Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Salman Rushdie: Fury

The thing about Salman Rushdie, beyond fatwahs, personal life, literary awards and all tht jazz, is that he’s really, really good. He has this magnificent meandering prose, a talent for mythologising, enough oddness to fascinate and enough realism to drag you in.

You know, each time you crack open one of his books, that you’re going to get stories within stories that seem filled with as much emotion, laughter and symbolism as the whole of some other novels. You know that there will be some magic realist loopiness underlying the whole affair, accentuating the flaws and personalities of the characters, bringing them to what feels like more than life. You know, most of all, that you’re going to look quite clever reading it on the Tube.

And that’s one of the weird things: he has a reputation for being difficult, serious, obtuse - literary with a pretentious capital ‘l’. Yet he isn’t. Okay, he’s not exactly monosyllabic, and if you lose yourself in the middle of a sentence you might not find yourself again for a week, but this completely ignores that he’s basically rather good fun. There is activity, surprise, wit, and a sense of playing with the reader and the language. He simply does not write dull sentences, and a large part of me thinks that this, more than character, theme or plot, or is a writer’s real job.

With that in mind, I came to Fury

Fury
This isn't a perfect book, but it contains some wonderful things, and I think it makes an ideal starting place for anyone who quite fancies checking out Rushdie but thinks Midnight’s Children looks a bit heavy (literally or conceptually). Fury is a Salman Rushdie novel compressed into a smaller space and a smaller time, and I think it benefits from that, because the brevity reins in some of the tangential excesses of the longer works.

Rather than a whole nation, a whole history and a whirlwind of characters and sub-plots, you get New York, the turn of the millennium, and the wealthy, middle-aged Malik Solanka (Solly), who has fled his family to try to rid himself of a horrifying anger.

There are two halves to the narrative. The first half follows Solly as he swelters and rages in his swanky New York apartment, wanders the streets muttering to himself, and experiences the rush, the noise and, yes, the fury of New York at the height of its power. Solly is surrounded by life, in the form of stories – his cleaner, his plumber, his neighbours, and, terrifyingly, a series of high-society murders that coincide with Solly’s memory blackouts. The stories remind Solly that he is hiding from his own story, and the reasons for leaving behind his perfect family.

In the second half of the book, things start happening. There is a flurry of activity, including political upheavel in far-off lands, developments in the murder investigations, and, most importantly, shifts in Solly’s own relationships with his friends, family and lovers, in particular the three women, the furies, who are both his torment and his salvation.

Fiction, fantasy and lies
Solly’s attempts to escape from his troubles are accompanied by the reawakening of his creative talents. In younger days he created a doll, Little Brain, who became a worldwide phenomenon, but was taken out of his hands by the overwhelming power of money. The loss of Little Brain haunts Solly, but as Fury progresses he begins work on a new series of dolls, which at first reflect and later seem to come to control his life.

When, later on, the action shifts away from New York, it acquires a very different tone, and a very different kind of reality. The outside is more mythic, more shrouded in symbols and masks, as Swift’s fictional island, Liliput-Blefescu, becomes both a real place on earth and a fantasy within a fantasy, as its political troubles adopt the images and names of the fantastic, futuristic tales Solly begins to construct.

This is the other side of the book. As well as being about the pressure of the modern world, the modern city, it’s about the significance of fiction. The stories Solly tells become ways for him to understand his own life, just as the stories that Rushdie tells offer us, the readers, ways of interpreting the world. Fury is an argument for the unreal, a diatribe against dreary realists, and I admire that.

Loving and loathing
Rushdie novels often seem to have an enchanted, exaggerated view of love and sex: everyone is supernaturally beautiful, and engaged in tragic lusts and worshipful adorations. Here, the same pattern continues, but the book seems to demythologise the perfect, frequently tragic loves of Rushdie’s other novels: Solly is, to put it bluntly, a bit of a turd. He flits between a series of increasingly beautiful, ideal and idealised women, treats them all dreadfully, and still comes out looking like the injured party.

I’m not quite sure what to think of this. True, it makes sense and fits the setting: this, says Fury, is modern Western culture, where grand love is a combination of lust and mental illness, and where everything is a bit seedy, a bit freaky. But for all this justification, I still found myself slighlty uneasy, and less emotionally invested in Solly’s plight. He winds up seeming like a guy who gets more second chances than he deserves. Sure, he doesn’t get off scot-free, and the ending’s both joyous and ambiguous, but I’ll say no more on either of those points.

Hello America
But for all the ideas, it’s the prose that decides what you’ll think of the book. If you think it’s marvellously extravagant, witty and wild and brilliant, you’ll like the book. If you think it’s self-indulgent, aimless and irritating, you’ll despise it. And annoyingly, I’ve given it back to the library so I can’t give any great examples. But I’ve nabbed the first few lines off an online extract, and it gives a pretty good idea of what to expect:
Professor Malik Solanka, retired historian of ideas, irascible dollmaker, and since his recent fifty-fifth birthday celibate and solitary by his own (much criticized) choice, in his silvered years found himself living in a golden age. Outside his window a long, humid summer, the first hot season of the third millennium, baked and perspired. The city boiled with money. Rents and property values had never been higher, and in the garment industry it was widely held that fashion had never been so fashionable. New restaurants opened every hour. Stores, dealerships, galleries struggled to satisfy the skyrocketing demand for ever more recherch produce: limited-edition olive oils, three-hundred-dollar corkscrews, customized Humvees, the latest anti-virus software, escort services featuring contortionists and twins, video installations, outsider art, featherlight shawls made from the chin-fluff of extinct mountain goats.
See what I mean? Now, personally, I love it. The rhythm, the lists, the variation in register and complexity, the linguistic jokes – there’s just so much going on I find myself wallowing in the words and almost forgetting about the rest. The city becomes this vast, mighty symbol of American culture, history and power, and so does the book. To oversimplify, if Midnight’s Children is about India, The Satanic Verses is about the UK and Shalimar the Clown is about Kashmir, then Fury is about America. And America, apparently, is where it’s at. Whatever ‘it’ is.  

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