The Ground Beneath Her Feet

by Salman Rushdie

Published by Henry Holt

1999, 592 pages


Read an excerpt of the book.







The Earth Moves

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


In his seventh novel, Salman Rushdie brings us an epic report about western life at the end of the second millennium. The story centers on Vina Apsara and her lover Ormus Cama, a pair who have brought almost unthinkable influence and change to western music: to rock and roll. Together their music has dwarfed that of the Beatles and The Rolling Stones and any other influential group you might care to name. Apsara and Cama have been the pair that all others have given their props to throughout the tumultuous last three decades of rock. Their story -- the story of their love, music and rise to the heights of their lives and influence -- is told by Rai, a photographer who was Ormus' and Vina's childhood friend and who becomes Vina's sometime lover.

The Ground Beneath Her Feet is epic in scope, incomparable in heart and filled with enough ironic laughter for two books. It is this laughter that always surprises me most about Rushdie's work. He of the serious thoughts and envious honorary degrees. Rushdie's humor is sharp, well honed, and subtle enough to sneak up on you when you least expect it. For instance, the photographer Rai works for the "Nebuchadnezzar Agency." A fictional photographic agency, of course. However, without doubt, the most famous non-fictional photo agency in the world is called Magnum. This, then, is another one of Rushdie's very inside inside jokes because a magnum is -- of course -- a litre and a half bottle of champagne. However, a nebuchadnezzar is a much bigger bottle of champagne. In fact, to my knowledge, it's the biggest. Imagine, then, a book completely filled with humor so subtle that only the very rarest of readers will understand every reference or get every joke.

To my mind, it is this quality that has made Rushdie the memorable writer that he is. He can make us laugh or cry seemingly at will and without the least warning of transitions.

What's a "culture"? Look it up. "A group of micro-organisms grown in a nutrient substance under controlled conditions." A squirm of germs on a glass slide is all, a laboratory experiment calling itself a society. Most of us wrigglers make do with life on that slide; we even agree to feel proud of that "culture." Like slaves voting for slavery or brains for lobotomy, we kneel down before the god of all moronic microorganisms and pray to be homogenized or killed or engineered; we promise to obey.

We know a few things about Salman Rushdie. We know, for instance, that he is perhaps one of the most illusive writers of this generation. His name is a household word, and his work -- or at least his reputation -- as familiar as that of any of his contemporaries. He is also completely unique among that rarest of rare creatures: the international bestseller. Rushdie doesn't seem to feel the need to crank out a formula bestseller with the clockwork-like schedule of a Grisham or a Steele. Nor does he seem to hold to any preconceptions of what a novel should be or what it should contain. Rushdie's novels, therefore, are predictable in their unpredictableness. Big fat tomes just often enough to keep the literarti twittering between releases and ambiguous enough that the name Rushdie and the word movie seem never to be said in the same breath.

Despite these contradictions, we do have expectations of Salman Rushdie. We expect to be at least a little slightly shocked: and not in the conventional 20th century way. Rushdie doesn't use Tarantino-like devices to keep his readers rapt, but rather he takes shots at the things we understand to be static: religious, literary, political ideas. Rushdie never seems to care much for conventions at all. And so, in a few run-on sentences that any self-respecting English teacher would blue pencil to death without any provocation at all, Rushdie manages to paint emotions and scene and setting so completely, we're out of breath before we even get going. Early in The Ground Beneath Her Feet we're treated to one of these long thoughts:

Meanwhile, Vina's playboy lover had been taken to hospital in the grip of drug-induced seizures so extreme that they eventually proved fatal, and for days afterwards, because of what happened to Vina, the world was treated to detailed analyses of the contents of the dead man's bloodstream, his stomach, his intestines, his scrotum, his eye sockets, his appendix, his hair, in fact everything except his brain, which was not thought to contain anything of interest, because it had been so thoroughly scrambled by narcotics that nobody could understand his last words, spoken during his final, comatose delirium.

One sentence. So completely jammed with stuff it's difficult to keep up. Yet an effect is achieved: the rat-tat-tat pace is crucial to these early passages and sets the pace for what will follow. But don't expect an easy course.

Near the middle of The Ground Beneath Her Feet , which -- interestingly enough -- is also the time of the book's first major geographical shift, the narrative cracks. Here Rushdie begins a series of changes in voice, tense and point of view that tear at any sense of complacency the reader might have had and -- indeed -- moves the ground beneath our literary feet. Were this another writer it would be tempting to call for editing or self-restraint. But this is Rushdie, and so we look harder for his method and forgive him for this madness. And, perhaps, an effect is achieved. Though I would prefer more conventional methods. If you shake a reader too hard, you might lose him. And -- after these quick shifts -- I felt a little lost, myself.

But -- again -- this is Rushdie. And the music and laughter he brings us with his erratic shifts of time and place are enough for us to forgive him his self-indulgence.

This is why we read Rushdie. The story may or may not be compelling. The characters may or may not feel real and knowable and human. His plotting might at times be suspect and I don't even want to talk about his transitions. But for clear shots of insight into the human condition and the universe as it might be, Rushdie always moves the ground beneath our feet. | April 1999


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.