April 4 1999 BOOKS

Losing the plot

The Ground beneath Her Feet
by Salman Rushdie
Cape £18 pp575

Peter Kemp

A graph of Salman Rushdie's literary career would look like a roller coaster. Highs and lows alternate dramatically. His first novel, Grimus (1975), a ramshackle surreal saga based on a 12th-century Sufi poem and copiously encrusted with mythic and literary allusion, nosedived into oblivion amid almost universal critical derision. With his next book, Midnight's Children (1981), he won the Booker prize and was acclaimed as our master writer of post-colonial fiction. Shame (1983), in which Rushdie's attention turned from the post-independence India of his youth to the Pakistan to which his family had migrated, further heightened his near-iconic status. He was celebrated - and among Third World writers widely imitated - as the author who most thrillingly put the post-colonial scene on the literary map.

A prominent feature of that scene, migration, gave Rushdie his subject for The Satanic Verses (1988), a novel largely set in the West and written, he said, from his own experience of "uprooting" and "disjuncture" as a young Indian at Rugby public school and King's College, Cambridge. With cruel irony, its publication drastically increased his experience of uprooting and disjuncture. Denouncing sections of the book as blasphemous, Islamic theocrats piously put a £2.5m price on his head. To escape murder, he was forced to lead a fugitive's life for almost a decade.

Oddly, and impressively, books Rushdie published during his time in hiding - Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), his engaging children's-fable-cum-literary-manifesto, and The Moor's Last Sigh (1995), his fictional return to India - showed a marked upsurge of imaginative élan. Both have a liveliness absent from The Satanic Verses, whose turbid prolixity was unenthusiastically received by reviewers. Both are triumphs of indomitability.

With the recent lifting of the fatwa, Rushdie's personal fortunes have taken a welcome upturn. But, true to his propensity for extreme ups and downs, his new novel, The Ground beneath Her Feet, constitutes a steep literary downturn. Its subject is the turbulent relationship of a "wild rock goddess", Vina Apsara, and a "public love god", Ormus Cama, who composes and performs rock music. Their story, Rushdie misses no opportunity of reminding you, is a modern version of the Orpheus and Eurydice legend. Talk of bacchic rites, descents to the underworld and bringings back from the dead extensively ensures that you don't lose the mythological plot.

The guiding principle of this novel seems to be to hammer home its points with pitiless frequency and heavy-handedness; hundreds of mythological references are embedded in the text. Allusions to gods and legendary beings stick out everywhere. When a boy offers an apple to three girls on a Bombay beach, the Judgment of Paris is evoked. A malign woman's destruction of her sons because her husband has abandoned her activates instant cross-reference to Medea's revenge on Jason. "The killing of your children to spite their father. It's like something out of a book," it is helpfully pointed out, for readers slower on the uptake. The book which that episode is most "like something out of" is, in fact, a mythological dictionary, a hefty volume of which seems to have got scrambled into Rushdie's computer software when writing this novel. Ormus's father, you learn with a sinking heart, is researching "the relationships between the Homeric and Indian mythological traditions". Sure enough, reams of analogies between Greek and Hindu legend are soon being wodged into the sagging narrative.

At the opposite extreme, the book indulges itself equally enormously in facetiousness and whimsy. Its characters exist in a slightly alternative universe to our own. In their world, President Kennedy isn't shot (Oswald's gun jams). Watergate is just a novel. Rock pioneers include Joe Haley and the Meteors. Heartbreak Hotel is written and performed by Jesse Parker (managed by Colonel Presley), Satisfaction is by John Lennon.

The pointless prankishness apparent in these doodlings lavishly manifests itself elsewhere, too. A musical impresario chortlingly named Yul Singh is accompanied by relatives called Will Singh, Kant Singh, Gota Singh, Wee Singh etc. This penchant for phonetic farce can lead to bizarre bloopers. A vulgar tycoon is supposedly prone to comic mispronunciations ("phamily phortunes . . . phuture . . . philthy"). But since these words are pronounced exactly the same whether spelt with a ph or f, the attempted joke phalls phlat. Alertness to the spoken word is not this novel's forte. An upper-class Englishman in 1940 says that he feels "a little disoriented", although, of course, he wouldn't have used Rushdie's Americanism but said "disorientated". Such sloppiness of detail goes along with slack prose. Chunks of the book seem written in triplicate ("eternal, undying, immortal", "walls, boundaries, restraints", "poisonous, degrading, defiling"). Earthquake metaphors also prove widely useful in covering the pages.

Even more than Rushdie's previous novels, this book is pervasively crackle-glazed with images of splits. "We live on a broken mirror, and fresh cracks appear in its surface every day", it is asserted. In our "quaking, unreliable time", "tectonic contradictoriness . . . has gotten into us all". In tune with this, Ormus records "earthquake songs" and issues an album called Quakershaker. An implicit pun throughout the book links rock'n'roll with the rolling rocks of earthquakes. Among Ormus's many out-of-the-ordinary features (a "magic bruise" on his face, a supernatural aura, eyes each of which peers into a different dimension) is the fact that his musical inspiration comes from his dead twin who telepathically transmits to him songs (Yesterday, Eve of Destruction, I Got You Babe) 1,001 nights before they are released on disc. The number 1,001 (which regularly pops up in Rushdie's fiction) signals his ambition to produce work on a par with The 1,001 Nights. Burstingly miscellaneous and hailing from a diversity of cultures, the stories Scheherazade narrates to fend off beheading seem to him a model that post-colonial fiction should aspire to. But a central element of The Arabian Nights' appeal - gripping story-telling - remains outside Rushdie's range. If Scheherazade had narrated a Rushdie novel to her homicidal lover she would have been lucky to have kept her head on her shoulders for a night.

This novel is packed with luridly sensational material - a serial murderer, several other killers, suicides, financial mayhem, global cataclysms and a spectral nymphomaniac who keeps nipping in from an adjacent dimension. But, impeded by the book's convoluted structure and congested prose, none of it carries any impact.The semi-surreal literary style Rushdie favours is, he has claimed, a way of intensifying reality. But, on the evidence of this book, it would be difficult to hit upon a more thoroughgoing way of enfeebling it. Emotional substance, psychological complexity and social actuality are drained away. Characters are just melodramatic figments or flat stereotypes. Many of these stereotypes (raunchy sexpot, devilishly vengeful woman, malign business moguls, stock Raj types) are familiar from earlier Rushdie novels. So are most of this book's ideas. Fixated on the need for metamorphosis and mobility, Rushdie again profusely reiterates the benefits he considers they bring.

One new theme is put centre stage: the power of love. But, since Ormus is merely an allegorical appliance assembled from symbolic bits and pieces, and Vina (created by fictional spare-part surgery from assorted rock divas, with some borrowings from the Diana cult) is never more than a cliché in leather pants and gold-sequinned bustier, their "strangely obstructed love" is far from absorbing. Despite this, his prose keeps going swimmy-eyed as it contemplates the couple ("Love made them irresistible, unforgettable . . . people fell silent, in awe"). There are outbursts even Barbara Cartland might blench at: "Oh my long-lost love. You did not trust me and I was wounded, proud, I let you go away. Now I must prove myself worthy, I must perform labours, pursue quests."

On occasion, Rushdie's skills as a prose writer flicker vividly into view. During an earthquake, cracks "scurried like lizards along the walls", streets snake and crack like whips. But, apart from such reminders of what his imagination is capable of, there is little else to relish here. Although this novel massively mixes Greek myth and rock legend, it is far from fabulous.

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