I always find a sense of playfulness in the way Salman Rushdie writes, a step towards destination unknown – and it really could be anywhere, or nowhere, or indeed everywhere, and that’s one of the things that keeps me reading. I know, I know, that sounds a bit defensive and to be honest it is. The Ground Beneath Her Feet is a book I could’ve given up on. All that wordiness! It’s a strange accusation to level at a writer, but I think a valid one. When you’re reading a passage and you know where you are, you understand its place in the narrative and you’re waiting to see where it goes and the text takes another slight deflection you find yourself starting to think, perhaps to mouth the words or even to scream, ‘get to the point, man’! Except of course he is, always and inexorably, albeit rarely by the most obvious route. This is where that playfulness really comes to the fore. He strikes me as a man who simply can’t hear a name without thinking how it’s formed, how it sounds, what it’s similar to and how its meanings, be they whole or composite, can be mined to the full. He also strikes me as a man for whom no gag is too vaudevillean that it can’t be included (may a troupe of angels ever grace his steps with muted horns: wah wah wah waaaaaah!).
If you’ve read much of Rushdie’s novels you’ll recognise the familiar touchstones – sectarian India, Partition, the rootlessness of migrant life, that very Indian blending of the mythical and quotidian. If you know the history closely enough you’ll be able to tell, if not then you’ll likely find yourself, as I did, wondering where was the truth and where the branching into fiction as he feeds in the social and political history of this ever-so-slightly tilted parallel existence (the first obvious clue to this in the music references). The sheer volume of references that Rushdie pulls in is dizzying. It seems nothing and no-one gets away (and therein lies that wordiness) so that sense of an alternate existence is complete. Could he have accomplished it with fewer words? Of course, but if he had he would’ve missed all the fun of those little detours.
There’s a goodly dose of humour in these pages but one thing that struck me very strongly was just how angry this book felt. Not simply in and of itself but I had the sense at times that it was Rushdie talking through his protagonist so that it could have been him standing there on the beach (though please not in a stars-and-stripes one-piece) defaming absolutely everything. Stupid, stupid world! Yet we are all believers in one thing or another. No surprise then that the narrator is named Rai – hope!
I used to wish that I could write like Salman Rushdie. I think I’m cured of that ambition. It would drive me mad, and in any case what would we do with another one! Given there has been an earthquake in Kent whilst I’ve been reading The Ground Beneath Her Feet, my relinquishing that desire can only have helped divert a major catastrophe!
Perhaps it’s not for the faint-hearted. If you like a good straight line in your fiction this might make you mad, but if you’re a happy wanderer, if you love to see a master conjuror do astounding magic with words, step in. You won’t be disappointed.