Salman Rushdie Rocks, and the Earth Moves-a Bit

The Ground Beneath Her Feet , by Salman Rushdie. Henry Holt, 575 pages, $27.50.

A slow moderating trend in Iranian politics at last resulted in the cancellation of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. At least that’s the idea. I pray all the mullahs heard the word. On the assumption that Mr. Rushdie will be allowed to live out his natural lifespan, I feel O.K. pointing out that from start to finish the whole thing was like a gimcrack Rushdie fable, some exotic Rushdie catch hauled up from the sea of stories: the writer who grew visible by vanishing.

In nine years of fatwa , Mr. Rushdie published five books. He wrote plenty of reviews, and we read about him constantly. In London in 1994, I saw him at two literary parties in as many days. Soon afterward, back in Manhattan, I stood and applauded him at a New York Public Library reception. What sort of hiding is this, Salman-ji? Thanks to the Ayatollah Khomeini, Mr. Rushdie became a nabob, with the best table in the house. Only he couldn’t make a reservation.

When the experience of living under that miserable fatwa finds a place in Mr. Rushdie’s fiction, it will really be payback time, pataphysics squared. In the meantime, we have The Ground Beneath Her Feet , presumably the last book to be born in Mr. Rushdie’s fecund captivity. The Ground Beneath Her Feet is another of the author’s playful and baggy riffs on the novel. It is not his best, but it’s not bad. It’s got all of Mr. Rushdie’s wondrous narrative tricks, his flirtations with postmodernism: the hyper-aware narrator, the story that seems all seams, lots of foreshadowing and back-cutting and that great magpie vocabulary of the former colonial with flypaper for ears. The drawback is the basic narrative, a comic epic starring star-crossed pop stars Vina Apsara and Ormus Cama, as narrated by their childhood friend Rai, a photographer with a Rushdie-like gift for puns. As Bertolt Brecht said so memorably, “Boy meets girl. So what?”

It all begins in a maternity ward in Bombay in the 1930’s. Lady Spenta Cama, wife of a prestigious Parsi lawyer, is pregnant. But the baby–Gayomart, she plans to call him–arrives stillborn. The delivery of his tiny corpse is quickly followed by a surprise: There was another baby in the womb. Thus Ormus Cama makes his entrance into the world over his twin’s dead body. Meanwhile, V.V. Merchant and Ameer Merchant (no relation) have come to visit Lady Spenta at her bedside. They fall in love and marry, but their personalities turn out to be more different than the echo of their family names would suggest. V.V. is an archeologist, Ameer a developer. Their baby, little Rai, grows up torn between past and present, India and America, nostalgia and hope.

Soon Vina, a half-Greek, half-Indian girl born in America, comes to live with her father’s distant relatives in Bombay. Vina happened to be out when her mother murdered her entire family and then committed suicide, so she (Vina) shares with Ormus and Rai a lively respect for the power of fate. When she meets Ormus outside a record shop, they fall in love. The harmony of The Ground Beneath Her Feet is the flow of Rai’s observations on culture, history and personality. The melody is the love duet of composer Ormus and singer Vina. The grace notes are Mr. Rushdie’s risky potshots at his tormentors. He decries the “public crooks” of India. He taunts “the men with the heavy weaponry … all those arnolds carrying terminators, all those zealous suicidists with their toilet-brush beards.” He blasphemes. In my favorite passage in the book, Rai apostrophizes: “Let’s not invent anything as cruel, vicious, vengeful, intolerant, unloving, immoral and arrogant as God just to explain a stroke of dumb, undeserved luck. I don’t need some multi-limbed Cosmic Dancer or white-bearded Ineffable, some virgin-raping metamorphic Thunderbolt Hurler or world-destroying flood and fire Maniac, to take the credit for saving my skin. Nobody saved the other fellow, did they? Nobody saved the Indochinese or the Angkorans or the Kennedys or the Jews.” Go, Salman, go!

When the lovers leave Bombay and chase one another around the world, Rai, half in love with each, follows to record it all. Ormus works at a pirate radio station off the coast of England. Then, a car wreck leaves him in a coma from which only Vina’s kiss can wake him. They move to New York, make the club scene. They form the band VTO, whose album Quakershaker is the best selling disk since the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band . Quakershaker turns out to be more than just a hit. It is a portent. A series of earthquakes follow its success, culminating in the “great earthquake of ’89,” which cuts the ground away from beneath the ill-fated Vina’s feet.

The surge of earthquakes is part of the shifting fault line between magic and realism in The Ground Beneath Her Feet . Gayomart, the stillborn twin, enjoys an afterlife worthy of a Stephen King novel. Ormus can’t get him out of his head, literally. He brain-waves to Ormus the next big pop tune, and Ormus goes on to compose it. The gift takes practice. While still in Bombay, Ormus almost scoops Bob Dylan on “Blowin’ in the Wind.” He gets the tune but mishears the words (“The ganja, my hemp, is growing in the tin; the ganja is growing in the tin”). But he composes “Yesterday” faultlessly just ahead of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. He becomes a huge and secretive international star. “How could he say,” Rai points out, “I have a dead twin, I follow him in my dreams, he sings, I listen, and these days I’m getting better at hearing the words. Getting better all the time.” There it is: Thanks to Gayomart, Ormus’ career comes together. (Heh, heh.)

This is where Mr. Rushdie loses me. Ormus claims that he lives in the same world as Vina and Rai. With Gayomart’s help, however, he can also see through to an alternate reality, like a tear in a movie screen. In the world they all share, Oswald’s rifle jams, England sends troops to Vietnam, and Joseph Heller writes a novel called Catch-18 . In the world he can glimpse only sometimes, everything is more like our History 101. J.F.K. dies in Dallas, England sits out Indochina, etc. What purpose do these alterations serve? Realities are fungible and subjective, I’m hip to that, but I don’t see how that matters in this case. You could write a book in which the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building changed places and all the New York taxis were painted green, but what would you have really changed?

Perhaps that’s why this book failed to hold me in the end, despite its many wonders. Mr. Rushdie’s best novels, Midnight’s Children and Shame , have a casual feel, but the vision that created them is highly concentrated and pure. Every gambit pays off. The Ground Beneath Her Feet is hit-or-miss. It alternates great scenes and longueurs . Over all, it’s far stronger on Bombay and childhood than on New York and rock. It’s always just a little too absorbed by its own ingenuity, a little too pleased by what it’s taking on, a little too there-for-its-own-sake. I prefer my magic realism with less ghee-whiz.