Salman Rushdie writes, and rock and roll rules

On books

April 04, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

"The Ground Beneath Her Feet," by Salman Rushdie. Henry Holt. 578 pages. $27.50.

It's the best thing ever written about rock and roll. It is rock and roll. Most of such writing is dumb or preening or just doesn't get it. The trouble with rock and roll is the words (half of them never get heard) and the music (very simple and so loud you can hardly hear it). So what is it? Why is it important? Because it's force. It's animal, human, spiritual power! It's exclamation, not explanation. It's experience, not explication.

Salman Rushdie's got that. He does it. And he wraps everything else up in it: love, art, mortality. He puts it into an almost-600-page novel that is as fine and truthful as anything I have read in so long that I can't think of comparisons without marching straight into the mouth of the canon. Comparison to James Joyce's "Ulysses" is inevitable, and earned.

"The Ground Beneath Her Feet" begins: "On St. Valentine's Day, 1989, the last day of her life, the legendary popular singer Vina Apsara woke sobbing from a dream of human sacrifice in which she had been the intended victim."

It is not for nothing that on that exact day the Ayatolla Khomeini declared to all Islam the irrevocable decree that anyone who would kill Salman Rushdie would, on death, be transported immediately to the Highest Heaven, and would, dead or alive, get $2 million (now raised to $3.2 million) in bounty. All for writing his fourth novel, "The Satanic Verses," which Khomeini adjudged to blaspheme Islam. This is Rushdie's eighth book of fiction, written, as were his last two books, while living in protected anonymity. It is his strongest, most developed -- best -- work.

Vina Apsara is 44 at her death and she has been a sex goddess for a long time. Her partner in music and -- more or less -- in life, has been Ormus Cama.

As in Venus. As in Kama Sutra.

Vina was born in the United States of an Indian father and a psychotic American mother. Frightfully abused, she was more or less adopted by distant cousins in Bombay, parents of the narrator, Umeed Merchant. His childhood pet name is Rai, and he "was always there for" Vina. From adolescence until almost her death they were secret lovers -- though Ormus was the love of her life and ultimately her widower.

The three grow up closely intertwined, amid the rich, complex culture and privilege of post-colonial Bombay. In the fabric of the tale, which spans Vina and Ormus' lifetimes, Rai ultimately lives on as an Everyman.

At the beginning of the book, which is the end of her life, Vina is the world-champion rock star of rock stars, lately separated from Ormus, losing edge and audience. Their combination, their band, had been VTO, to which Rushdie gives almost a half-page of deliciously ambiguous origins -- the first of a book-long torrent of his word games.

The narrative -- as much great writing -- is elaborately layered and nuanced. Punful. Within the first 10 pages of the book, Vina discusses with the narrator an oncoming earthquake, which ultimately kills her. Intricate stuff, but at one point, she admonishes him: "Don't try and Richter me, Rai, honey. I been scaled."

There's lots of that. A top rock impresario is Yul Singh. Rushdie loves language. It loves him right back.

Get on with the story

I can drink this prose, gulp it, sip it, delight in it, spend 20 minutes on a page playing with it, poking it, turning over an image here, a verb there, a treble-nuanced noun out by the corner, and then go back and run the fingers of my mind and ear through the entire page all over again.

There are stories galore, the way that people's lives -- especially interesting, energetic lives -- are full of stories. And then there is the story.

That starts off with the earthquake, which may be a shucking off of a big part of the skin of the world's more-or-less collective and generalized popular culture. The book is, at a half-dozen intermingled levels, the Orpheus and Eurydice legend -- a deadly, deathless love epic.

The "ground" of the title is a sustained metaphor of the earth and the underworld. The confrontation of solidity vs. evanescence. Of life on earth vs. what is below. Of the visible and manageable vs. the invisible and feared. Of reality and hell. Of Orpheus and Eurydice, of Vina and Ormus.

Fantasies play into realities, each becomes the other. Artfully, the whole hangs together and doesn't elude or confuse.

So the book moves to the beginnings of the three characters -- intermingled in childhood and adolescence -- and the tales of their rise: Ormus is a born musical genius, a player and composer and writer. Vina has a voice that is exquisite beyond all others. Rai, the narrator, develops into a photographer, a very good one.

Snapping immortality

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