This is the sort of novel I feel the need to reach for metaphor to describe, tired and cliched metaphors at that: it is a roller coaster, a kaleidoscope, a hall of mirrors, shifting sands…. It is dazzling – but being dazzled is not always the most comfortable experience!
Our protagonist appears – everything in this novel only appears to be anything! – to be Ismael Smile, a travelling salesman from India, on roads of Trump’s America. To be fair, Trump is not named once (bless the search function in electronic books) but the absurd and populist world created is far too recognisable. Ismael’s mind has become addled and detatched from reality as a result of too much day time television and
he fell victim to that increasingly prevalent psychological disorder in which the boundary between truth and lies became smudged and indistinct, so that at times he found himself incapable of distinguishing one from the other, reality from “reality,” and began to think of himself as a natural citizen (and potential inhabitant) of that imaginary world beyond the screen to which he was so devoted
The television screen, the liminal division between real and unreal, is probably the central image of the book, in a world where our politicians appear to be as informed by Twitter and Fox News as by the so-called intelligence services! And an image which has become increasingly permeable in the post-truth world: Ismael adopts the identity and knight-errant quest of Cervantes’ Don Quixote; dreamed-up imaginary children become embodied; television newscasters talk directly to and respond to their viewers.
And that permeability applies to the novel itself: we bounce between Ishmael / Quichotte’s quest for love and the story of Quichotte‘s putative author, Sam DuChamp, although the name disappears rapidly into the narrative in favour of the anonymous “Brother”.
The plot follows Quichotte’s quest for the love of Salma R – chatshow host and television star and fellow member of the Indian diaspora whom he has never met – and treads a fine line between the love being courtly and ennobling or stalking. Quichotte’s quest requires him to pass through seven symbolic valleys in order to prove himself worthy before even meeting her: valleys of Love, Knowledge and Annihilation amongst others. Along the way, he spawns a son, Sancho from his own imagination, willed into being and gaining corporeality, independence – and Jiminy Cricket from time to time as his own personal deus ex machina.
Brother, in his parallel existence, seeks to reconnect with his estranged son – apparently on the radar of the security services as a cyber terrorist – and sister Jack – who lives in London with her cross-dressing husband, Jack, and dying of cancer. In its characters and emotions, this aspect of the novel felt much deeper and more realistically portrayed, but no less playfully. I personally loved the agent who was almost definitely not called Lance Makioka, the real world spy sent to recruit (is that the right word) the spy novel author, who passes rather astute observations about the Quichotte novel:
“I’m no critic, sir, but I estimate that you’re telling the reader that the surreal, and even the absurd, now potentially offer the most accurate descriptors of real life. It’s an interesting message, though parts of it require considerable suspension of disbelief to grasp.
The novel is outrageously funny in places – darkly funny but funny nonetheless: it is self-referential, self-parodic, intertextually playful. The list of novels and works borrowed from would be exhausting: beyond the Cervantes, we riff on Alice in Wonderland, Moby-Dick, Pinocchio, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, Nabokov’s Lolita; Candy Crush Saga, The Real Housewives …, Heidi Klum, Men in Black… It is a novel that identifies itself as belonging to
the picaresque tradition, its episodic nature, and how the episodes of such a work could encompass many manners, high and low, fabulist and commonplace, how it could be at once parodic and original, and so through its metamorphic roguery it could demonstrate and seek to encompass the multiplicity of human life.
And the post-truth world in which Quichotte and increasingly Brother operate are in
the Age of Anything-Can-Happen, he reminded himself. He had heard many people say that on TV and on the outré video clips floating in cyberspace, which added a further, new-technology depth to his addiction. There were no rules anymore. And in the Age of Anything-Can-Happen, well, anything could happen.
And anything does happen: nationalist and far right men and women are seen with invisible collars, guns chat amiably to their wielders, sinister drug dealing pharmaceutical company owners can disappear in puffs of smoke, people can transform into mastodons, mastodons can start walking on two legs; and a world where racist violence can erupt from anywhere and the boundaries between real and unreal dissolve into an apocalyptic conclusion. And the saviour of humanity may be “the celebrated American scientist, entrepreneur, and billionaire of Indian origin Evel Cent”.
The question that bugs me here – as a personal reviewer is the key one, and the only one that truly counts: subjectively, did I enjoy the book?
And I did – in parts.
At its best, Rushdie’s prose is languid, clever and beautiful, his exploration of the world – worlds? – unsettling and original and often clever and funny. We do, surely, live in worlds and layers of fiction within our own minds and identities as much as if not more so than for others, lying and inventing ourselves for ourselves over and over again. As Brother says, on discovering his sister’s sexual abuse as she lies on her death bed
Not to be told the whole truth, as Sister with her legal expertise would know perfectly well, was to be told a lie. That lie had been his truth. Maybe this was the human condition, to live inside fictions created by untruths or the withholding of actual truths. Maybe human life was truly fictional in this sense, that those who lived it didn’t understand it wasn’t real.
This unsettling subjective reality feels to terribly real!
The word, however, that creeps into my mind as I review it is perhaps bloated. Is it perhaps a little self-indulgent? A little over long? A little bit too clever or too allusive? I fear perhaps just a little.
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Date: 29th August 2019