The Ground Beneath Her Feet

By Salman Rushdie

About 25 years ago Thomas Wolfe wrote a book called The Painted Word, his thesis being that modern painting had given up attempting to interpret reality or express feeling in order to simply follow the pronouncements of certain trendy theorists. In the book world, following a slight delay, the same phenomenon gave rise to a group I like to call the schoolroom novelists.

My point? While Salman Rushdie may not have started out as such a hack of academe, his latest book shows that this is where he has at last arrived.

Forget for a moment Rushdie’s status as a best-seller (it is, after all, only a function of his accidental celebrity). I expect few people will finish The Ground Beneath Her Feet except to write a term paper or article on it, and, even then, there will be some who fudge. Schoolroom novelists write to be talked about, not to be read.

In outline, the story follows the careers of two pop musicians: Ormus Cama and Vina Apsara. The narrator is a photographer named Rai – a “second fiddle” to the stars who labours in the shadow of their celebrity/divinity. Rest assured he does not begin to tell their Bombay-to-top-of-the-charts story without first striking an appropriately pretentious opening note (“Vina, I must betray you, so that I can let you go. Begin.”).

Only a very few books are all bad. To be fair, the supporting characters in this one, such as the anglophile Indian classicist Darius Xerxes Cama, are a lot of fun. Unfortunately, they are more than outweighed by the three leads, who are flat, unsympathetic, and uninteresting. I never believed for a moment in the global importance of Vina and Ormus, and the insipid lyrics that are submitted as evidence of their genius only left me thinking I was missing the joke.

Then there is the writing. There are stretches that stand with the the worst I have ever read. The exposition is not only dull and overgrown, but uncomfortable – convinced of its own seriousness yet full of a grating self-mockery.

As far as the narrative is concerned, forget it. That’s not why we read books in school. What we get instead is a barrage of puns, fashionably learned asides, undigested myth, and disjointed reflections on the indeterminacy of being.

Finally, it should come as no surprise to schoolroom readers that Ormus and Vina are inhabitants of that parallel world of fiction that constitutes the post-modern grail. In that world, “President Nixon” is an imaginary character in a novel called The Watergate Affair, while famous authors have names like Dedalus, Caulfield, and Yossarian.

Get it? For Rai/Rushdie there is no “easy separation of fancy and fact,” not because the line has been blurred, but because there is no fact left to be separated. The schoolroom novelists, much like their academic sponsors, prefer to contemplate their novels, with no interest in anything outside the world of the book. The result is writing that swallows its own tail.

Aside from illustrating a bankrupt theory of fiction, Rushdie has almost nothing to say. The mythic material is laid on pretty thick, but the point of it all is never clear. And the conclusion, which suggests that celebrities never die but are apotheosized in some kind of mass-media afterlife, actually manages to be both banal and overwrought.

Enough already. Class dismissed.

Review first published July 10, 1999.

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