Here are some things I like: rock music, stories about rock music, Greek mythology, modern re-tellings of ancient myths, alternate histories, esoterically allusive novels, trendy novelists. Given these preferences, Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet seems like a book written not so much for me as at me: Rushdie’s novel is a re-imagining of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set against the backdrop of the musical culture of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I seem ideally suited to like this book.
And yet there is something very much off about it.
For one, Rusdie begins at the end: The novel opens with, “On St. Valentine’s Day, 1989, the last day of her life, the legendary popular singer Vina Apsara woke sobbing from a dream of human sacrifice in which she had been the intended victim.”
Beginning with the death of one of the two central characters (the “Eurydice” figure), Rushdie then goes backwards to tell us where she came from, how she met her soul mate, Ormus Cama (“Orpheus”), as well as our narrator Umeed “Rai” Merchant (also in love with Vina), and how she became a “legendary popular singer.”
Now, beginning at the end is not inherently bad— many great novels have done it successfully (Infinite Jest, American Pastoral, The Invisible Man). In this instance, though, it is indicative of the way Rushdie jumps around chronologically, never letting the story settle down and simply unfold.
This is especially deleterious in a book that deals with the “legendary” status of its characters. Cama and Apsara form the band VTO (it doesn’t stand for anything), and become bigger than The Beatles: “VTO’s Quakershaker (How the Earth Learned to Rock & Roll) invariably beats Sgt. Pepper into second place in the voting for best ever album.”
Now, this creates an interesting dilemma for Rushie. Every work of fiction necessarily takes place in a fictional reality, but Rushdie’s is more obviously fake; we all know (rather well, I would say) The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper, but we’ve never heard of VTO, and we know damn well that Cama and Apsara are not really “legends.” So Rushdie has to tell us again and again (and again and again— seriously, it gets old by page 20) that Ormus and Vina are A) really famous, B) really good, and C) really influential. Every time Rushdie tells us this, however, it becomes more obviously a lie.
Since the world in which Rai is retrospectively telling this story is already acquainted with the story of VTO and Ormus and Vina (in the same way the stories of The Beatles and Elvis have become pervasive), the narration takes for granted things that are important (such as how exactly VTO became such a phenomenon overnight) and considers important things that seem largely irrelevant (like critical disagreement over how Ormus and Vina first met). As such, the love story of Ormus Cama and Vina Apsara, which Rai keeps promising to tell us, is never really told.
Our narrator Rai is not simply trying to give us the story of Ormus and Vina (since we should already know that anyway), but also the story of the Bombay they all grew up in; the London they got their start in; the family history of VTO’s manager; the sexual history of Ormus’ first girlfriend; the love triangle between Ormus, his manager, and his mother; as well as many other tangents. In short, the novel itself is effusive and overflowing, and the story seeps out in leaks and spills, with no apparent order or direction.
The book gives off the decided sense that Rushdie has bitten off more than he can chew, that he’s not exactly sure which story he wants to tell us: Cama’s, Vina’s, the love story of Ormus and Vina, Ormus’ brother Gayo’s, Rai’s, India’s, the music industry, or Orpheus’ own story. To be sure, Rushdie is an excellent writer and many of his tangents are excellent and enthralling.
At one point we follow Rai, a photo-journalist, on his attempt to photograph nonexistent goats as a way to unearth a scandal in Indian politics (involving Vina’s uncle and former guardian). The story is funny and engaging and moving, but what the hell is it doing there? It’s one of Rushdie’s better tangents, but there seems to be no narrative backbone to connect it to, so the book ends up not doing this particular story justice.
More often than not, Rushdie’s tangents seem like fanciful invention for the sake of showing off. The book is jam-packed with allusions and slight twists of the truth. Look back at that first sentence: “On St. Valentine’s Day, 1989…” Well, on St. Valentine’s Day 1989, a fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie. Are we to believe that Rushdie chose this date coincidentally? And, if not, what meaning does it have for this book? Certainly that date means something unique to the author himself.
One possible meaning is that it is just a way to reinforce that the world of this novel is not like our own. In this world, JFK survived his assassination attempt, Lou Reed is a woman, John Lennon sang “Satisfaction,” the British fought the war in Vietnam, “Elvis” is actually Jesse Garon Parker and Catch-22 is actually called Catch-18 (the last two of these are sort-of inside jokes/allusions: “Jesse Garon” was the name of Elvis’s stillborn twin and Catch-18 was the original title of Catch-22). In this world, Nathan Zuckerman, Stephen Dedalus, Holden Caulfield, and even our own Pierre Menard are real writers, and not fictional characters.
The reason for these tweaks of history is not entirely clear (although one clear effect is to keep the reader on edge; by the end I was confirming every mentioned historical fact on Google to make sure Rushdie hadn’t altered some detail). On the one hand, the binary of “our” world and “their” world fits into Rushdie’s motif of duality (twins and rivals abound in the book, Ormus has a stillborn twin, as well as two older twin brothers, and Vina oscillates between Ormus and Rai). It also provides a way to showcase Cama’s genius: Ormus communicates with the “real” world in his dreams through his dead brother, who tips him off to hit songs years in advance. But the relationship between the fictional realm and our realm is never made clear, and it often seems as if Rushdie is only making these changes because he can get away with them.
What he cannot get away with, however, is getting an audience to understand the fictional hype and praise of a band that doesn’t really exist. Rushdie includes lyrics and song titles and album names, but these can never really do music justice; lyrics, even good ones, often sound stupid when written out (“I believe in yesterday”? What the hell is that?), so you kind of have to take Rai/Rushdie’s word for it that Ormus Cama is a “genius” songwriter (interestingly, when U2 actually recorded one of the songs in the book, it sounded kind of good).
The book, then, is an alternate history that focuses primarily on musicians and photographers, two media that do not translate well to prose. This makes for a lot of telling and all too little showing. Far too often, the book asks us to simply accept some fact (Kennedy served two terms, VTO is a great band, Ormus and Vina have a magical love, Ormus Cama is a great songwriter, etc.) that is either false or unjustified.
Now every novel asserts something that isn’t true (Crime and Punishment “asserts” that there was this guy Raskolnikov who killed this pawnbroker, even though that never happened; Ulysses “asserts” that there is a Jewish adman who lives in Dublin and is married to a “famous” singer who isn’t real, etc.). The question is whether these fake assertions lead to a real emotional payoff. In great novels, the empirical accuracy of the characters and situations becomes irrelevant (or at least secondary) to the emotions and ideas that they appeal to within the reader.
The idea of using fiction to create something real is inherent to the mythology that Rushdie is forging, so he is aware of this. But while Rushdie spends a lot of time building toward something and gradually letting the audience in on these little secrets he develops, he spends far too little time actually earning this suspension of disbelief and creating a payoff. In the end, the novel itself seems like one of Rushdie’s slightly refined “facts”: invention for the sake of invention, dishonest fiction.