Rage Ruins Rushdie’s Day; His New York Novel Sputters

Fury , by Salman Rushdie. Random House, 259 pages, $24.95.

So what’s Salman Rushdie been up to in New York? Having some well-earned fun, for the most part. Putting the fatwa behind him, he has taken his pick of the city’s restaurants and nightspots and unleashed some of his famously loose-limbed dancing. Seeking solace for his failed marriage, he has found it in the arms of a new girlfriend–the beautiful Indian cookery writer Padma Lakshmi, whose determination to halt the misuse of turmeric is matched only by her ability to halt traffic.

But now we have evidence of graft; a new novel, slim but palpable enough, about a world-renowned, middle-aged intellectual who comes to New York in flight from a failed marriage and finds solace in the arms of a young Indian woman so beautiful she can bring Central Park to its knees: “[A]ll around them dog walkers were colliding with trees, Tai Chi practitioners lost their balance, rollerbladers smashed into one another and people out strolling just walked right into the pond.” All in all, then, your basic magic realism.

For a book with its genesis in such sweet midlife renascence, Fury seems to find Mr. Rushdie in an oddly fractious mood. “Life is fury: sexual, Oedipal, political, magical,” thinks its hero, professor Malik Solanka, who arrives in New York “in search of silence,” which is a bit like going to Venice for the hot dogs. What he gets, of course, is a really bad headache, and Gotham painted in its traditional Hellfire Red: screaming traffic, soaring temperatures and a serial killer preying on Manhattan’s “It” girls. Mr. Rushdie allows the finger of suspicion to swing the way of his hero–who has been suffering from mysterious blackouts–although seasoned readers will, of course, recognize instantly that the killer is firmly of the symbolic persuasion, designed to exemplify all the suppressed rage that courses through the city like electricity. In fact, seasoned readers–having made note of the book’s title and spotted the imminent embrace between a Major Novelist and His Theme–will know to stand well back, fearful of any injuries they may sustain in the crush.

It has to be said: The observation that New York runs on rivers of rage will not exactly come as news to most New Yorkers (hey, and guess what? The cabs are on the yellow side, too), although there’s still pleasure to be had in seeing an acclaimed writer–one whose reputation girdles the globe several times over–allowing himself to grow distinctly pink in the face. Mr. Rushdie’s fulminations on everything from Elián González to Monica Lewinsky testify, if nothing else, to quite heroic amounts of time in front of the TV. The book is weaker when it comes to actual street life, here represented by a spunky young beauty called Mila, who spots Solanka fuming outside his Upper West Side sublet and blows his foam straight back in his face: “For an apostle of peace you sure are filled up with war.” It’s Mr. Rushdie’s version of the patented Bellovian two-step, first perfected in Herzog : introduce your lead character as a self-absorbed grouch, then have another character (preferably a beautiful woman) tick him off for grouchy self-absorption, thus winning you points for self-scouring candor–or else opening you up to the charge of being a complete smartass.

The view is rather more focused when Mr. Rushdie rests his eye on beautiful women. In fact, the view is just great. First we have Mila, a strawberry-blond Yugoslav with green eyes, strong cheekbones and a father fixation, who takes up residence in Solanka’s lap and then just takes it from there. Mila, though, is merely the warm-up for Neela. Neela is the traffic hazard, “the most beautiful Indian woman–the most beautiful woman –he had ever seen,” thinks Solanka. As they take their stroll around Central Park–that trail of double takes and slapstick routines unfurling in her wake–you sense a rather sweet-tempered comic novel warming up in the spring air around them.

Mr. Rushdie has other plans, however. Neela does rejuvenate Solanka and gently guide him up the slopes of literary endeavor, but the book she inspires him to write is an allegorical sci-fi novel-within-a-novel about some folk called the Puppet Kings of the Rijk. Now let’s be clear on this: Sci-fi novels-within-novels about alternative-reality Puppet Kings are all well and good, but only up to a point, and only on the condition that no reader is ever brought within 100 yards of the thing. Mr. Rushdie not only gives us whole chunks of Solanka’s work in progress, but at one point we even get an entire chapter –a strong contender for the most skippable chapter of the year.

Doubtless, all this is designed to make us ponder afresh the fine line between fiction and reality– that old chestnut, fiction’s answer to the Hundred Years’ War–although it also bears a suspicious resemblance to an author doodling distractedly in the middle of his own book, unable to concentrate on the task at hand. And from here on, the novel peels apart like an orange. On the one hand, we have the continuing exploits of Akasz Kronos, cybernetist of the Rijk, his queen Zameen and their dealings with those dreary Puppet Kings; and on the other hand, we have New York, sitting there cold-shouldered, unobserved, unnoticed at the party. In other words, what we have is Salman Rushdie’s talent, neatly bifurcated: on the one hand, magic, and on the other, realism–but unfortunately, the two aren’t on speaking terms at the moment.

Maybe it was just never meant to be, although you could be forgiven your excitement at the prospect: one of the great chroniclers of city life, writing about the greatest city in the world, and what do we get? A modest 259 pages, which you polish off in an afternoon. You finish it thinking: Is that it ? The telling comparison is, of course, with Martin Amis, who arrived in New York, took one huge gusting inhalation of American vernacular and came up with his best novel, Money , a real shark of a book–beady of eye, sharp of incisor, sleek and sleepless. Fury , by comparison, feels fuzzy and unfocused, as if it had been woken up after a long nap (maybe that’s why it’s so angry), and Mr. Rushdie’s attempts to get up to speed with the city’s chatter–its endless roundelay of gossip and buzz–have more than a touch of the disco-dancing uncle to them: “Did you hear about Griffin and his great big beautiful Dahl? … What, Nina’s planning to launch a perfume ? But she’s over , she’s starting to smell like roadkill … And Meg and Dennis, just moved to Splitsville …. ” As for his dialogue, well, one really doesn’t know what to say: “All the money and power is in there, an’ when dey snaps dey fingers, boy, de planet it start jumpin’.”

That’s supposed to be an African-American journalist named Jack Rhinehart–celebrity profiler for the high-grade glossies–although in his defense, Mr. Rushdie at least has the decency to admit to the cartoonishness of the caricature (“It was Rhinehart’s habit from time to time to slip into an Eddie Murphy-meets-Br’er Rabbit manner, for emphasis or fun”). Mr. Rushdie has always had a penchant for brightly colored cartoon characters, of course, and over a large canvas you don’t notice their lack of depth: You’re too busy being swept along by his flashy puppeteering skills, caught up in the weave of his jauntily discordant Babels. Fury ‘s small scale, however, leaves his flaws ruthlessly exposed, and when he does turn his attention to the vexed issue of his characters’ psychology, he gets himself in a fine old mess: “This was the heart of her, the daughter who sought to compensate her father for the loss of the woman he loved, no doubt in part to assuage her own loss by clinging to the parent who remained, but also to supplant that woman in this man’s affections, to fill the forbidden, vacated maternal space more fully than it had been filled by her dead mother.” Whoa there!

The scale of this book really is something of a mystery. New York would seem to be such a great subject for Mr. Rushdie, and a perfect summation of all his themes: his fascination with Panglossian, polyglot cities; ersatz, self-forged identities; and vast melting-pot populations. But then maybe that’s why his performance here is so muted. He doesn’t really need to write a New York novel, having spent most of his career writing it. All the bejeweled embellishments he brought to Delhi or London are, in New York, quite literally true. Multiculturalism may be big news in London, but here it’s a fact of life. Salman Rushdie and his adoptive city cancel each other out: Reality here is quite magical enough already.

Tom Shone was a film critic for The Times of London. He is now a contributing writer at Talk.