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The Boston Phoenix Rushdie's Rock Opera

Can this "writer for the ages" still hear the music?

By Eric Grode

JUNE 7, 1999: 

THE GROUND BENEATH HER FEET, by Salman Rushdie. Henry Holt & Co., 575 pages, $26.

The opening earthquake sequence of The Ground Beneath Her Feet, with its tequila-flooded deserts and disquisitions on the myth of Orpheus, confirms Salman Rushdie's abilities as a first-rate foreshadower. But no matter how revealing his allusions are, the expected conclusions still somehow surprise you in the end. If only they had lived up to the advance billing this time.

The first half of the book finds Rushdie on solid (and welcome) ground: corralling a hodgepodge of expertly drawn characters in the streets of Bombay. These Dickensian chapters sketch out the lineages of the three main characters: Ormus Cama, the preternaturally gifted musician born with a dead twin and apocalyptic visions (shades of Elvis and Bob Dylan, plus a little Brian Wilson); Vina Apsara, the hard-luck, golden-voiced wild child transplanted from America (think three parts Madonna to one part Selena); and Rai Merchant, the tone-deaf photojournalist who drifts in and out of Vina's life.

Fans of Midnight's Children or any of Rushdie's other novels won't be disappointed by the supporting cast waiting in the wings here, or by the wealth of plot details. We quickly learn of assignations and Musical Muscle Control, murderous mothers and brothers, obsessions with digging into the ground and climbing into the sky -- all the factors that will turn Rai into a rationalist photographer able to look "beyond the trappings of the actual, and penetrate to its bloody flesh and heart," and Ormus and Vina into VTO, the Greatest Rock Band Ever.

All three break away from their families and make their way west about halfway through the book. Unfortunately, they leave all the really interesting people behind. Rai has a fair amount to offer, largely because his voyeuristic career naturally gives voice to Rushdie's manic recollections and heart-rending confessions. But Ormus's monastic devotion to his music and to Vina leaves him dramatically inert, and Vina is reduced to a populist dervish, content "to roar and suck and boo and preen and demolish and cheerlead and revolutionise and innovate and flash and boast and scold." This laundry list demonstrates how enamored Rai is of Vina; it also shows why the reader may not share his opinion.

One of Rushdie's less successful conceits is to set the story in a cutesy alternate reality, where people listen to Carly Simon and Guinevere Garfunkel, where Watergate is a fictional MacGuffin and Kennedy lives, where Nathan Zuckerman and Yossarian are authors and Dr. T.J. Eckleburg is an actual optician. The importance of creating this parallel world becomes clear near the end as Ormus's visions intensify -- the reappearance of the world as we know it might not be such a good thing here, tectonically speaking -- but it too often comes off as a series of cheap in-jokes.

The biggest problem with the book, though, is its depiction of the music world. The minutiae of the business -- the anarchic self-importance of pirate radio, a war of financial attrition between moguls and managers -- ring true enough, and Rushdie introduces a few choice characters along the way, but VTO itself sounds like a ghastly mix of John, Yoko, U2, and ELO.

Rushdie's ear, usually so finely tuned to the blending sounds and tones of the world around him, utterly fails him here. Vacillating between bare-bones descriptions and transcendental reveries that fail to give any real sense of what the music's really like, Rushdie portrays concerts that resemble Def Leppard shows. And the lyrics? Rai hedges his bets here -- "set down on the page without their music," he concedes, "they seem kind of spavined, even hamstrung." But much earlier, he notes lovingly that his mother, despite her terrible singing voice, "was always convinced of the deep meanings hidden in euphony and rhyme: that is to say, she was a popster manqué." So how can somebody conscious of the resonance of song lyrics give any credence to this chunk, from a song that supposedly took on anthemic significance during Vietnam:

They made peace in the other world too. (Baby I've got one of my own.) Ain't no better than it is for you. (Good to know we're not alone.) Well the war is over and the battle's through. (But I can't reach you on the phone.)

Rushdie's erudition, while impressive as ever, works against him as the focus narrows. The Vina/Ormus love story is pedestrian enough on its own terms, and it becomes even smaller within the context of the retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, not to mention the parallel Hindu myths.

The tedious portions of The Ground Beneath Her Feet become all the more frustrating when compared to its glorious opening half. When Rushdie chooses to write about what he knows -- the rambunctious grotesqueries of street life, the vicissitudes of fate that continue to haunt decades later -- he can't be topped. But too often he comes across as an old-timer standing in the corner of the local hot spot, snapping his fingers off the beat, half knowing it and half thinking that his very presence renders him sufficiently cool. He's still a writer for the ages; it's just his generation that gives him trouble.

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