In recent years, the pressures of Rushdie’s life have begun to take a strange toll on his work. His early books were praised for the virtuosity of the prose, the acuity of Rushdie’s ear, but what really strikes one about them is their incredible sweetness. This sweetness has now been covered over with a layer of sophistication, worldliness—and also anger. Fury makes rage its explicit subject (Professor Solanka wants to kill rich white people); and Shalimar the Clown is still obsessed with it. The book opens with a beautiful young documentary filmmaker, India, training for revenge. Her father, an aging man of the world and former ambassador, has been assassinated by a Kashmiri separatist named Shalimar. The rest of the novel unspools to explain how a Kashmiri village acrobat could end up in Los Angeles beheading an important man.
‘You have to describe the world that’s about to be destroyed, make the reader love it. That way, when the shit hits the fan, it hurts.”
In returning to Kashmir—going back a generation and showing how the onset of postcolonial postmodernity, in the form of Pakistani religious fanaticism on the one hand and Indian imperial ambitions on the other, eventually tore apart the ancient peace of village life—Rushdie is undertaking an important novelistic task, and one for which he is particularly well suited. The encroachment of the modern world onto a Kashmiri village—first, television, then paid television, then Islamic fundamentalism—is described in a mythical, almost cartoonish way, but it is very effective. At the same time, there is a sharp, tough satire on the psychotic Indian officer in charge of counterinsurgency in the region.
The book’s American material is much weaker. The characters in Shalimar undergo a kind of celebrification: Many of the scenes end with dramatic speeches, and even Shalimar, at the end of the book, receives a California-style celebrity trial. Finally, there is the fictional problem of, not to put too fine a point on it, Padma. Rushdie the man is in love, and he doesn’t quite know what to do about it as a writer. Every time he’s introduced a Padma-like character in the last two books, he has been less than masterly. “He was learning her better every day,” he writes in Fury, “exploring her as if she were a new city in which he had sublet space and where he hoped one day to buy.” Of India in Shalimar, he writes, “These days she had herself firmly in hand. The problem child within her was sublimated into spare-time pursuits, the weekly boxing sessions at Jimmy Fish’s boxing club on Santa Monica and Vine where Tyson and Christy Martin were known to work out . . .”
This is not unlike the prose lists that fill Midnight’s Children—“And sometimes Koli women, their hands stinking of pomfret guts and crabmeat, jostle arrogantly to the head of a Colaba bus-queue, with . . . a smarting glint of old defeats and dispossessions in their bulging and somewhat fishy eyes.” The Los Angeles version of this is slack, perfunctory, and, more than anything—“to name the unnamable,” was the definition of the writer’s task given in The Satanic Verses, “to point at frauds”—uncritical.
As of this writing, Shalimar is receiving a slightly better reception than Fury, and yet the sense of Rushdie having lost his way is still pressing. But he is still reasonably young, for a writer, and no longer, these days, quite so unreasonably famous. In the seventh inning of the Yankees game, Milan exclaims that we were just on the big JumboTron in centerfield.
I say that it’s about time.
“No,” Rushdie is forced to disappoint me after consulting with Milan, “it seems the people in front of us were on the screen, and we could be seen in the corner.”
A little later, just before Milan finally declares to his dad that he is just too sleepy to go on, Rushdie’s cell phone rings. He talks briefly about the game, which is exciting, and the drizzle, which has been off and on. When he hangs up, I try to maintain a neutral face, but something about it must say “Bono?” because Rushdie clarifies. “Mrs. Rushdie,” he says happily.
Mussina has given the Yankees six strong innings, leaving with a 3-2 lead, and, as Rushdie explains, once the Yankees go to their late relievers, things are much better. Rushdie and Milan leave after the eighth, but he proves right. The setup men have been excellent, and when Mariano Rivera emerges from the bullpen for the ninth, the sound system plays the hook from Metallica’s ominous “Enter Sandman” (“Take my hand / We’re off to never-never land”), and every fan in the stadium, not a single one of whom has given any indication of recognizing Salman Rushdie, stands up and cheers. Rivera started the season by blowing two save opportunities against the Red Sox, but he’s been almost perfect ever since. The Hammer of God, they call him, because of the authority with which he delivers a single pitch, his “cutter,” over and over and over. Now, as I frantically write up my Rushdie notes, he puts the White Sox down in order for his 30th consecutive save. “A bunch of people had me retiring [after the Boston series],” the Hammer of God will say after the game. “But I trust my stuff. I know who I am.”