THE GROUND BENEATH HER FEET
By Salman Rushdie
About 25 years ago Thomas Wolfe wrote a book called The Painted Word,
his thesis being that modern painting had given up attempting to interpret
reality or express feeling in order to simply follow the pronouncements of
certain trendy theorists. In the book world, following a slight delay, the same
phenomenon gave rise to a group I like to call the schoolroom novelists.
My point? While Salman Rushdie may not have started out as such a hack of
academe, his latest book shows that this is where he has at last arrived.
Forget for a moment Rushdie's status as a best-seller (it is, after all, only
a function of his accidental celebrity). I expect few people will finish The
Ground Beneath Her Feet except to write a term paper or article on it, and,
even then, there will be some who fudge. Schoolroom novelists write to be talked
about, not to be read.
In outline, the story follows the careers of two pop musicians: Ormus Cama
and Vina Apsara. The narrator is a photographer named Rai - a "second
fiddle" to the stars who labours in the shadow of their celebrity/divinity.
Rest assured he does not begin to tell their Bombay-to-top-of-the-charts story
without first striking an appropriately pretentious opening note ("Vina, I
must betray you, so that I can let you go. Begin.").
Only a very few books are all bad. To be fair, the supporting characters in
this one, such as the anglophile Indian classicist Darius Xerxes Cama, are a lot
of fun. Unfortunately, they are more than outweighed by the three leads, who are
flat, unsympathetic, and uninteresting. I never believed for a moment in the
global importance of Vina and Ormus, and the insipid lyrics that are submitted
as evidence of their genius only left me thinking I was missing the joke.
Then there is the writing. There are stretches that stand with the the worst
I have ever read. The exposition is not only dull and overgrown, but
uncomfortable - convinced of its own seriousness yet full of a grating
As far as the narrative is concerned, forget it. That's not why we read books
in school. What we get instead is a barrage of puns, fashionably learned asides,
undigested myth, and disjointed reflections on the indeterminacy of being.
Finally, it should come as no surprise to schoolroom readers that Ormus and
Vina are inhabitants of that parallel world of fiction that constitutes the
post-modern grail. In that world, "President Nixon" is an imaginary
character in a novel called The Watergate Affair, while famous authors
have names like Dedalus, Caulfield, and Yossarian.
Get it? For Rai/Rushdie there is no "easy separation of fancy and
fact," not because the line has been blurred, but because there is no fact
left to be separated. The schoolroom novelists, much like their academic
sponsors, prefer to contemplate their novels, with no interest in anything
outside the world of the book. The result is writing that swallows its own tail.
Aside from illustrating a bankrupt theory of fiction, Rushdie has almost
nothing to say. The mythic material is laid on pretty thick, but the point of it
all is never clear. And the conclusion, which suggests that celebrities never
die but are apotheosized in some kind of mass-media afterlife, actually manages
to be both banal and overwrought.
Enough already. Class dismissed.
Review first published July 10, 1999.