, in brief, you) and entropy (the belief that life was meaningless, that things fell apart and the heat-death of the universe was inevitable), then he was definitely in the paranoid camp.

It is in these sober, truthful pockets that Quichotte fulfils its potential as a commentary on this advanced age. These are big truths for a big moment in history, and Rushdie has the capacity like few other writers to be a moral compass. I read recently the claim that millennials will likely have to preside not only over their own deaths but also the death of the planet. Cheery stuff, but, alas, unavoidable. Rushdie’s bravery in the face of these problems shows him to be a suitable guide.

Where this book lets itself down is in the overeagerness – or, paradoxically, unambitiousness – of its satire. You can picture Rushdie wringing his hands as he lines up target after obvious target – the Kardashians, Elon Musk – and gleefully slashes them down. But such big, transparent personalities should attract only lazy parodists. It is as if the writer is worried about leaving out some important signpost of modern life; better, he thinks, that the text become dizzying and hysterical in its hunger to be all-encompassing. And Rushdie can, of course, be a real bore. Rather than truly contemporary, Quichotte seems in fact to be set in the period a couple of years ago which will probably be remembered as ‘Jordan Peterson versus college students’, and the debate on freedom of speech is where the author’s heart truly lies. Brother’s sister, a successful lawyer about to ascend to the House of Lords, comes up against a lynch mob of rabid internet millennials simply for filing a noise complaint against a nearby Caribbean restaurant. This inspires a rant from the author about the “electronically propagated hysteria” of the “monster” Internet. This did not ring true for me, just as it didn’t ring true when people like Rushdie were trying to equate the Milo Yiannopoulos Twitter ban and Peterson pickets with genuine historical authoritarianism. Besides, shouldn’t Rushdie know better than anyone that group moral hysteria existed long before the internet, in, say, 1989?

But Rushdie still has something to give, certainly. I enjoy reading him for the same reason I enjoy his cronies Amis, McEwan and Ishiguro, because of their ambition and committed intellectualism. Quichotte, more so than many other contemporary books I’ve read, feels like it has something to say. It just isn’t one hundred percent sure what that is.

Will Loxley is currently working on a book about Bloomsbury during the Second World War. It will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2020.