In our world, on Valentine’s Day, 1989, Salman Rushdie went underground after the Ayatollah Khomeini declared his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, a blasphemy against Islam and sentenced Rushdie to death.
In another world, on Valentine’s Day, 1989, in Rushdie’s epic fable The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Vina Apsara goes underground too. Vina, a pop diva of a certain age, is caught in an earthquake in Mexico, falls into a hole, and dies.
Applied to Rushdie, the phrase ”autobiographical novel” has a special meaning; his breakthrough book, Midnight’s Children (1981), was inspired by the coincidence of the dates of his birth and of the independence of India, his native country. So consider the synchronization of Vina’s disappearance with that of her creator a signal that this brilliant new novel is about subterranean homesickness, about underworldliness and dislocation. It communicates profound loss and ardent longing beautifully, and does so by inflecting ancient myth with science fiction.
Zooming his personal brand of fable up to a Pynchonesque level of paranormality, Rushdie imagines a 20th century nearly identical to ours but fantastically distinct. The heartthrob who sings ”Heartbreak Hotel,” for instance, is Sun Records’ Jesse Garon Parker. Nathan Zuckerman, the alter ego of Philip Roth, is a published novelist himself. Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle jams.
In this magic reality, Vina Apsara is one half of VTO, a duo whose Quakershaker ”invariably beats Sgt. Pepper into second place in the voting for best ever album.” Her partner — and, tempestuously, lover — is Ormus Cama, a musical visionary. That’s visionary in the literal sense: Ormus can see our world through ”the gash in the real” and can hear hit songs 1,001 nights before they chart by contacting his stillborn twin brother. The other main man in Vina’s wild life is Rai Merchant, her longtime friend and our narrator.
As ever, there’s sex and drugs to go with the rock & roll: tragic LSD trips, farcical nymphomaniacs, groupies who slip through the space-time continuum. (And what’s more, trivia fans, Rushdie here becomes the first Booker Prize-winning novelist with an arena-rock tie-in; his friends in U2 have appropriated some of VTO’s lyrics.) But the book is also devoted to the intertwined family sagas of Vina, Ormus, and Rai. The sweeping stories range from the dryly comic to the epically melodramatic — the whole rich, Dickensian stew of murder, fraud, betrayal, salvation. Rushdie writes like a wizard, and the book teems with virtuoso set pieces, including Vina and Ormus’ love-at-first-sight meeting at a Bombay record shop, the organic bustle of Bombay itself, and Rai’s investigation of a swindle called the Great Goat Scam.
All of these crisscross narratives make for a nicely dense read, even if the novel is over-dense with allusions. Billed as a retelling of the Orpheus myth, Rushdie’s book in fact references a whole spectrum of Greek, Norse, and Aztec legends. Also the Bible, the Koran, the Avesta, and the Bhagavad Gita. Not to mention Euripides, Melville, Joyce, Kerouac, Kurosawa, Godard, Fellini, Disney, Dylan, Donovan, Lou Reed, and Sid Vicious. The effect is sometimes distracting (is this book meant to be read or decoded?), and Rushdie’s mythical invocations only further aggrandize some already flamboyant rhetorical gestures. But the Ulysses-like name-dropping also evokes memories of dreams dreamt and heroes adored, stirring the same deep-felt rapture as a favorite silly love song.
And, ultimately, The Ground Beneath Her Feet is about the power of song itself, the promise that ”all frontiers would crumble before the sorcery of the tune.” Check out the tenderness of a teenage Vina searching for transcendence on the stereo: ”The music offered the tantalising possibility of being borne, on the waves of sound, through the curtain of maya that supposedly limits our knowing, through the gates of perception to the divine melody beyond.” Rushdie’s muse is still singing, and the effect is out of this world. A-