by Salman Rushdie

Published by Random House

259 pages, 2001


Mr. Rushdie Comes to America

Reviewed by David Abrams

Salman Rushdie uses words the way some four-year-olds use Play-Doh: squeeze it, mold it, roll it, braid it and, in a few cases, eat it. Language is pliable in Rushdie's hands; syllables stretch, vowels leap to new heights, consonants turn cartwheels.
You can see what he does with prose on every page of his new novel, Fury. It is a festering boil of a book -- restless, energetic and, yes, furious. This is Rushdie's letter to America and it is full of vitriol. It's also one of his slimmest, weighing in around 260 pages. But don't let size fool you -- this is compact, complex and condensed magical realism at its best.

The cast of characters sometimes comes off as types to be used at Rushdie's disposal to put forth his big, boiling ideas. They are as much puppets as they are people. After all, no one in real life speaks in gargantuan monologues that go on for pages; but realism hardly seems to matter when we settle in with Rushdie. Sometimes it's a welcome relief to read Play-Doh literature.

The author moved to this country at the beginning of 2000 and Fury takes on an autobiographical slant as its protagonist, Malik Solanka, also moves here from England (no fatwa nipping at the character's heels, though). Other novels, like 1999s' The Ground Beneath Her Feet, have included U.S. settings, but this is the first Rushdie novel which can truly be called American. Like a modern de Tocqueville, Rushdie has taken notes on the country, from sea to shining sea, and has set his observations loose on the page.

Here, we get pages and pages of jazz-like riffs on everything from Elian Gonzalez to the presidential contest between "Gush and Bore." This is a time capsule for the first few days of our new millennium and it's about as perfect as they come. (Though I do have to wonder: Because this is a novel loaded with contemporary references, it's difficult to determine how future readers will appreciate it. It's thrilling pop cult music to our ears, but 100 -- or even 25 -- years from now, they're going to need a lot of footnotes.)

Fury is about Professor Solanka's Summer of 2000 in New York City. He's come to sort things out after abandoning his wife and young son back in London. He is plagued by feelings of intense anger, triggered by a word here or a word there, which rise up like inner volcanoes and it's all he can do to keep himself in check. Like a roving camera, the narrative follows the 55-year-old Solanka as he walks the mean streets teeming with angry cab drivers and rap-talking stoop-loungers. Solanka has a lot to think about -- he's a celebrity puppeteer whose creation, Little Brain, has become a victim of commercialization. Then there's the failed marriage of his close friend, not to mention his own withering relationship with his wife and son. Solanka bounces like a pinball from one torment to the next.

But what Fury is about is less important than what it is. The novel is paced like a long monologue of someone trying to get all the words out before a blood vessel bursts in his forehead. In fact, it sounds very much like a sweaty-browed, spittle-spitting participant at a poetry slam. Just listen:

Everybody, as well as everything, was for sale. Advertisements had become colossi, clambering like Kong up the walls of buildings. What was more, they were loved. When he was watching TV, Solanka still turned the sound down at commercial breaks, but everyone else, he was sure, turned it up. The girls in the ads -- Esther, Bridget, Elizabeth, Halle, Gisele, Tyra, Isis, Aphrodite, Kate -- were more desirable than the actresses in the show in between; hell, the guys in the ads -- Mark Vanderloo, Marcus Schenkenberg, Marcus Aurelius, Marc Antony, Marky Mark -- were more desirable than the actresses in the shows. And as well as presenting the dream of an ideally beautiful America in which all women were babes and all men were Marks, after doing the basic work of selling pizza and SUVs and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, beyond money management and the new ditditdit of the dotcoms, the commercials soothed America's pain, its head pain, its gas pain, its heartache, its loneliness, the pain of babyhood and old age, of being a parent and of being a child, the pain of manhood and women's pain, the pain of success and that of failure, the good pain of the athlete and the bad pain of the guilty, the anguish of loneliness and of ignorance, the needle-sharp torment of the cities and the dull, mad ache of the empty plains, the pain of wanting without knowing what was wanted, the agony of the howling void within each watching, semiconscious self.

Make sure you have plenty of oxygen on hand when you open Fury. It's one hell of a ride through Solanka's mind. He is an angry, impulsive man; but he is also pitiable and, at book's end, a bit desperate for love and acceptance. Most of the book chronicles Solanka's attempts to fit himself, the odd puzzle piece, into the mosaic of society. He's none too successful ("Something was amiss with the world"), not even in the relationships he strikes up with two women that summer. He has come to America to erase himself:

To be free of attachment and so also of anger, fear, and pain. Eat me, Professor Solanka silently prayed. Eat me, America, and give me peace.

Instead of being erased, however, he's like a furious scribble (perhaps done by a four-year-old who has graduated from Play-Doh). At times, he borders on downright frightening: "He had come in search of silence and found a loudness greater than the one he left behind. The noise was inside him now." Did I mention that there's a so-called Concrete Killer who's on the loose, bashing in the heads of young women with chunks of concrete? You're allowed to shudder when you meet Malik Solanka on the page. A more unsettled -- and unsettling -- character you aren't likely to find in this fall's lineup of fresh-pressed novels. | September 2001


David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.