The idea of a fairy tale written by an atheist emerged from my reading of this 2015 novel.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
My history with Salman Rushdie is unknown to him I’m sure, but beyond reading as much of his work as I can over the years, it also includes at least one performance piece in San Francisco in the 1990’s and at least one letter I actually sent him through his agent when I was working in New York and dated a woman who worked for his publisher in the early aughts. Pretty sure he never got it though.
After the fatwa was placed on his head, the performance piece was that -as a young writer living in SF and helping give birth to the non-profit resource Media Alliance – I had a button which read “I am Salman Rushdie” and wore it out and about while he was in hiding as an act of solidarity.
The button was particularly more effective on me than my peers – mostly white and black Americans – because I’m Indian and so perhaps could have appeared to be him to someone ignorant of his age.
And stupid enough to think he’d be wearing a button declaring himself who he was in public.
I have written about Rushdie before in the context of Haruki Murakami, and indeed I attributed Murakami with influencing Rushdie toward popularity in this. However, now I think more than by any peers, Rushdie has been influenced most by the United States and particularly his new chosen home of New York City.
It reminds me of John Lennon in that way, another Brit liberated and enthused by the teeming creative humanity of New York.
I think creative immigrants falling in love with the US can be compared and contrasted with others for whom it is the same, but never to me – for mine has been a continual, slow falling out of love with the place.
I wouldn’t speak for Rushdie with regard to his beliefs of course, but his facile use of language to allow characters to wrestle over the aspects of God or the legitimacy of the same exhibits an intellectual courage I, as an atheist, admire profoundly. And upon finishing this book it struck me:
If an atheist writes a fairy tale and it comes out seeming very much like the fantastic stories of all our religions, what does that mean?
I am reminded of Anatole France in this regard. By the end of Penguin Island is it really something else? I mean, is that us as humans staying in touch with our it? Two Years Eight Months Twenty-Eight Days has that quality in the form of its frame story – as if told from the distant future. (these guys also immediately brought to my mind the tall blue aliens of the far distant future in Spielberg’s, A.I., – my imagination is so dense with shit).
This book has all Rushdie’s expertise of craft – voluminous, tumbling wondrous language and ideas of fantasy worlds and people and non-people. It’s a tumult of musical and thunderous sentences, some of which run on for pages.
His mastery of the third person remains impressive because aspects seem omniscient – even Godly – while others are so human or somewhere in between, yet he never allows the authority of any hierarchy to intercede in the power of the narrative. The story demands to be itself despite all religions or deities or men or women who may exist within it. Even the ‘We’ in the frame story admonish themselves for editorializing.
But it is more pop now. And at times the veil between author and subject slips.
I am sure, after having lived there myself and knowing something of its temperament, being an international celebrity in New York comes with demands for new language. Rushdie’s now includes a clear love for the city and its cultural community. It is the basis for his exuberance.
In Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Days, Rushdie imports his beloved Thousand Nights and a Night to Manhattan and Queens and the Staten Island Ferry and proceeds to weave and reweave it into contemporary New York City and beyond.
Using simple abbreviations for countries abroad drawn in loose terms now – a secondhand where”A,P and I,” are Afghanistan, Pakistan and India or in which ancient sites of the Bible or Koran are described tangentially through the mechanism of the stories within stories that make up this telling, there’s still a clear association for Rushdie now with neoliberal, Obama-and DeBlasio-leaning New York as much as with Harry P., Das Racist and metropolitan culture.
And because his works are contemporary in skein if not in the whole of the yarn, fantastic stories and language emerge which create – perhaps utopically – a secular and liberated future beyond religion that is ultimately modeled after the best interpretation of New York City’s teeming admixture of humanities.
But something is missing – not teeth, there’s plenty of teeth in just one of his terrifying djinni to suffice – and the spin on Goya’s Saturn was epic. But I mean … there is a comfortableness in Rushdie here that makes this work, ultimately, light. A fairy tale. And reading it as such, I loved it. But felt it doesn’t turn the corner on cultural critique. It resides where you expect it might, entertaining and at times thrilling anyone who appreciates flights of fancy.