- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Alternately astonishing and exasperating, littered with linguistic marvels as well as irresistible puns, and positively teeming with an eclectic range of cultural desiderata, Salman Rushdie's immense new novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet , is a rambling, multidimensional rock opera that spans the latter half of the 20th century in its tale of star-crossed lovers fated to find and lose each other, again and again, throughout their extraordinary lives in music.
Beginning with his first novel, Grimus (1975), Rushdie has indulged an obsession with the power of mythology to shape — for better and for worse — the society that created it. Indeed, it was his reduction of Koranic scripture to its mythic elements (and mischievous reworking of the same) that led to the Ayatollah Khomeini's decidedly unfunny valentine of 1989. For Rushdie, the fatwa shook the very foundations of the world he had known, leaving him precariously suspended between shifting realities. It is no mere coincidence, then, that this book opens on February 14, 1989, with the disappearance of the legendary rock diva Vina Apsara in a cataclysmic earthquake shortly after she sets Mexico all aquiver with an aria from Gluck's "Orfeo et Eurydice."
The Ground Beneath Her Feet is the fullest expression to date of Rushdie's fascination with Indo-European mythology. Far from a straightforward retelling of the myth of Orpheus, the novel blends and blurs history, religion, philosophy, music, and pop culture to create an epic East-meets-West romance about love, death, and rock 'n' roll. At its centeris the love story of supernaturally gifted musician Ormus Cama and internationally adored pop diva Vina Apsara, narrated by Ormus's childhood friend (and, unknown to Ormus, Vina's sometime lover), Rai, a.k.a. Umeed Merchant.
As Rai steels himself to the task of revealing the truth of his shared history with Vina and Ormus, he delivers one of the book's finest passages:
Why do we care about singers? Wherein lies the power of songs? Maybe it derives from the sheer strangeness of there being singing in the world. The note, the scale, the chord; melodies, harmonies, arrangements, symphonies, ragas, Chinese operas, jazz, the blues: that such things should exist, that we should have discovered the magical intervals and distances that yield the poor cluster of notes, all within the span of a human hand, from which we can build our cathedrals of sound, is as alchemical a mystery as mathematics, or wine, or love. Maybe the birds taught us. Maybe not. Maybe we are just creatures in search of exaltation. We don't have much of it. Our lives are not what we deserve; they are, let us agree, in many painful ways deficient. Song turns them into something else. Song shows us a world that is worthy of our yearning, it shows us our selves as they might be, if we were worthy of the world.Ormus Cama enters the world almost as an afterthought, preceded by his stillborn dizygotic twin, Gayomart. Within hours of his birth, Ormus has already begun to assert his nascent musicality with a virtuosic — and, for Bombay in 1937, somewhat puzzling — display of air-guitar playing. But through a series of tragic events involving his older twin brothers, Cyrus and Virus, Ormus's musical gifts are prematurely silenced for the next 17 years, impatiently awaiting release with true love's first kiss.
A world away in America, Vina — born Nissa Shetty to an Indian father and a Medealike mother of Greek heritage — narrowly survives a violent, goat-infested childhood in rural Virginia and upstate New York before being packed off to her only surviving relatives in India. There, in 1956, nine-year-old Umeed Merchant meets the already voluptuous, teenage Vina on Bombay's Juhu Beach and falls utterly, hopelessly in love.
Rushdie brilliantly describes the tragicomic complexities of each of his central characters' families. The rift created when Rai's paternal great-grandfather embraced Islam — "that least huggable of faiths" — still divides the various branches of the Merchant clan, though his parents — architects and excavators of the past and future Bombay — are only nominally religious. Vina's viciously opportunistic guardian, Piloo Doodhwala, is a chauvinistic Hindu nationalist and an ambitious entrepreneur whose vast and utterly fictitious network of government-subsidized goat farms will one day provide Rai with a lurid scandal with which to launch his career as a photojournalist (though, as for Rushdie himself, the price of his fame is exile). Ormus's father, Sir Darius Cama, is an unreconstructed Anglophile, ardent Freemason, eminent barrister-at-law, and arch classicist. Through his extensive study of comparative mythology with the English Lord Methwold, Sir Darius defines the triple concept of religious sovereignty, physical force, and fertility as the true unifying trinity of both Eastern and Western civilizations. To this tenet Rushdie interposes the novel's central theme, the crucial fourth function of outsideness: "in every generation there are a few souls, call them lucky or cursed, who are simply born not belonging." Forever linked in a mythic ménage à trois, Ormus, Vina, and Rai are Rushdie's quasi-divine outsiders, though ultimately it is Ormus — guided by his dead twin, Gayomart — who steps farthest outside the frame to see the whole, terrifying picture.
The first sign that this might not be the world as we know it comes when the 17-year-old Ormus — "quiffed, sideburned and pelvis swinging" — becomes outraged after hearing a recording of "Heartbreak Hotel" — a song that Ormus has been singing for years — by the American rock-'n'-roll icon Jesse Garon Parker. While communing with Gayomart in a meditative state he calls the Cama obscura, Ormus also channels "The Great Pretender" and a Rastafarian interpretation of "Blowin' in the Wind." (In Rushdie's alternate reality, "Bridge over Troubled Water" is sung by the duo of Carly Simon and Guinevere Garfunkel; JFK escapes dual assassins in Dallas only to be killed a few years later, along with his brother Bobby, by a single ricocheting bullet; and the British, not the Americans, are humiliated in Indochina.)
When Ormus and the underage Vina do come together at last, he vows eternal love and makes the first of a series of "heroic oaths," promising not to touch her until she turns 16. Though neither Ormus nor Vina can foresee the consequences of this vow, it is this near-perpetual state of sexual tension that will fuel their creative careers and eventually give birth to VTO, the international supergroup through which they will rise to fame, if not fortune. Eventually, after a single night of Olympian lovemaking, Vina disappears to begin her singing career in America, leaving Ormus to stumble blindly after her.
So begins a decade of heartache and disappointment, during which Ormus pines for Vina, becomes increasingly aware of the looming collision of parallel worlds, and experiences a series of all-too-familiar rock-'n'-roll scenarios: exploitation by a powerful and avaricious producer; a nurturing, homosexual manager who takes him under his wing; and finally, a Dylanesque motor crash that leaves him in a deep coma, once again awaiting the kiss of life from his pop princess.
Given the established cycle of "waiting for her, briefly possessing her, then losing her," it doesn't take a rocket scientist to predict the arc of Ormus and Vina's personal and professional careers. However, readers willing to brave the obligatory "tragical history tour" of Vina's hot-and-cold-running karma and Ormus's dogged determination to achieve a Syd Barrett-like state of lunatic detachment will find that Rushdie still has a few satisfying — if not entirely unexpected — twists in store for them. The essential problem with this exhaustive recasting of the rock era's high- and lowlights is that readers who have grown up in the MTV/VH1 school of "Where Are They Now?," those of us who experienced the '60s and '70s firsthand, and anyone who has memorized the lyrics to "American Pie" are not likely to find this section of the book particularly enlightening.
In the book's closing pages, Rai muses, "In my lifetime, the love of Ormus and Vina is as close as I've come to a knowledge of the mythic, the overweening, the divine." And it is in its exploration of the mythic, the overweening, and the divine that The Ground Beneath Her Feet is at its operatically mind-boggling best.