Mr. Rushdie’s Planet 

The sound and the fury. And the toilet paper, too.

Wednesday, Sep 5 2001
Photo by Debra DiPaolo

It’s fun listening to Salman Rushdie discuss his new novel, Fury, over lunch at Campanile, but he’d have to be a mesmerist to make me like the book. We meet upstairs in one of the restaurant’s private rooms, safely secluded from the lunch-time crowd. It is now 12 years since Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini launched a fatwa against Rushdie because of the alleged blasphemies of The Satanic Verses, and more than two since Khomeini’s successors canceled it. The safe houses have been vacated, the secret-service agents are gone. “Normalcy has resumed, I’m happy to say,” Rushdie tells me, looking slimmed-down and healthy. Unblinking eyes regard me hypnotically from an almost unlined face. You like the book. You like the book very, very much. Politely he announces that he doesn’t want to talk about life under the fatwa. “I’m just this guy who writes books, and I’d quite like to be thought of in that way.”

The last two years have been good for Rushdie. He has a new home (New York), a new girlfriend (30-year-old actress Padma Lakshmi) and, of course, a new novel. He seems deeply happy about all three. The contentment comes at a price, however: a wife and child left behind in London, and the loudly voiced displeasure of Britain’s media at seeing the author on whose protection the government spent millions drop his adopted country in favor of the United States. The anger was compounded when Rushdie described Britain’s literary culture as “backbiting and incestuous” to D.T. Max in The New York Times, and implied that London had never inspired him as an artist. “Once more it is naked self-interest attempting to cloak its dank and shameful crevices in the watered silk of artistic stimulation,” thundered Guardian columnist Julie Burchill, turning as purple as her prose. She accused Rushdie of moving to the States not for artistic reasons but because he was greedy and because the English didn’t buy his “rotten books” anymore.

Such invective makes for stirring reading but feels faintly absurd when you meet Rushdie face to face. It’s like a little lecture on the difference between news and reality. The truth, he explains calmly, is that but for Khomeini’s intervention, he would have probably moved to New York a decade ago because he thought it would be helpful to his work. “As it turns out, exactly what I hoped would happen has happened, which is that it immediately produced a novel.”

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The novel, naturally, is what Rushdie wants to discuss. Two things about it should be said immediately: It’s short (by his standards), at 259 pages; and it has a feeling of urgency to it. It’s Rushdie’s attempt to capture the moment. “It was a decision to do something that classical literary theory tells you you shouldn’t do, which is to write a book in the middle of the noise it’s trying to make sense of. This is one of the reasons it’s called Fury,” he explains.

A more revealing title would be Mid-Life Fury. It is the summer of 2000 and Professor Malik Solanka, retired historian of ideas and creator of “Little Brain,” a hip and hugely popular doll, has fled London for New York after discovering himself, drunk, standing over his sleeping wife and child with a knife in his hand. Tormented by the memory, he walks the city streets while pondering the state of the world and of his own precarious psyche. There is a serial killer on the loose, and for a while Solanka fears that he might be the murderer (he suffers blackouts and bouts of inexplicable rage). He has sworn off women, but they make a beeline for him anyway. He carries on a chaste but perverse affair with a brilliant and fabulously beautiful webmistress called Mila, and then drops her for a brilliant and even more fabulously beautiful Indian TV producer called Neela, who promptly drops him to fight a revolutionary war on a tiny island in the South Pacific where, for some reason, people wear masks based on Solanka’s dolls. It’s, er, complicated.

Fury starts strongly, placing its hero in the world with an almost Balzacian relish for the details of material wealth, but it becomes increasingly slapdash and cartoonish, with the characters racing through the plot like mechanical toys. The author doesn’t seem to care about them very much, and after a while the reader doesn’t either. All too often, Rushdie serves up the literary equivalent of Industrial Light & Magic — postmodern pyrotechnics to wow the scholarly crowd — while sacrificing plausibility and feeling to “effects.” Remarkably, almost everything in the book, from Solanka’s apparel (a white linen suit and Panama hat) to his plumber (an octogenarian Holocaust survivor who quotes Heinrich Böll), feels deeply improbable, even fake. The exception is Solanka’s wife and child. Unfortunately, they’ve been left behind in London.

  • The sound and the fury. And the toilet paper, too.

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