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The Ground Beneath Her Feet
by Salman Rushdie, Ignatius Press, 1998

Review by John Paul Davis

Walker Percy noted on several occasions that the role of the novelist in the postmodern age is largely diagnostic, to demonstrate exactly what is broken about certain elements of society. To say that Salman Rushdie's latest novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, does that would be an understatement. The novel is, on the surface, the story of a love triangle between two gods of rock and their photographer, but underneath all of that lies a serious scrutiny of postmodern culture.

Supposedly inspired by his association with the rock group U2 during their Zoo TV tour, (the band have already recorded a song inspired by the book using Rushdie's lyrics) the novel centers around the musical genius of Bombayite Ormus Cama, who receives supernatural premonitions of future hits from his deceased twin brother. Cama is madly in love with American expatriate Vina Apsara, who possesses a voice of Orphean quality. And Apsara has also captured the heart of Cama's friend (and the narrator of the story) Rai. Cama eventually organizes himself and Apsara into a U2-like band, VTO, which quickly becomes the pinnacle of '70s rock. Rai forges a superstar career out of his seat-of-the-pants chance-driven photographs and some shady journalism.

The novel begins in medias res with the disappearance of Apsara, and from there, Rai takes us, in familiar Rushdie form, through their biographies, from birth onward. Like all of Rushdie's narrators, Rai knows a whole lot more than he should- he recounts conversations taking place half a world away from him, which should be bothersome, but never really is. Maybe that's because one gets so caught up in the striking beauty of Rushdie's writing and in the necessity of each bit of information that it hardly seems important.

The entire novel takes place in a parallel universe; JFK was never shot, Lou Reed is a woman, Elvis's name is Jesse Garon Parker. But that universe is slowly colliding with another (ours) and throughout the novel, Cama and Rai can, via their respective crafts, music and photography, communicate with that other world. The collision manifests itself physically in the form of earthquakes that increase in magnitude and become the matter of rock songs; VTO releases a prophetic double album called Quakershaker.

Rushdie's prose is lyrical and majestic. Bordering on epic poetry, The Ground Beneath Her Feet is hypnotic and mesmerizing. At every turn, Rushdie's intimacy with language and culture yields layers upon layers of meaning and glittering characters. The satires of rock culture, American imperialism, third-world backwater tyranny, pop religions (not excluding New Age and the Jesus Movement) are expertly intertwined with dynamic, emotional descriptions of the postmodern, West and East.

Rushdie's wit is lively and his observations exacting as a surgeon's knife. At the climax of the novel, Rai is witnessing the collision of his and our worlds, in which truth and reality have become hopelessly clouded: "Can you conceive of such damage to the real? What was true yesterday--an anthrax attack by terrorists in the New York subway--is no longer true today; it seems there was no anthrax attack. Yesterday's safe is today's dangerous. There is nothing to hold on to.

In the novel it is the artists who have something to hold on to, who chronicle the increasingly mystifying nature of the real, and who search it out through their artwork. And so the novel becomes, among other things, a beautiful portrait of all that it means to be an artist. Rai's photos and Cama's music are gateways not only to the otherworld, but also to the shifting, slippery moments of truth we have in our lives.

It is this connection to the spiritual that keeps Cama and Rai simultaneously sane and a little insane; their perspectives , being both in the world and not in it, act as the catalysts for social change. In the end, it is this connection that helps them to survive the tumult of the earthquakes, physical and metaphysical, that and Rai's discovery of a Warholian truth: "in order to solve the riddle you have to step outside of the frame."

The ability to step outside the frame is, after all, what makes artists what they are. Ultimately, the novel has us looking outward, through art, for a more lasting world, one that won't fall apart with every tremor. In the meantime, it is the power of art to heal and maintain the world that is here with us that Rushdie focuses on. And while Rushdie, a self-proclaimed atheist, is not likely to draw us so far upward that we begin to see God as that lasting certainty, in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, made what he wished for his characters to make: a window, albeit a dark glass, into the real, the spiritual.

 

 

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