(Random House, 2019)
Towards the end of Salman Rushdie’s new Quichotte, we get the précis. We hear it from the author, but crucially, that’s not our author. The busy Manhattanite of 72, former PEN President, Booker Prize winner and more, the fatwa survivor who recently delivered a droll cameo on HBO—no, not him. Rather, that man has invented this other, a spy novelist generally referred to as “Brother” though he has a nom de plume. On a rare get-together with “Sister” (indeed, that the siblings meet at all makes for high drama), the man speaks of his novel in progress, Quichotte. In this new take, the old knight retains his “beautiful foolishness,” but the text seeks “to take on the destructive, mind-numbing junk culture of his time just as Cervantes had...,” while also exploring “impossible, obsessional love, father-son relationships, sibling quarrels.... Indian immigrants, racism...,” plus “cyber spies, science fiction, ...the death of the author,” with “elements of... satire and pastiche.”
Sister replies: “Nothing very ambitious, then.”
And he, without missing a beat: “it’s about opioid addiction too.”
It’s all that, I’d add, and a reading experience that will wear out your abdominals with laughter. Rushdie may have chosen a mighty theme, as Melville advises, but never before has he been so uproarious. Quichotte doesn’t just crack jokes, either, but also prompts visions. What seems like “reality,” in one extended scene, will highlight a design in its wallpaper, and next thing you know that design will erupt into another reality altogether, and this one together with the previous will decorate the narrative all the more richly. The upshot is a fiction that ranks among this author’s two or three greatest.
In my exchange with Rushdie, conducted via email, I figured it best to get out of the way—to let this marvelously self-referential text speak for itself. To watch a trick unfold, even in part, adds resonance to the words of the magician.
John Domini (Rail): Your early chapters each introduce a new character, a player who pops out of the one we just met, and then comes an interesting “interjection.” In an authorial voice that recalls Cervantes, you dismiss complaints that a novel “should not sprawl in this way”; you argue that “today’s stories... must be of this plural, sprawling kind, because a kind of nuclear fission has taken place in human lives and relations,” and now all these vagrant “seed-spores” offer “the best available lenses to view this broken world.” Care to comment further?
Salman Rushdie: I wanted a book of many characters, their very different stories crowding in, until we see—more and more clearly as their stories continue—that they are all in the same story, echoing, mirroring, being variant forms of one another’s tales, and adding up, if I have done it right, to a polyphonous story of Now. I’ve always been interested in the crowd as metaphor, in the image of our own story having to push its way through a multitude of other tales, rubbing shoulders with them, bumping into them, and in some way being shaped by them. The crowd is a place where the individual and the multitude merge. And yes, I’ve long thought that the phenomenon of mass migration is in some way at the heart of the Now, that so many of us are travelers now, ending up far from where we began, separated from our past, our loved ones, from large sections of our own narratives, and that this fracturing turns us into the kind of broken mirrors that best reflect our time. Of course I’m biased in favor of this idea because I have been, in my time, a double migrant, from India to the UK, then from the UK to America. So this is also a very personal matter to me, and I think that for all its playfulness and carnivalesque aspects this is a very personal and emotional book, in which I’ve tried—as the old do—to make some sort of reckoning with the life I’ve known, the world I’ve known, as all of that approaches a conclusion. It’s a book with a sense of an ending.
Rail: Speaking of wanderers, your novel starts in Gallup, NM, with a Knight of the Woeful Cheap Lodging, peddling pharmaceuticals and yet “a sort of dharma bum.” Thereafter, much of the action takes place in the American hinterlands, in a Chevy Cruze, with people raising warnings like “you need your wits about you if you want to ride the road.” Is this, as they might say in Studio City, Cervantes meets Kerouac?
Rushdie: My last novel, The Golden House (2012), focused closely on New York City. This time I wanted to get out of the 212 area code and get into a number of other strange places, some half-real, some half-invented. So, inevitably, Quichotte became a road novel, and I thought about other road novels and road movies too. So, Cervantes meets Easy Rider (1969) as much as Kerouac, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), too. But I also blended these American journeys with a very Eastern one. In the late 12th century the Persian writer Fariduddin Attar wrote The Conference of the Birds (1177), a sort of Eastern Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), in which thirty birds undertake an allegorical journey towards God. I borrowed the Valleys they have to traverse from Attar, and gave them to my protagonist Quichotte, who has also embarked on a journey which is not only physical but also moral, a journey of the soul towards worthiness. However, Quichotte isn’t seeking a god, but a woman he has elevated to near-goddess status. He is a seeker after transcendent love.
