Rushdie's rock opera
Can this "writer for the ages" still hear the music?
by Eric Grode
THE GROUND BENEATH HER FEET, by Salman Rushdie. Henry Holt &
Co., 575 pages, $26.
The opening earthquake sequence of The Ground Beneath Her Feet, with its
tequila-flooded deserts and disquisitions on the myth of Orpheus, confirms
Salman Rushdie's abilities as a first-rate foreshadower. But no matter how
revealing his allusions are, the expected conclusions still somehow surprise
you in the end. If only they had lived up to the advance billing this time.
The first half of the book finds Rushdie on solid (and welcome) ground:
corralling a hodgepodge of expertly drawn characters in the streets of Bombay.
These Dickensian chapters sketch out the lineages of the three main characters:
Ormus Cama, the preternaturally gifted musician born with a dead twin and
apocalyptic visions (shades of Elvis and Bob Dylan, plus a little Brian
Wilson); Vina Apsara, the hard-luck, golden-voiced wild child transplanted from
America (think three parts Madonna to one part Selena); and Rai Merchant, the
tone-deaf photojournalist who drifts in and out of Vina's life.
Fans of Midnight's Children or any of Rushdie's other novels won't be
disappointed by the supporting cast waiting in the wings here, or by the wealth
of plot details. We quickly learn of assignations and Musical Muscle Control,
murderous mothers and brothers, obsessions with digging into the ground and
climbing into the sky -- all the factors that will turn Rai into a rationalist
photographer able to look "beyond the trappings of the actual, and penetrate to
its bloody flesh and heart," and Ormus and Vina into VTO, the Greatest Rock
All three break away from their families and make their way west about halfway
through the book. Unfortunately, they leave all the really interesting people
behind. Rai has a fair amount to offer, largely because his voyeuristic career
naturally gives voice to Rushdie's manic recollections and heart-rending
confessions. But Ormus's monastic devotion to his music and to Vina leaves him
dramatically inert, and Vina is reduced to a populist dervish, content "to roar
and suck and boo and preen and demolish and cheerlead and revolutionise and
innovate and flash and boast and scold." This laundry list demonstrates how
enamored Rai is of Vina; it also shows why the reader may not share his
One of Rushdie's less successful conceits is to set the story in a cutesy
alternate reality, where people listen to Carly Simon and Guinevere Garfunkel,
where Watergate is a fictional MacGuffin and Kennedy lives, where Nathan
Zuckerman and Yossarian are authors and Dr. T.J. Eckleburg is an actual
optician. The importance of creating this parallel world becomes clear near the
end as Ormus's visions intensify -- the reappearance of the world as we know it
might not be such a good thing here, tectonically speaking -- but it too often
comes off as a series of cheap in-jokes.
The biggest problem with the book, though, is its depiction of the music
world. The minutiae of the business -- the anarchic self-importance of pirate
radio, a war of financial attrition between moguls and managers -- ring true
enough, and Rushdie introduces a few choice characters along the way, but VTO
itself sounds like a ghastly mix of John, Yoko, U2, and ELO.
Rushdie's ear, usually so finely tuned to the blending sounds and tones of the
world around him, utterly fails him here. Vacillating between bare-bones
descriptions and transcendental reveries that fail to give any real sense of
what the music's really like, Rushdie portrays concerts that resemble Def
Leppard shows. And the lyrics? Rai hedges his bets here -- "set down on the
page without their music," he concedes, "they seem kind of spavined, even
hamstrung." But much earlier, he notes lovingly that his mother, despite her
terrible singing voice, "was always convinced of the deep meanings hidden in
euphony and rhyme: that is to say, she was a popster manqué." So
how can somebody conscious of the resonance of song lyrics give any credence to
this chunk, from a song that supposedly took on anthemic significance during
They made peace in the other world too. (Baby I've got one of my own.) Ain't
no better than it is for you. (Good to know we're not alone.) Well the war is
over and the battle's through. (But I can't reach you on the phone.)
Rushdie's erudition, while impressive as ever, works against him as the
focus narrows. The Vina/Ormus love story is pedestrian enough on its own terms,
and it becomes even smaller within the context of the retelling of the Orpheus
and Eurydice story, not to mention the parallel Hindu myths.
The tedious portions of The Ground Beneath Her Feet become all the more
frustrating when compared to its glorious opening half. When Rushdie chooses to
write about what he knows -- the rambunctious grotesqueries of street life, the
vicissitudes of fate that continue to haunt decades later -- he can't be
topped. But too often he comes across as an old-timer standing in the corner of
the local hot spot, snapping his fingers off the beat, half knowing it and half
thinking that his very presence renders him sufficiently cool. He's still a
writer for the ages; it's just his generation that gives him trouble.
Eric Grode is a freelance writer living in New York. His reviews have
appeared in the Wall Street Journal.