The ground beneath Salman Rushdie’s feet is shifting. He emerged from his fatwa-induced state of siege last September, giving up his place as embattled champion of free expression in time to prepare for a mammoth publicity tour for his new book, released in April. The Ground Beneath Her Feet, in which Rushdie recasts the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice into the world of rock-and-roll, was supposed to be his claim to a piece of the vast American literary soil. It was supposed to be his chance to show the crowd of upstart South Asian writers what the master could do, and score a bestseller in the process.
But none of that has happened. Instead, Rushdie has ridden a brief wave of rave reviews that has not quite translated into blockbuster sales, leaving him now to occupy the uncomfortable position of a writer whose best work appears to be behind him. “He is a great writer, and earlier he was a greater writer,” said Nina Mehta, a critic who reviewed Mirrorwork, Rushdie’s selective anthology of Indian literature, for Newsday in New York.
With Mirrorwork, Rushdie effectively resigned from his position as ambassador from the imaginary homeland of South Asian literature. In the introduction to the book, excerpted in The New Yorker in 1997, he justified his decision to include only works written in English, with one exception, by arguing that South Asian literature in English was simply superior to any other South Asian language.
Having admitted on the same page that he reads only English, Rushdie unleashed a predictable torrent of criticism upon himself, and some of that ill-will has persisted. At a reading in Boston on his publicity tour for The Ground Beneath Her Feet, one indignant student pressed him to justify his comments, but he stood his ground, blaming the lack of good translations for the apparent poor quality of non-English South Asian literature. It is unclear, however, whether this controversy has affected the sales of the book, which has not quite lived up to expectations. Henry Holt, the American publisher, would not release exact sales figures, but spokeswoman Elizabeth Shreve said it has sold more than 100,000 copies, spending one week on The New York Times bestseller list.
“It has sold more than any book [of his] since The Satanic Verses,” Shreve said. But the massive publicity campaign, the glowing reviews, the interviews and prominent coverage in every major media outlet in the country, are usually followed by sales several times greater. Half of the book is set in the United States, and its dustjacket trumpets it as “a celebration of Americana”, yet sales were stronger in the UK, where The Ground Beneath Her Feet spent four weeks on the bestseller list.
The arrogance of Rushdie’s comments do not appear to have cost him readers among South Asians in New York. “I don’t necessarily idolise him,” said Saeed Rahman, who works for a non-profit organisation in New York City and bought the book last month. “He’s really arrogant, but he’s really smart, too. He’s just a really smart, good writer.”
Rafiq Kathwari, a journalist and poet who is translating Iqbal into English, said the vehemence of Rushdie’s comments actually adds to his appeal. “I like Rushdie’s uneasy posturing, because that is what makes Rushdie palpable, scorching, burning as he searches for himself, taking us with him on the journey,” Kathwari said. “He hasn’t alienated me.”
“I don’t think he’s alienated his core audience,” said Nina Mehta. “His core audience, for all his books, is not Indian or South Asian.” Even the publishers, usually quick to target books by non-white authors to a particular ethnic audience, seem to agree. Elizabeth Shreve said that Henry Holt has approached the marketing of Rushdie’s book as it would the work of any other major writer of literary fiction. “He’s an international figure at this point,” she said.
Rushdie’s failure to hit a home run (not a sixer—this is an American story, after all) with The Ground Beneath Her Feet actually points to the deeper flaws within the story. He has failed to capture the American audience because he is not yet in a position to understand the American experience. Instead, he writes about the United States as a tourist would, perhaps taking inadvertent revenge on those Westerners who write about India guided by little more than a copy of The Lonely Planet guidebook and an unshakeable faith in their own cleverness.
With rare exceptions, Rushdie’s observations about the United States are limited to lists of cultural references rather than real evocations of time and place. Instead of trying to describe the cultural milieu of the 1950s and 1960s, he invokes Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley and Simon and Garfunkel as if dropping these names is enough to conjure up the atmosphere that surrounded them. Rushdie forces Vina Apsara, the lifeforce of the book, into the role of stand-in for the zeitgeist of any given era. In the 1960s, for example, “she wore the wised-up, not remotely innocent, expression that was mandatory for the ‘alternative’ women of the period, especially singers who were politically involved”. In the 1970s, she moves into more radical politics, and by the 1990s, Vina has embraced business and the emotional exhibitionism of daytime talk shows.
In one part of New York City, Rushdie even finds a backwater to romanticise—”the thronged streets of Queens, its bazaars bustling with the polyglot traffic of the world”. Even less successful is Rushdie’s attempt to animate the spirit of rock music on the page. He is uncharacteristically tentative, asking at one point, “Why do we care about singers? Wherein lies the power of songs? Maybe it derives from the sheer strangeness of there being singing in the world.”
But most disturbing is Rushdie’s fantasy that it would be possible for someone like Vina Apsara, an exotic half-Greek, half-Indian Leftist with an insatiable sexual appetite, to become “America’s sweetheart”. This country, albeit of immigrants, is simply not as accepting of outsiders as Rushdie might like to fondly imagine.
The shortcomings of The Ground Beneath Her Feet may, however, free Rushdie from the burden of his own reputation. Perhaps in his next book, he will forsake the technicolour mirages and give his readers more brilliant phrases and vividly wrought scenes, like the “art dekho” buildings of Rai Merchant’s Bombay and the fearsome kites sparring with each other in an ominous sky.
Once he finds his footing, where he chooses to stand—London, New York or Kalamazoo—will hardly matter.