With Fury, Salman Rushdie has established a new depth to sink to from the brilliant heights of Midnight's Children and Shame. This, his eighth novel, starts as an enjoyable and entirely predictable critique of contemporary America: "Under the self-satisfied rhetoric of this repackaged, homogenized America, this America with the twenty-two million new jobs and the highest home-owning rate in history, this balanced budget, low-deficit, stock-owning Mall America, people were stressed-out, cracking up, and talking about it all day long in superstrings of moronic clichT."
Over a century ago, similar passages reached the light of the page as non-fiction, in Dickens's travel memoir American Notes. In both, the observations are precise, the interpretations often wrong. If Rushdie is lucky, some pompous intellectual like William Safire will take him to task for taking America to task, and Fury might sell, but anyone buying will be sorely disappointed. This sporty new VW, bouncing along, ranting about American cultural values with the window down, quickly becomes the shallow, embarrassing mid-life crisis of a macho know-it-all baby-boomer. This is a sure waste of a book.
"Life is fury," we are told early, "sexual, Oedipal, political, magical, brutal." Professor Malik Solanka, "retired historian of ideas, irascible dollmaker," has moved abruptly to NYC, leaving his wife and young son asking why. "A knife held over the sleeping figures of your wife and child cannot be mentioned to anyone, much less explained," Solanka tells us. Three young women have been murdered, and Solanka, who gets violent when he drinks and has long memory lapses, fears it's his own doing. Everyone in this book is mad as hell, and they're not taking it any more. Mila, the nubile girrrrl next door, engages Solanka in a surrogate father-daughter seduction: "Professor, don't talk to me about fury, I know what it can do." The firebrand Neela, a woman whose ethereal beauty stops traffic and starts a small revolution, takes Solanka to a political rally, where bloodstains on the sidewalk are evidence of "a gathering fury on the far side of the world: a group fury." The mysterious murders solved ("her killers were too scared of her sexual fury to let her live"), Solanka's patient wife finally comes to New York to "unleash a Fury's deafening, world-destroying shriek." Along the way, Solanka designs more dolls, becomes a billionaire, inspires revolution on an island off the coast of India, and reveals childhood sexual abuse as the cause of his anger. No doubt the condiments on the red-hots were also called Furies until some junior staffer at Random House accidentally edited them out. This last Fury, and the word itself, are used like a cheap rag. The organ-grinder plays on, the monkey dances, and the tune never changes.
Many authors (Nabokov, Genet) employ unlikeable yet sympathetic characters, but there's no salve for Solanka. His arrogant little mind never tires of petty triumphalist commentary, and unaccountably, women find this emotional tar-baby attractive. No reasons are given; they just sleep with him. Clearly we're not dealing in reality here. It's plausible that Solanka has a (miserable) wife, but it is uproariously false to give him the keys to Babeville. So bent is Rushdie on telling the reader about Neela's beauty, he comes off sounding like a pimp selling prepubescent virgins. "Their farewell lovemaking was hurriedly, deliriously prolonged. No problems there of excessive postmodern rapidity."
Remember the writer's dictum, show-don't-tell? Fury is the essence of didacticism. Whenever something is taking too long, Rushdie gives us Monty Python's expurgated version. NYC is shallowly evoked, no matter the allusions to real people and events. Few real children would covet Solanka's over-intellectualized dolls. The revolution in Lilliput-Blefuscu is a failed graft of Waugh's Scoop and DeLillo's Mao II onto Fury's ending. Even the bile is canned; and there is no love or real emotion¨nothing persuasive, awkward, surprising, or profound¨in the entire book.
And the melodrama! "I believe you came here tonight to find out the answer, to see if you could conquer your fury as you helped me conquer mine, to find out if you could find a way of coming back from the edge. Stay with Babur and he'll fill you up with hatred. But you and me: we might just have a shot. . . . 'Wow,' she said, after allowing a suitably respectful moment of silence to elapse. 'And I thought I was the big mouth on this team.'" Fury is the male-menopause novel one goes to bed praying never to read. The vaunted word-play of Rushdie's early work has been replaced by prison soup.
One might accept Fury as the product of a character "pulling the strings" of his own story if author and character were not so enmeshed: but numerous comments and narrative glitches indicate blind spots in Solanka's mind are blind spots in the author's mind too.
What makes this a novel is no longer wit and incredible stories, but the presence of Rushdie himself, grinning his too-clever grin, getting his protagonist off on young women and hauling him around the world just to say "I love you." Kirk Douglas, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Warren Beatty, Salman Rushdie, are heroes of a former mythology: stars who have aged in their business, who have survived, and who go on dragging their marketable carcasses through the same old motions. The simple explanation is, Rushdie hasn't done the work. It's starting to look like he can't. ˛
Derek Webster is the editor of Maisonneuve, a new magazine forthcoming in spring 2002.