The Magazine

Pale Fury

Why Salman Rushdie never lives up to his promise.

Oct 1, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 03 • By JUSTIN TORRES
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THE ONLY INTERESTING QUESTION left to ask about Salman Rushdie is: How can a writer so good be so bad? There are passages in Rushdie’s novels that are among the best of the past quarter century: funny and moving and written with real verve. He is a prodigiously talented prose stylist with a remarkable ear and broad knowledge. But his novels can also be simply awful. Even in his best books, whole passages are pretentious, slow, confusing, and overwrought. His worst books are close to unreadable.

Why is this so? His latest novel, Fury—the story of an Indian professor who walks out of his marriage and leaves London for New York—points to an explanation: Rushdie’s fascination with the techniques and tropes of postmodernism.

When he gets into trouble, it’s not because words have failed him, but because his ideas have overpowered his words. Rushdie’s natural lyricism and comedic touch get lost in all the reworking of history, double vision, and imperfect narration that marks literary postmodernism. It is as though his determination to check down the list of postmodern techniques distracts him from what he does best: telling good stories well. All of his books suffer from this fault to some degree, but his recent novels are seriously flawed by it. Rushdie has become, in a sense, a victim of his own success.

What was striking twenty years ago is merely conventional now that all the new Indian writers—especially Anita Desai, Vikram Seth, and Arundhati Roy—have caught what critic Pankaj Mishra calls "Rushdieitis." Indeed, in an acerbic commentary, Mishra claims that Rushdie has caught his own disease, becoming in his most recent novels a parody of himself.

Midnight’s Children (1981), Rushdie’s break-out novel, remains a gem of a book—a beautifully written, darkly comic allegory of Indian history that explores the "double parentage" of postcolonial writing.
The novel is a retelling of Indian history through the life of Saleem Sinai, who was born on August 15, 1947, as India declared its independence from Britain: "On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came....I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country. For the next three decades, there was to be no escape. Soothsayers had prophesied me, newspapers celebrated my arrival, politicos ratified my authenticity....And I couldn’t even wipe my own nose at the time."

Saleem can communicate through his thoughts with the precisely one thousand other children born at that moment, and they become a kind of prophetic class within India. But during a political crisis, they are targeted by a sterilization campaign led by Indira Ghandi and her son, Sanjay, and driven to ruin.

DESPITE ITS CONTEMPORARY SETTING, Midnight’s Children didn’t pretend to be realistic; its fable-like qualities spring naturally from the largely Eastern sources it draws upon. But it is nonetheless a classic postcolonial tale. The thousand and one children, like the postcolonial societies of which India is one example, exist uneasily among their contemporaries because they are caught between the past and the future. Critics hailed the book as the beginning of a new era in third-world literature. In a much-quoted review in the New York Times, Clark Blaise announced that reading Rushdie was like hearing "a continent finding its voice," and no one was surprised when Midnight’s Children received the 1981 Booker Prize and later the "Booker of Bookers" for the best novel to receive the award in twenty-five years.

But already there were critics, mostly Indian, who suggested that Rushdie had taken unacceptable liberties with the history, culture, and traditions of his native land. Editorialists railed that Midnight’s Children misrepresented Indian history and played fast and loose with Indian religious myths. Most irritating to some was the book’s habit of rendering the peculiarities of subcontinental English in a sing-song patois that called to mind Western stereotypes of Indian speech patterns. (The book’s fiercest critic, of course, was Indira Gandhi, who sued in British courts for libel and won; only her assassination in 1984 saved Rushdie from paying significant money damages.) But the saving grace of Midnight’s Children was its comedy. Only those with no humor—or not like Indira Gandhi, on the receiving end of Rushdie’s barbs—could read it as an attempt at literary realism.

With much more deadly results, the same charges of novelistic plunder of cultural riches would be lodged against The Satanic Verses (1988) by Muslim fundamentalists, who objected to Rushdie’s reimagining of the birth of a religion that sounds a great deal like Islam.