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.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this novel, when you've peeled away all the tedious digressions and silly subplots, is how completely Rushdie fails to dramatize his love triangle in a way that would allow us to savor its emotions and dilemmas. In the end, almost none of the book's action or energy springs from these central relationships. Why is this?
ABOUT HALFWAY THROUGH THE GROUND BENEATH Her Feet, when Ormus Cama, Eastern practitioner of a Western art form, finally records the song that will make him famous, it is clear that Rushdie is inviting analogies with his own genius for the multicultural and the hybrid. Shortly before the recording, we hear: "[Ormus] hasn't fully grasped how to make of multiplicity an accumulating strength rather than a frittery weakness." How does he overcome this failing? By firing his support musicians and recording instrument after instrument one over the other all by himself. After which he tells us:
What I want the music to say is that I don't have to choose . . . I need it to show that I don't have to be this guy or that guy, the fellow from over there or the fellow from here, the person within me that I call my twin, or whoever's out there in whatever it is I get flashes of beyond the sky; or just the man standing in front of you right now. I'll be all of them, I can do that. Here comes everybody, right? That's where it came from, the idea of playing all the instruments. It was to prove that point.
To Rushdie's mind, then, what generates success and excitement is a rejection of the pathos of choice, of that need with which most of us are all too familiar: to become one thing or another, "this guy or that guy," taking decisions from day to day. Instead, everything is to be maintained in a fizz of promise, potential, multiplicity and openness. So just as Ormus is reluctant to choose between conflicting personalities, Rushdie himself is determined not to settle on one form or another of the novel. And this is his undoing.
His choice of the first person, for example, with all its scope for transmitting the ironies and frustrations of a limited knowledge, offers an excellent way into a love triangle. But its conviction soon dwindles when Rushdie allows his narrator inside other characters' heads and starts using him and them as the merest mouthpieces for his own ideas. In short, and again like his rock star, Ormus, Rushdie makes no secret of playing all the instruments. "Here comes everybody" -- an improbable quotation from Finnegans Wake, afforded through a first-person narrator (not present when the words were spoken) to a young Indian rock musician -- thus tends to mean here comes Salman, trying terribly hard to make a big impression.
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In interviews, Rushdie has suggested that his book is to be read as a reflection on celebrity. But it is more of an object lesson. Only the massive celebrity of Rushdie's name could ever have led to its being taken seriously. For a meditation on the power of celebrity, one could more usefully (and rapidly) turn to Andersen's wonderful story of the emperor without his clothes.
Tim Parks is the author, most recently, of the novel Europa and the collection of essays Adultery (both Arcade). This review is adapted from a longer piece that appeared in The New York Review of Books.
THE GROUND BENEATH HER FEET
BY SALMAN RUSHDIE
Henry Holt and Company Inc.
575 pages | $27.50 hardcover