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Sunday, January 07, 2018

The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) by Salman Rushdie


Book Review
The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999)
by Salman Rushdie

  If you were looking for some kind of universal myth,  the tale that is known in the west as Orpheus and his attempts to rescue his wife, Eurydice, from the underworld.  Talking about the role of Orpheus in Western civilization is the same as talking about Western civilization itself.  Everyone knows the myth of Orpheus, and two thousand years of scholars have woven it even deeper into the fabric of narrative culture.

  But, as it turns out, the myth of Orpheus is not necessarily Greek (i.e. Western) in origin. I've written about the origins of the Orpheus myth before in this space.  In June of 2013, I identified the Orpheus myth as a "potent source of material" and mentioned that Orpheus was, "the first rock star." (Vanished Empires, June 10th, 2013.)  I also discussed the Orpheus myth in my review of the movie Spring Breakers, in April of 2013. (Vanished Empires, April 3d, 2013.)  In my review of Spring Breakers, I visited the topic of the pre-Greek roots of the Orpheus myth, specifically the Babylonian myth of Tammuz and Inanna.  The story of Inanna dates back to Sumerian and Akkadian tablets, making it one of the oldest document human myths of all time.

  What is amazing about Rushdie is that the fatwa experience basically made him the biggest "serious" literary celebrity in the Western world.  He was not hesitant to embrace the role, even appearing as himself on an entire Curb Your Enthusiasm episode largely ABOUT the fatwa that led to his fame in wider culture.   The experience turned Rushdie into one of those writers who has a "concern" with modern celebrity culture and "that world."  You'd have to talk about American authors like Brett Easton Ellis or Jay Mcinerney (or Kurt Andersen).  The difference between Rushdie and "serious" American authors who have some take on celebrity culture is that Rushdie has a firm international reputation, and his interaction with America has almost entirely been as a moderately sized popular celebrity.  This perspective is quite central to his most recent book, Golden House, about "the bubble" as experienced by a nuclear family of Indian immigrants in post-Trump NYC.

  In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, the Orpheus/Eurydice pair are a John Lennon type musician and his female counterpart, who has a kind of Madonna type vibe.  In typically involved detail, they rise out of relatively well-off Indian obscurity to become the biggest rock stars in the world.  Rushdie introduces several other characters from prior novels, and makes what appears to be a massive revelation, that The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and presumably his other books, exist in an alternate universe, very similar to our own, with minor divergences like, the British join American in Vietnam, John F. Kennedy escapes assassination in Dallas but is assassinated a decade later with Bobby Kennedy by Sirhan Sirhan. 

     I sense that the reaction to this revelation by the literary was kind of a collective eye roll, but he integrates this idea into the book in a such a multi-faceted manner that I'm inclined to think that critics didn't really "get" what was going on.  Or maybe they did and they were just sick of Rushdie's shit, or take his brilliance for granted.  Certainly, Rushdie can't be accused of hiding the ball- the patriarch of the family which produces the Indian John Lennon character is obsessed with Indo-European mythology, with a tasteful twenty year break to give the Nazi's their moment.

  Rushdie ties this quest for a comparative universal type mythology with the Orpheus motive by having his character postulate the existence of a "fourth" role in society, alongside the priest, farmer and soldier, the outsider.  The outsider is the excluded, who often revitalizes culture by observing from outside the community.   

   Orpheus, the musician who travels to hell and back, is a prototype for this outsider.  Maybe that is all obvious, and I'm being obvious point it out, but I think that his treatment of this mythic element is very deep and overwhelms the less endearing parts of the narrative- Rushdie, celebrity or not, has a clumsy take on the United States that seems entirely based on New York.  His depiction of locales outside of New York are mediocre compared to the way he invokes locations in London or India.   His fascination with celebrity culture, while understandable, does not show him at his best.

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