By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Illustration by Paul Lee|
Narrator Rai Merchant is the secret third in a love triangle whose other members, Ormus Cama and Vina Apsara, are international rock stars. Vina dies in an earthquake at the beginning of the book, and Rai, who insists he is one of the world's great skeptics and rationalists, explains his decision to tell his tale thus:
We all looked to [Vina] for peace, yet she herself was not at peace. And so I've chosen to write here, publicly, what I can no longer whisper into her private ear: that is, everything. I have chosen to tell our story, hers and mine and Ormus Cama's, all of it, every last detail, and then maybe she can find a sort of peace here, on the page, in this underworld of ink and lies, that respite which was denied her by life. So I stand at the gate of the inferno of language, there's a barking dog and a ferryman waiting and a coin under my tongue for the fare.
Rushdie loves the grand narrative gesture, and there is a sprint for the portentous in his writing that often comes at the expense of sense. Rai tells the story so that Vina can find "peace on the page." Presumably, as a rationalist, he means so that he can find peace. But if the page is an "underworld of ink and lies," is it a place where you would expect to find peace anyway? And if "language" is an "inferno," rather than just the muddle it appears to be here (the Christian inferno and the Greek underworld are two very different places), how are we supposed to read the barking dog, the ferryman and the coin? Is this a dark reference to the machinery of publishing? The more you go on with Rushdie's novel, the more you feel that his main worry this time will not be any evil ayatollah, but just a moment's attention on the part of the wakeful reader.
The love triangle is simple and static. Growing up in Bombay, the awesomely handsome and musically talented Ormus Cama fritters away his teens seducing the local girls. After spending her early childhood in the USA, the slightly younger Vina Apsara, of mixed Asian Indian and Greek-American parentage, comes to Bombay, where she will eventually find herself living with the family of Rai Merchant, again slightly younger. Vina is awesomely beautiful and has an extraordinary voice. The 9-year-old Rai falls immediately and irretrievably in love with her. Shortly afterward, the 12-year-old Vina and the 19-year-old Ormus fall immediately and irretrievably in love with each other.
A series of delays now stretches out developments over a lifetime. With surprising chivalry, Ormus agrees to wait until Vina is 16 before so much as kissing her. Four years. They enjoy a night's delirious pleasure, but then his offer of marriage causes her to run off, and the following morning extremely complicated coincidences lead the couple to lose sight of each other for 10 years, during which time Vina has first sex with Rai. She finally rediscovers Ormus when his first successful record is released, but at this point, following a car accident that was actually a murder attempt, the hero is in a coma in a house by the Thames. Not to worry, at the sound of Vina's voice he magically reawakens.
The two now team up as a supersuccessful rock band, but when Vina still refuses to marry him, Ormus forces a rather heavy pact on her: They won't touch each other for 10 years, then they will marry. Throughout these years Vina continues to sleep with Rai, though the celibate Ormus, who is aware of her more casual lovers, never knows this. Finally, the now amazingly famous rock stars marry. All continues as before without revelations, confrontations or any particular development, until Ormus' intensifying psychic obsessions eventually become too much for his wife. Ormus is convinced that two worlds (that of the book and our own world outside the book) are involved in a progressive collision that is causing sociopolitical upheaval and even earthquakes. Vina walks out on him, but just as Rai seems about to get his girl at last, she disappears in a quake in Mexico, thus somewhat validating her husband's sick prophecies.