Rail: The novel tears into contemporary American spectacle, a culture you frankly term “garbage”: “Normal is unreal people, mostly rich unreal people, having sex with rappers and basketball players and thinking of their unreal family as a real-world brand, like Pepsi or Drano or Ford.” Yet at the same time, Quichotte depends on tropes of old science fiction, the stuff of magazines like Astounding (while also giving a nod to Godard’s Alphaville ). Material like that, some would argue, doesn’t count as high culture. Or does it? Do you mean to eat your cake at the same time as you point out it’s toxic?
Rushdie: It’s just fine, I think, in a novel to try to have your cake and eat it too. I did want to say, as Cervantes said in his time, that junk culture corrodes the larger culture. The junk culture that corrupts the mind of old Quichotte really is junk, I think. But I like science fiction, and the two stories that have influenced my book - Arthur C. Clarke’s "The Nine Billion Names of God" (1953) and Katherine MacLean’s "Pictures Don’t Lie" (1951)—are anything but garbage.
Rail: Most novels treat love as some sort of happy ending, something transcendent or at least better. But while Quichotte often speaks of love, the impetus keeps turning perverse. Your man’s quest for a “single perfect love” sets him after a decidedly sketchy talk-show hostess, hooked on her daily fentanyl popsicle: “these days the only way to joy was through chemistry... to put euphoria in your mouth and suck on it. This was the lover who never disappointed you....” Similar inhumanity festers in the family relationships, both those of the “real” writer and of his dream protagonist—the spirals wheel away like that cone figure in the Twilight Zone intro. Such disorientation can be fascinating, but when it distorts the possibility of love, can it sustain a long fiction? Can a novelist both let readers down and lead them deeper into the story?
Rushdie: Well, others will have to tell me if my tale sustains their interest. The book deals with love of three kinds—romantic love, here presented as obsessional, and treated with, I hope, a kind of comic sweetness; the love (and failures of love) between brothers and sisters; and the love (and distances) between fathers and sons. Not all of these stories end badly. Some of them work out, others don’t. I’m certainly not interested in letting readers down. I want to carry them along, to places they may not recently have visited (or visited at all).
Rail: In the quotes above, we’ve gotten snippets of your incantatory style, the piling on. Yet the text also bristles with aphorism. Many are funny, like “television is the god that goes on giving,” and a number chilling: “We walk unknowing amid the shadows of our past and, forgetting our history, are ignorant of ourselves.” These points of style owe something to Señor Cervantes and other early novelists. But you, very much of the 21st Century— how’d you come to it? How’d you strike such a tone?
Rushdie: This is just the way it comes out, I’m afraid. This is the stuff in my head. The music goes round and round, and it comes out here. I can’t say I chose a tone to strike. The tone struck me, that’s more like the truth.
Rail: The object of Quichotte’s affection may be six parts fantasy, but she has a distinctly familiar name: Salma R. Likewise familiar, to those who know your work, is the pseudonym of the lackey who buys her drugs: “Conrad Chekhov.” “Joseph Anton,” after all, was the name you used when still facing a death sentence for Satanic Verses (1988)—and also the title of your memoir of those days. The Man Behind the Curtain, it seems, is revealing himself. What can you tell us about that?
Rushdie: “Salma R” is a joke about autobiography. The question novelists get asked more than any other is, how autobiographical is it?—and its variant form, which character is you? So I thought I’d make “me” a Bollywood movie star turned American talkshow queen with a bad opioid addiction. That sounds about right.
Rail: Finally, a question that doesn’t require quotation. US writers talk a lot about community, a group of like-minded thinkers and creators who helped them shape their work. Philip Roth, for instance, relied on Richard Stern as a beta reader for decades—Stern, among others. Yet your biography has taken you all over the place, and away from obvious sources of community. It would seem you’re as much a lone wolf as Nabokov. It’d be interesting to hear your thoughts on the fellowship of other artists, or on how it’s changed as you’ve become a citizen of New York.
Rushdie: Many writers have been and are dear friends. Among the lost, Angela Carter, Bruce Chatwin. Among the living, Paul Auster, Kiran Desai, several others. But it’s true that I resist the idea of being a part of a gang. “Je suis Marxiste,” as we used to say, “tendance Groucho.” The true Grouchist, you’ll remember, did not wish to join any club that was willing to have him as a member. This was my position in London and remains my position in New York. However, through my work with PEN America, I have found a way to be a good literary citizen, and to do what I can to assist those in the community of writers who need help, and to celebrate the art we all love.