Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Fury Leashed

Fury, by Salman Rushdie, Read by The Author, Recorded Books LLC, 2001

Back when it was first published, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses held a great appeal to me before I had even read it. As a budding young atheist, anything that made religious folks of any stripe so infuriated that they’d want to kill the author had to be good stuff. Plus, at that time (1989) I was still in the throes of my horror novel aficionado period, being a devotee of the subgenre splatterpunk, the name of which alone should tell you all you need to know about it. My rude mentality saw the book as killing two birds with one stone. A book about Satan that pissed off Muslims enough to make them thirst for Rushdie’s blood, how cool was that.

What I read was less than what I’d bargained for, and in the best of all possible outcomes, more as well. Though I’ve never gone back to reread it, having meant to for years, and having never read another book of Rushdie’s at any time since, The Satanic Verses nevertheless holds a very special place in my heart. With the exception of assigned books in school, Rushdie’s novel was the first important book I’d read, the first big book of Big Ideas. It was a door through which I began to appreciate literature for more than simply the novel ways characters were dismembered, disemboweled, or decapitated.

And for the life of me, unschooled as I was in virtually anything about Islam save that there were Sunnis and Shiites (a distinction I knew existed though could tell you nothing more about), I couldn’t for the life of me grasp what about the book was so patently offensive. Western literature had such a long, storied history of mocking religion as well as playing with its iconography that none of it struck me as shocking. The book is a hallucinatory series of metamorphoses of two characters whose very existences are intertwined, and much of the book has to do with the development of religion and the complicated relationship between India and Britain and India’s Hindu majority and Muslim minority.

Rushdie’s 2001 novel Fury is no less ambitious, seeking to understand the nature of violence and wrath in modern society by following the zig-zagging life trajectory of historian turned doll-maker Malik Solanka as he leaves his wife in London and flees to New York. Before the novel’s end, he will have left New York for a prison cell in tiny Pacific Rim island country of Lilliput-Blefuscu. Rushdie tries to pack the novel with as much pure rage as he can, hardly a single character being free of a seething cauldron of indignation just below the surface, all of it expressed in varying forms of social breakdown. Friends of Solanka’s describe him as a “heart attack waiting to happen. No strike ‘heart.’ An attack waiting to happen.”

The prose of Fury is at once straightforward and elegiac, lofty and blunt, punny and erudite. Rushdie may be the modern era’s most perfectly globalized author as he mixes Indian mythology, Greek mythology, Western philosophers, rap lyrics, and the trendspeak of computer savvy teens. At times it seems as if the thread of the story is being buried beneath mountains of references and cultural evisceration, but it’s all part of the novel’s fin-de-millenium skewering, the author’s own explosive passions venting themselves in the ferocious yet world weary view of Solanka.

Part of what Rushdie’s attempting here is to allow his refugee character of Solanka to be in two places at the same time, the outsider and the insider. His is the fury of the worldwide Everyman who rages at the government, his spouse, traffic, loud talkers, the ultra-wealthy, the poor, himself, and on and on. While at the same time, Solanka is very well educated and flies to America, the land of the idiots, all the better to riff on the excesses of empire at century’s close. Rushdie is himself the reader of the book, his Indian-inflected British accent the perfect match for the novel’s melange.

I had hoped for so much from the book, as I too am daily possessed of volcanic rages for no good reason. I wanted Rushdie to delve below the surface and like an alchemist transmute my base raving into the gold of brotherly love. I wanted literature as a balm for what ailed me to help me better understand why I am so filled with fury myself. Bad drivers, readers of crap fiction, reality television shows, the Hilton family, Republicans, terrorists, I hate them all and many more. At a recent gathering of friends, my wife remarked that she hated no one, truly hated no one. My guests and I looked at each other and then at her in amazement. We had lists.

But Rushdie ultimately fails to follow the path of fury will it will lead. There is a curious bit of senseless serial murdering that is perfectly emblematic while feeling in the end to be somewhat undercooked. What’s done with it just isn’t entirely effective. Likewise the cause of Solanka’s rage is utterly predictable made for TV movie childhood abuse and his release from it through the hackneyed convention of a May-December love affair also rings untrue. There are some writers who can pull off the beaming all-you-need-is-love simple answer philosophical writing; Rushdie is decidedly not of that camp. His writing seeks to uncover the complications underneath our complications. And the novel’s dramatic conclusion amid revolution in Lilliput-Blefuscu seems an odd and unnecessary add-on that never quite serves any purpose.

And so it seems strange that I’d wholeheartedly recommend Fury. The book is simply so well-written, filled with such human passion, such tart observation, such humorous types (like Beloved Ali, the Urdu cab driver who is unconscious that he so vulgarly swears at other drivers, screaming at one: “Hey! American man! You are a godless homosexual rapist of your grandmother’s pet goat.”) that it sings despite its weaknesses, because of them. Nietzsche once wrote “the errors of great men are venerable because they are more fruitful than the truths of little men.” The same could be said of truly great novelists though they may fail. At times, even their failures are more illuminating than most.

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