The world is groping for a new mythology, one that makes sense in a world that has seen nuclear devastation and sent humans to the moon; a world that encompasses both communications satellites and children starving to death in the midst of plenty. Perhaps the new mythology will be found in the multiple collisions of cultures, histories, arts and religions; maybe it will be birthed through the agency of pop culture, which has supplanted classical music and art. Or so Salman Rushdie seems to be saying in his sprawling, entertaining and challenging novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet.
This is not a book one summarizes in 20 words or less.
The story it tells is that of three Baby Boomers: two men and the woman they both love. One, the narrator, grows up to be a globe-hopping photographer of hot spots and hot models; the other two grow up to be the biggest rock stars in the world. Only they’re not from the US, or even England. They grow up in postwar Bombay before moving on to England and eventually New York, and the world.
Theirs is not quite the world you and I know. The progenitor of rock ‘n’ roll is a young American named Jesse Garon Parker (an amalgamation of Elvis Aron Presley’s stillborn twin and Presley’s manager, Col. Tom Parker); John F. Kennedy is not assassinated in Dallas; and other figures of pop-culture history are subtly altered.
This world of theirs is somehow in collision with another earth-reality, perhaps ours. Ormus Cama, the brilliant Indian rock star, has a window onto this alternate reality. He writes songs out of the cognitive and emotional dissonance he experiences as a result of his unusual visions, and the beautiful part-American part-Indian diva Vina Apsara sings them. Watching it all from outside is narrator Rai Merchant, who experiences life vicariously through his camera.
The growing convergence between their world and the alternate earth is causing a series of ever more devastating earthquakes that are altering the physical and political faces of both worlds.
The Ground Beneath Her Feet is full of twins, doppelgangers and pairs of opposites. Ormus has brothers who are twins, one a psychotic serial killer, the other a mute simpleton. Ormus himself, like Elvis, had a twin brother who died in the womb — but Cama’s brother brings Elvis’ songs to Ormus in his dreams.
This is a novel of ideas, not of characters. In a way, that’s too bad. These are potentially fascinating characters, who start out as flesh-and-blood youngsters and grow up to be larger-than-life megastars who beg to be brought back to a human dimension.
But I never found myself really caring about them as people. Rushdie’s skill as a writer kept me turning the pages, but I was never fully engaged by the characters.
As a music lover, however, and one who has grown up with Rushdie’s generation, I found the book and its conceits worth my time. He grabbed me, in fact, from the first chapter with this passage.
Why do we care about singers? Wherein lies the power of songs? Maybe it derives from the sheer strangeness of there being singing in the world. The note, the scale, the chord; melodies, harmonies, arrangements, symphonies, ragas, Chinese operas, jazz, the blues: that such things should exist, that we should have discovered the magical intervals and distances that yield the poor cluster of notes, all within the span of a human hand, from which we can build our cathedrals of sound, is as alchemical a mystery as mathematics, or wine, or love. Maybe the birds taught us. Maybe not. Maybe we are just creatures in search of exaltation. We don’t have much of it. Our lives are not what we deserve; they are, let us agree, in many painful ways deficient. Song turns them into something else. Song shows us a world that is worthy of our yearning, it shows us our selves as they might be, if we were worthy of the world.Five mysteries hold the keys to the unseen: the act of love, and the birth of a baby, and the contemplation of great art, and being in the presence of death or disaster, and hearing the human voice lifted in song.
At the heart of The Ground Beneath Her Feet. is the concept of disorientation, which Rushdie takes apart and shows us as “loss of the Orient,” or the West’s loss of direction. In modern Western culture, everything is both true and not-true; there is no right or wrong — or rather, everything can be both right and wrong. This is what happens when worlds collide.
Pictures don’t lie! This image has been faked! Free the press! Ban nosy journalists! The novel is dead! Honor is dead! God is dead! Aargh, they’re all alive, and they’re coming after us … And everything is for the best, in this best of all possible worlds.
Rushdie obviously possesses encyclopedic knowledge of music and pop culture, in addition to the mythologies of East, West, North and South. And sometimes his deployment of his knowledge is downright Joycean. It’s all a bit … disorienting at times.
One of the book’s main themes is the mutability of identity and of meaning, which he often illustrates by lying to his readers. Or appearing to lie to them. It’s nearly impossible for anyone but Rushdie to know for sure when he’s pulling our legs — such as his assertion that modern Bombay was built by worshippers of Art Deco.
And sometimes Rushdie seems to be trying too hard to be clever, as in this passage when Rai’s mother warns him to stay away from the young Vina. “You might as well try and keep bees from honey, crooks from money, politicians from babies, philosophers from maybes.”
Rushdie is a poetic writer, and poetry and music are closely related — whether they’re first cousins or evil twins is one of those debates for the philosophers. But the central character of this book is always the music, The Song. And for that reason alone it’s worthwhile reading for anyone devoted to music, be it rock or schlock, classical or pop.
(Henry Holt, 1999)