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December 6, 2013
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'The Ground Beneath Her Feet' by Salman Rushdie
Rushdie’s latest is a rock-solid look at pop music
Sunday, July 11, 1999
By Mark Kemp
Many bibliophiles and all Rushdie-philes know by now that his latest novel is about rock ’n’ roll. One blurb seen even claims “it is rock ’n’ roll.”
But those who have previously entered his fictive universe will expect his latest novel to amplify and distort any banal view of the pop music world.
In fact, the odd shifts in reality in this novel keep us quite unsure of the solidity of the ground beneath our feet. But that’s fitting since this is a novel about earth-shattering changes, death and nihilism and the power of popular culture to produce seismic movements.
In Rushdie’s books, the story is frequently overwhelmed by the density of polyglot wordplay and fragmented perspectives, times and places, making the reading of one of his novels a ponderous -- even if ultimately rewarding -- intellectual process.
Although those stylistic elements are certainly present in “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” with the discomforting effects I mentioned earlier, this new novel presents Rushdie’s most compelling and coherent story to date.
Ormus Cama, an inspired rock musician originally from a Bombay Parsi family (think Freddie Mercury?), has a slow start despite his virtuosity, only finding stardom after teaming up with diva and soul mate Vina Apsara.
A combination of their personal obsessions (both sexual and spiritual) with implacable nature in the form of earthquakes (both literal and metaphorical) leads to their separation.
Vina’s death, which we learn of in the first pages, provokes Ormus’ descent into rock ’n’ roll hell. All of which is witnessed -- and influenced -- by a witty and cynical narrator, fellow Bombayite and photojournalist Rai Merchant.
“Music, love, death,” comments Rai. “Certainly a triangle of sorts; maybe even an eternal one.”
Essentially a love story involving these three, the novel also attempts to accommodate the history of rock ’n’ roll as well as the classical mythology of music, primarily in the shape of the Orpheus and Eurydice plot.
Orpheus, the demigod of music, travels to the underworld to lead his dead beloved back to life; Eurydice forgets not to look back and must remain below.
So Rushdie’s love story also incorporates meditations on death and memory, grief and resolution, often with the lurid parricidal or suicidal character of the Greek tragedies.
Vina and Ormus are the products of modern versions of those ancient dramas. Her Greek-American mother kills all of her children except Vina and hangs herself.
Ormus has three brothers, a stillborn twin with whom he communicates for many years, an older sibling rendered mute and simple when his father accidentally hits him with a cricket ball, and the eldest who attempts to smother the infant Ormus with his pillow and later becomes a serial killer, murdering his own father, among others.
As with all of Rushdie’s work, this novel explores the meetings and migrations of culture. “Greek gods, like everybody else, have invaded India from time to time,” suggests one character.
Our Orpheus, Ormus Cama, mentally “hears” rock ’n’ roll songs like “Heartbreak Hotel” before their release in the West. He has access to an “otherworld” that includes these “songs from the future,” as well as “impossible stories” in which only he can see “two variations of the same world.”
In one world someone named Jesse Garon Parker, swivel-hipped singer from Tupelo, Miss., has a manager named “Colonel” Tom Presley; President Kennedy has a “narrow escape in Dallas,” and Britain fights a war in Vietnam.
Rushdie relies on doppelgängers such as Ormus’ dead twin, Gayomart, who transmits hit songs and paranoid visions to him. Rai has his own “dead twin I did not know I had,” a murdered Indian colleague from whose body Rai obtains a roll of film containing photographs that expose a corrupt industrialist and political figure and make Rai famous.
While such twinning and double vision color the novel with a “magical realist” ambiguity, Rai also insists that our “real world” harbors at least two realities. For example, during his investigation of rural corruption, he criticizes the romantic ideas people have about “village India,” which are perhaps similar to myths here of small-town America:
“Such statements were made as if the real were solid, immutable, tangible. Whereas . . . reality shifted. Here the plates of different realities met, there were shudders and rifts. Chasms opened.”
Political and cultural contradictions produce “earthquakes.” but so, Rushdie wants to say, does the power of rock ’n’ roll. This comes as no big surprise to those of us raised on the music and fondly familiar with its poetic and theatrical excesses -- especially in those phantasmagorial stage spectacles of the 1970s, which synthesized carnival and drag, “The Lord of the Rings” and Delta blues, Romantic poets and science fiction, hyper-gothic and protest songs.
“The Ground Beneath Her Feet” captures all of this. And although this may not be its best recommendation for many readers, the novel made me want to listen again to those old avatars of Orpheus: Bowie and Tull, Zeppelin and Alice.
We have been and will be inundated with millennial “messages” his year. Rushdie’s novel should emerge from the flood as a book that looks hard -- and of course comically -- at all of the millennial concerns that threaten the shifting ground beneath our feet.
Mark Kemp teaches literature and writing at the University of Pittsburgh.
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