The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie
In a recent conversation about Salman Rushdie's work I said that the best word I can think of to describe him is "inexhaustible". "Inexhaustible or exhaustible?" I was asked. "He's an inexhaustible writer," I said, "But his writing is exhaustible." I've never read someone as positively relentless as Rushdie, and sometimes his work is borderline unreadable for me; when his narrative slips into that long-winded place, it takes a long-winded reader to be able to keep up. Even so, challenging and energy-tapping as Rushdie’s work may be, soaked as it is in his own tirelessness, the challenge and the exhausting nature (and, yes, maybe even the ego) are what keep me unable to commit to disliking his books. (On the contrary: I loved The Enchantress of Florence.) The opulence of Rushdie’s prose excites me, and there’s a thrill of standing waist-dip in one of his paragraph-long sentences that I find somewhat unique to him. There’s a hardly-veiled confidence in his writing - some will even call it conceit or narcissism - but it's Rushdie’s blatantly unapologetic celebration of his own ability that begets his brilliance (though brilliance is, of course, subjective). The first person who must believe in your own genius, in your absolute right to be here, is you. That’s what the extravagant nature of Rushdie’s work teaches me. Of my somewhat brief experience with Rushdie (so far), The Ground Beneath Her Feet seems to emulate what I've come to know as the defining factors of his unique artistry. It's the story of Ormus Cama and Vina Apsara, legendary rock stars whose collaboration changed the shape of music and whose love affair changed the shape of their lives. Complicating an already complicated relationship is the novel's narrator, Rai, the mutual friend whose love for Vina has haunted him all his life; he is, as he says, the only one of their trio who was able to jump into the abyss of music and survive the fall. Written with Rushdie's practiced and ever-unpredictable brand of magical realism, The Ground Beneath Her Feet leaves reality behind to submerge its characters in an entirely new world, yet one breached by the musicians, songs, and figures of the eras that cannot help but transcend time and space. It's a world where Kennedy's assassination was a failed attempt; where Elvis Presley's legendary aura is occupied by the fictional Jesse Garon Parker; where songwriters Carly Simon and Guinevere Garfunkel penned the timeless classic "Bridge Over Troubled Waters". In the way that he intersperses the real world with his own creation, Rushdie exercises his mischievous aptitude for dramatic play, his singular brazen that puns its way toward what some would call rare literary achievement. It's this quality that, I think, makes Rushdie such a seminal writer, but it’s also the same quality that sometimes makes him a challenge for me to enjoy. There's a sense of rich entitlement that comes with spinning something as vital as the history of rock music into your own story, but even so, Rushdie's work is carried on the sort of cheeky charisma that I find myself consistently intrigued by. Sometimes he loses me, but nevertheless I find myself pulled in by curiosity again and again.
The trio at the center of The Ground Beneath Her Feet are thoroughly complex, and their flaws run deep. I felt, despite the expanse of narrative, a constant distance between myself (the reader in general) and Vina; it struck me as intentional, maybe even necessary, to illustrate the unreachable quality of this woman whom the world obsesses over and deems a rock goddess, but whose troubles run unhindered beneath the surface. Ormus, alternatively, felt a bit more lethargic and even a bit uninteresting to me, perhaps because he is deemed the most extraordinary singer of his age - a rendering of both Elvis and Lennon with clear signs pointing to each - yet his spark didn't quite blaze like Vina's. I think, though, that contributes to their immortal connection, how one completes the other and how separated from each other they aren't quite whole. Rai is the character the reader spends the most time with, being the one at the helm of the first-person narrative. There were moments when his perpetual inattention, his constant desire to drift off into meaningless asides, felt reminiscent of J.D. Salinger; and the rambling nature of Salinger's narrators (especially Buddy Glass in Seymour: An Introduction) are one of my favorite things about Salinger. But, for me, there's a reason why Salinger wrote mostly novellas and short stories. For such a long novel as The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Rai's twisting-turning narrative takes a particularly patient reader. Nonetheless, some of those winding asides become interesting journeys into language; they had me both riveted and restless. One the whole, the novel is a complex examination of the small flaws in human nature and how they can, when pulled at by passion and excess, fray into oblivion. In that, I think The Ground Beneath Her Feet excels at its mission; but, of course, it fits to a very specific taste, and an even more specific taste yet when the book runs at close to six hundred pages.
For me, The Ground Beneath Her Feet is a labor of love; it simultaneously presents challenges while also providing some of the most beautiful, thought-provoking passages. That itself might sum up how I feel about Rushdie's work in general. There's extraordinary vision here that cannot be denied – the entire world Rushdie has created, that alone I would choose to live in for five hundred and seventy-five pages – but there's also a complexity in its nature that expounded on both my patience and my ability to keep up with Rushdie's voracious narrative. That can happen with any writer who harbors insatiable prowess, keen intellect, and a knack for mischief. Sometimes the challenge is worth it, sometimes it isn't. For me, The Ground Beneath Her Feet is worth the effort of yo-yoing between inattention and absorption for the treasure of beautiful prose woven into a blazing world rendered from a tumultuous, iconic generation.