‘This is the story of a jinnia, a great princess of the jinn, known as the Lightning Princess on account of her mastery over the thunderbolt, who loved a mortal man long ago, in the twelfth century, as we would say, and of her many descendants, and of her return to the world, after a long absence, to fall in love again, at least for a moment, and then to go to war.’
Two years, eight months, and twenty-eight nights equals, as I think has been pointed out by every single reviewer of this novel, 1001 nights; this is, then, Rushdie’s nod to the Arabian Nights, to ‘stories told against death, to civilise a barbarian’. Instead of Scheherazade, we have Dunia; instead of 1001 stories, we have 2+ years of chaos, narrated from a thousand years hence but set in the very near future, when the jinnia come to wage war on the earth. Well, they come to wage war on each other, but the earth is the battleground, and so to all intents and purposes it ends up being the same thing.
I’ve thought long and hard about whether I’d recommend this novel as a starting point, to someone who hadn’t read any Rushdie before. I don’t think I would, but – apart from my lifelong devotion to Midnight’s Children – I don’t know why not. It certainly possesses all of the hallmarks of his writing; if you’d asked me to read it blind, I’m pretty sure I would have been able to name him as the author. It is magic realism, of course; it fuses East and West (there’s even a little bit of India, hurrah); the language fizzes with energy as though the words themselves are creating something new – which of course they are. There is the slightly uncomfortable wish-fulfilment sex, older men with younger women, which has been present in most – if not all – of the later novels: ‘He was so tired in her bed that there was little in the way of lovemaking, one night in four or five was about his speed these days anyway, but she was full of understanding. He was her warrior to be loved and waited for and she would take what little of him she could get and wait for the rest.’ (It mirrors Rushdie’s own love life, but that’s hardly an original story.) There is lengthy meditation on the nature and power of stories, a topic on which he is – following the furore over The Satanic Verses – almost uniquely qualified to speak. There’s a worrying away at religion, not quite believing or unbelieving but unable to leave it alone, like a tongue probing an aching tooth; there’s irreverence, as ever, but it’s less defiant than in previous novels, and it feels more like it might be a mask for doubt. There is, above all, an inexhaustible sense of energy and fun.
All of this is both a strength and a weakness. I love Rushdie’s writing. I have done ever since I was eighteen, and read Midnight’s Children for university, and suddenly realised what language could do. He has a permanent spot in my list of top three favourite 20th century writers. (One of the others is John Steinbeck; the other rotates according to my mood at the time.) I took a day’s holiday to finish Joseph Anton. I am, at the most fundamental level, A Fan. How can you not be, when in the space of one page opened at random, you get: an explanation of the English/American difference between knocking on wood and touching it; a comment that, ‘if you walk away from God you should probably try to stay in the good books of Luck’, and a by-the-by comment that an epic, three-day storm threw up in northern Manhattan ‘the original casket containing the actual trinkets worth sixty guilders with which a certain Peter Minuit bought an island of hills from the Lenape Indians, [which] had been deposited at Linwood Hill Park, at the northern tip of Mannahatta, as if the storm was telling our ancestors, Fuck you, I’m buying the island back.’ Linguistic difference, supersition, a little religion, and history, all on one page, with a large dollop of tongue-in-cheek insouciance; this is the kind of wide-ranging conversation that I like to think I have, with my favourite friends, on my best days; it makes me think that, when he’s in a good mood, Rushdie would be a blast, whether in a bar or a lecture theatre or on an open-top tour bus.
That said, this is Rushdie’s…twelfth? novel, I think. (I’m counting up the ones I’ve read; I think I’ve read them all, except for The Ground Beneath Her Feet.) Should I really be able to tell that it’s him writing? I wouldn’t mind so much if I felt his heart was really in it, but in places I don’t think it was; the plotting could have been tighter and there were short passages where I was a little bored.
This is a minor quibble; in the same way that I hold people to a higher standard the more I love them (this, predictably, drives them crazy), this book would have had to have blown my mind in order not to disappoint me a little. I am still in love with the language he uses; I read this on my Kindle, and I highlighted more passages than in any other fiction book I’ve ever read electronically. I love how one of the characters has a father who ‘flies the coop with a secretary bird’. I love how one of the jinnia speaks a certain kind of Bombay-English: ‘Portaal is busted open. Border between what imagineers are imagining and what imagineers are desiring is leaky now like Mexico-USA, and we-all, who before were caged in Phantom Zone, can go fast now through wormholes and land up here like General Zod with superpowers. So many wanting to come. Soon we will be taking over. Hundred and one per cent. Forget about it.’ Again, sometimes it goes a little too far; like Shakespeare, he doesn’t seem to be able to resist a pun – a one-woman show named ‘Lebanonymous’ is a particular low point, and feels too groanworthy to include even ironically – but those moments are rare, very rare.
The story is bonkers; they often are. Starting with Midnight’s Children in 1981, he was a great pioneer of magic realism, with an emphasis on the magic, and he has remained so. If weirdness isn’t your bag, then he’s not for you. But the realism is there, too; at his best, he uses magic and madness and metaphor to expose the deepest cracks in humanity, and everything – good and bad – he finds there. I think he does that more successfully in other novels; in this, he raises Big Questions but pulls back from them pretty quickly in favour of comedy. A three-day superstorm at the beginning of the 1001 nights has echoes of climate change; referenced later, this becomes ‘This was a species with an exceptional ability to ignore its approaching doom.’ The full stop provides a momentary pause for reflection, before the punchline: ‘If one sought to be the embodiment of the doom that was approaching, this was a little frustrating.’ There is what feels like real anger at the actions of a not-at-all-veiled Taliban-esque force in the ‘land of A’ (just as subtle as he means it to be), but presented as a small part of a larger problem which is fixed by a sci-fi-esque deus ex machina.
I’ve just reread this review in draft, and I appear to have taken some 1300+ words to say ‘it’s not as good as Midnight’s Children’. And it isn’t. The fact that I still give it a high four stars, though – not to mention the longest review I think I’ve ever written – should give you some indication as to what an incredibly high bar that is.