By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
* * *
Twelve years ago almost to the day, I went to the packed Royal Albert Hall in London to hear a famed Muslim cleric address the topic “Should Rushdie Be Killed?” (He said no.) As one of the few non-Muslims in a crowd of 5,000, I stared at the program notes (its cover featured a picture of Salman Rushdie with devil‘s horns) and listened to young English-accented South Asians talking about how the novelist deserved the fatwa he’d received as a valentine from the Ayatollah. Everyone treated me with great courtesy -- they liked that I was keeping an open mind on the question -- but I suddenly grasped how terrifying it must be to have so many people believe that God wants you murdered.
That‘s why I’m disgusted at the glee with which the literary press has turned on Rushdie. Ever since the fatwa was lifted two years ago, people have laid into him as if he were a sacred cow that it was now permissible to butcher. His new novel, Fury, has been ripped by reviewers gleaming with schadenfreude at the book‘s overwrought laziness; he’s been mocked for moving to New York, romancing model Padma Lakshmi and being a self-centered creep insufficiently grateful to Britain for protecting him (though no one thought the government was protecting him because he was a nice guy). As Slate‘s Inigo Thomas quite sensibly asked, why do the media pillory Rushdie even as they lionize G.E.’s Jack Welch, a notoriously ruthless boss whose taste for firing people ruined countless lives?
What has been lost in all the abusive press is that Rushdie‘s a world-class writer in a world that doesn’t have many. His 1980 novel, Midnight‘s Children, did more to change British culture than any novel since World War II, and he followed it up three years later with an even better one, Shame, a surreal portrait of modern Pakistan in all its grandeur and horror. His books opened the door for the likes of Hanif Kureishi, Ben Okri, Arundhati Roy and current fave Zadie Smith. Although his work since The Satanic Verses has been erratic, this unevenness probably says less about Rushdie’s artistic failings than it does about the psychic cost of spending a decade under constant surveillance, unable to freely experience daily life, the very lifeblood of his fiction. He‘s been living in a world where he was more likely to meet Bono or Renee Zellwegger than the uncelebrated people who inspired his finest characters.
At the moment, he resembles New York’s other recent celebrity arrival: Bill Clinton. Both are lavishly gifted men in their 50s who must come to terms with having passed the peak of their glory: Just as Clinton can never again be the world‘s most powerful man, Rushdie, who had the misfortune of being the world’s most famous writer, will never again enjoy the fabulous success of his younger years. There‘s something poignant in his situation and his desperate desire to escape it. He clearly moved to America to re-define himself and reinvigorate his writing, and though Fury is a mess, this doesn’t mean that his next novel won‘t tell us things about our country that only he could.
Talk about the age of irony! Rushdie came to this country just in time to be, like the rest of us, a target of fundamentalist terror. Now that New York’s literary world has seen firsthand exactly what this means, perhaps it will appreciate what he went through and give the guy a break.
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