The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie (1999)

I will start with some admissions:

1) I have a love/ hate relationship with Salman Rushdie (well, with his books, anyway). I think the man is a genius, but I get immensely irritated by some of his expressions of that genius. I find myself enjoying his books as I am reading them, but moving further and further from them as I reflect, afterwards.

2) Rushdie is extraordinarily difficult to review, and I felt quite daunted taking on this task. His reputation precedes him and threatens to make a mockery of any critiques I can make. But, as one disinclined to worship the canon, I am not put off.

3) Most of my problems with The Ground Beneath Her Feet emerged in the final one hundred pages or so (of a 575 page book), so outlining these without giving away the story to those who haven’t read this will prove difficult. So I have decided not to approach this review via plot summary. Another admission is that this was my summer-holiday reading. I read it by the pool, on the beach, at airports and on trains. And it was a great holiday read–complex, full of twitsts, colourful, clever, funny, long! But it ultimately flopped and left me feeling that it was 575 pages of not very much.

First to my irritation. Sometimes it feels as if Rushdie is simply re-hashing his old, tried and tested formula: “That was how we spoke, my mother and I: in puns and games and rhymes.” (p. 56) Do any of Rushdie’s characters not speak in puns and games and rhymes? (Yes, actually, a character in this novel loses the ability to speak, so he is just described in puns and games and rhymes.) Russell Celyn Jones from The Times describes this book as “a carnival of words.” I think these days I would actually be more impressed if Rushdie managed to write a novel that wasn’t a carnival of words, that experimented with brevity and minimalism. Rushdie is creative with language, I get it. It is one of his defining talents, and rightly so, but even geniuses could benefit from stretching, if not expanding, their repertoire occasionally.

Which brings me to one of the difficulties with reviewing this book: I feel I am reading and reviewing it at the wrong point in time to properly comment on its merits and flaws (as part of Rushdie’s larger oeuvre, that is, rather than as an individual book, which can be judged at any moment). Published in 1999, The Ground Beneath Her Feet followed The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) and preceded Fury (2001). The Ground Beneath Her Feet feels like a book by an author treading water, looking for something more significant. There’s no reason why an author such as Rushdie, who has been politically important and historically engaged, should limit himself to that type of writing, to type-cast himself, but I think he is definitely at his best when he is doing that type of work. And The Ground Beneath Her Feet is not it.

Rushdie’s extreme cleverness was on display here (and I do not mean that in a derogatory sense–I am no anti-intellectual, I admire cleverness). The Ground Beneath Her Feet sets up a world akin to our own, but not quite, the aborted twin (if you’ll excuse the crude metaphor, which anyone who has read this book will know is more than a metaphor). A world in which Jesse Parker and not Elvis Presley is the American rock megastar of the fifties, in which Indira Gandhi and her two sons are assassinated all at once in 1984, in which Nixon never becomes president, in which Piloo Doodhwala stands in for Bal Thackeray (at least, that’s how I read him), a world in which two Indian musicians become the western world’s biggest super-stars of the 1970s. I am a generation or two too young to have caught all the rock and roll allusions, but there are plenty of them. What this book does well is satirise celebrity antics of the last half century or so. Sure, Rushdie changes a few names here and there, but we are in little doubt about which handful of possibilities he is referring to when he writes:

“Here’s the earth mother who adopted nineteen babies from different international trouble spots. But when the trouble dies down she trades the babies in for needier kinds from the new hot zones.” (p. 377)

Or:

“Her diet book and her health and fitness regime will become world-wide best-sellers. Later, she will successfully pioneer the celebrity exercise video and license a range of organic vegetarian meals, which, under the name Vina’s VegeTable, will also succeed.” (p. 394)

And I won’t even detail the uncanny parallels with Michael Jackson’s sad demise, perhaps not so uncanny when one accepts that Jackson wasn’t really an individual, but a representative of the kind of world Rushdie meticulously mirrors in The Ground Beneath Her Feet.

To amend for my complicity in the fun-poking at anthropology in my previous post on The Impressionist, I offer the following passage in which my own kind are ridiculed. After Vina’s death (it’s OK, I’ve given nothing away, this fact is known from the start), which prompts tribute concerts, and a spate of catastrophic earthquakes worldwide, Rushdie writes:

“Here are literary critics and drama critics. The literary critics are divided; the lisping old warhorse Alfred Fielder Malcolm quotes Marlowe’s Faustus–Then will I headlong run into the earth: Earth, gape! O, no, it will not harbor me!— and tries to build a complex theory about great celebrity being a Promethean theft of divine fire, whose price is this posthumous hell-on-earth in which the dead woman is actually rendered incapable of dying, and is constantly renewed, like the liver of Prometheus, to be devoured by insatiable vultures calling themselves devotees. This is eternal torment masquerading as eternal love, he says. Let the lady rest in peace. He is rudely ridiculed by the two young turks on the panel, Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby, who mock his arrant elitism and offer a spirited defense of the place of rock music in society, though they are also fashionably scornful of the low quality of language used by the speakers in the stadiums, their repetitiveness, the use of doggerel rhyming and tabloid cliche, the worrying prevalence of received ideas about the afterlife (Vina living forever, in every new-born child). These ideas, Gatsby says sharply, are not very cutting-edge; not very rock ‘n’ roll.” (p. 484).

(I think we all know somebody who quotes Marlowe’s Faustus!)

On the back of my copy, Mark Sanderson from The Times called this book “ground-breaking.” A decade-plus after its release, I fail to see how this hyperbole has come anywhere near the truth. But it has made me appreciate Rushdie’s later books, such as Shalimar the Clown (2005) and The Enchantress of Florence (2008) all the more, and to renew my enthusiasm to see what he produces next.

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Elen

Travel writer at www.wildernessmetropolis.com. Editor, writer, traveller, reader, literary critic.

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