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In appreciation of Salman Rushdie's joyous rock novel

August 26, 2009 |  7:00 am

Salmanrushdie_2005

Of all the problems Salman Rushdie has faced, being too critically beloved probably wouldn’t make the top 10. It does present some inconveniences, though -- the critical consensus is that he’ll never top "Midnight’s Children," his 1981 novel widely, and correctly, considered to be a masterpiece of the English language. As a result, he frequently gets the same criticism as so many rock musicians: "This is good, but I liked your earlier work better."

OK, so he's not, in all likelihood, going to top "Midnight’s Children"; few others will, either. But that's no reason to ignore, or look down on, his subsequent books, every single one of which is great in its own way. While his other books haven't been ignored, exactly -- "The Satanic Verses" tends to stick out in people's minds, because of ... well, you know -- but some didn’t get quite the attention they deserved. In 1999, he wrote what could well be the greatest rock 'n' roll novel of all time, and maybe the second-best book of his career: "The Ground Beneath Her Feet."

Granted, the book didn’t starve for attention; nothing he writes does, exactly. Neither did it want for glowing reviews. The back cover of the paperback version boasts this encomium from Michael Pakenham of the Baltimore Sun: "It's the best thing ever written about rock and roll."

It is not. But it is close. I've certainly never read any rock 'n' roll fiction as brilliant as "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," though Don DeLillo's "Great Jones Street," in its best moments, doesn't miss the mark by much. Other critics weren’t quite as kind as Pakenham, but they generally liked the novel, with reservations. One notable exception was Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, who called the book "strangely hollow" and "decidedly disappointing."

The haters, and even the lovers-with-reservations, are wrong. The story of two legendary rock musicians -- American-born Vina Apsara and her sometimes lover, Bombay native Ormus Cama -- "The Ground Beneath Her Feet" is a novel suffused with the kind of wild, manic and barely tamed energy that any self-respecting rocker would trade his soul to the devil for.

Rushdie has as much fun with English language as any living author; not coincidentally, he seems to understand the secret language behind rock 'n' roll more than any other novelist of his generation. He describes Cama -- who seems to be a fictionalized cross between Elvis Presley and John Lennon -- thusly:

He was a musical sorcerer whose melodies could make city streets begin to dance and high buildings sway to their rhythm, a golden troubadour the jouncy poetry of whose lyrics could unlock the very gates of Hell; he incarnated the singer and songwriter as shaman and spokesman, and became the age’s unholy unfool.

That had to be fun to write.

Nearly every sentence in this book had to be fun to write, and his obvious joy, not just in the language, but also in the music, the story, the vicarious thrill of being (for a few hundred pages) a rock star himself -- that all had to be fun.

And that's why this book is so great, why it surpasses most of his published work to date. Readers can always tell when the author cares, and when the author is, for lack of a better phrase, in love with his characters and his subject matter. Rushdie has never been this much in love with the written word, and the result is a novel that comes very, very close to explaining rock 'n' roll. Before I read this novel, 10 years ago, I would have said that was an impossible task. I won’t say that now.

In a 1999 essay entitled "Rock Music -- A Sleeve Note," Rushdie sniffed, "I don't subscribe to the lyrics-are-poetry school of rock aficionado overclaiming." I do, and some days I might go so far as to say that the rockers now have the upper hand. After I reread "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," I'd guess that Rushdie wasn't being entirely honest with himself. His love for rock 'n' roll is gloriously unconcealed in this novel; it's the kind of love and ardor that poets, not mere entertainers, can inspire. He's a rock fan, and this novel proves he's the kind of fan who accepts that music can change the world, not just sell records and land its artists on magazine covers. In terms of art, and in terms of joy, it's hard to overclaim the effect that people like John Lennon, like Lou Reed, like David Bowie can have on society. That's what being a fan is about, and Rushdie knows it. That’s poetry -- just like this book. 

-- Michael Schaub

Michael Schaub is a freelance writer and a contributor to the literary webzine and blog Bookslut. He lives in Portland, Ore., where he infrequently updates his Twitter feed.

Photo: Salman Rushdie in 2005. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times

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