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Mr. Rushdie’s Planet

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.”

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.

Early on, the book looks as if it’s shaping up to be a murder mystery of sorts, but that element is abruptly dropped. Never very believable, the transparency of the hook feels almost insulting. To Rushdie, I say it looks as if he simply lost interest in that aspect of the plot.

“No, no,” he corrects me pityingly. “It’s called misleading you. I’m interested in the idea of setting up expectations and then deflecting them. Because, first of all, it’s enjoyable to do it, but also because it has some relationship to life, which sets up expectations and then that’s not how it goes!”

Having failed the analytical portion of my Lit Crit exam, I have a go at Compare and Contrast. In its more reflective passages, Fury recalls another novel about a foreign intellectual in New York — Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, published in 1970. It’s not often that you begin a book and are immediately reminded of another book, but this, I suggest to Rushdie, is one of those times.

“Well, yes, you’re right about that,” he concedes, explaining that although he knows the Bellow novel well, the similarity never occurred to him when he was writing Fury.

“Did somebody point this out to you?” I ask.

“No. I pointed it out. Like the day after I finished it. I thought, ‘Oh!’ And then I kind of worried about it: ‘Is that a problem?’ Then I thought, ‘No, fuck it, it is not a problem.’”

Rushdie’s right, of course. It isn’t a problem. The problem is that while Mr. Artur Sammler’s ruminations are gripping and profound, and provocatively at odds with the fashionable thinking of the era, Professor Malik Solanka’s feel tinny and superficial, not much different from those to be found inside any number of professorial heads parked inside overpriced Upper West Side apartments:

 

Who paved Paradise and put up a parking lot? Who settled for George W. Gush’s boredom and Al Bore’s gush? Who let Charlton Heston out of his cage and then asked why children were getting shot? What, America, of the Grail?

 

Presuming that Rushdie must have walked those streets as much as his protagonist, I ask him what he saw during his summer amid the economic frenzy of New York. What did this moment of “extreme excitement, great transformation” look like?

“I think what I felt was that it was oddly unhappy,” he replies. “This time of incredible national and economic and cultural success didn’t satisfy. And out of that dissatisfaction it was easy to see could come, and often did come, anger. So there was a little germ there for me to talk about. But at the same time, I wanted to suggest that this idea of fury is not just about anger. It’s also about creativity and passion, and I felt that also in that summer in New York. One of my views about people is that what we’ve done to socialize ourselves is to put around ourselves this little hard shell which is our civilized entities, but that beneath that is the covered wildness, which is what I call fury. Not only in a bad way — it’s the fury that changes the world, the fury that creates great art and passionate love. It’s ecstasy as much as rage.”

Rushdie has lived in Manhattan for about two years now. (Thanks to his girlfriend’s acting career, he also spends time in L.A.) I ask him if anything about life in the States has surprised him. The answer is: not really. Or rather, the surprises have been oddly trivial, Seinfeldian ones.

“You walk into a supermarket, everything is different. There are almost no familiar brands. Everything is differently packaged. You go to the toilet-paper section, and you don’t know which is the good toilet paper. In England I would know. At the most basic level, you have to re-learn the entire structure of everyday life. And that’s very difficult. It’s different in every respect — the way you pay taxes, the way you pay phone bills. The fact that you’re billed monthly instead of quarterly feels like an assault. If you’re used to having your bills coming every three months, the fact that they come every month feels rude! ‘What do you mean I owe you more money? I just paid you!’ At that level it’s very interesting, because you have to re-learn the most basic things. The big things are relatively easy. [The small] stuff is tough. Because your reference points are all different, your expectations are all different. In tiny ways — tiny but crucial.”

Or perhaps just very, very small.

Salman Rushdie reads from Fury at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 Sepulveda Blvd., on Friday, September 14, at 7:30 p.m. For info, call TKTK.

 

FURY | By SALMAN RUSHDIE Random House | 259 pages $25 hardcover


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