Review of new book

Too many “glittery encrustations” – Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights, by Salman Rushdie

Random House, September 8, 2015, 1st Edition
Random House, September 8, 2015, 1st Edition

Not worth the effort, frankly

This is part two of the essay about “readability” that I published yesterday. This time I’m taking a hard look at a novel by the famous Salman Rushdie, called Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights. Dared I say what I really think? Yep, I did.…
The essay is on novels that are hard to read and to finish because of one thing or another. One is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Waowhich eventually turned out to be excellent despite the fact that it is written in a mix of English and Spanish. The other is Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights – a title that feels as long as it takes to get through the book. This novel is typical Rushdie, a modernization of the fairytales of One Thousand and One Nights which was told by Scheherazade /ʃəˌhɛrəˈzɑːdᵊ/, or Shahrazad (Persian: ‫شهرازاد‬‎‎ Šahrāzād), a legendary queen and storyteller. The impediment here is not the language but that it is an incomprehensible muddle of elements and ideas – very elegantly portrayed – which nonetheless makes it both pedantic and boring. It is not a direct modernization of the fairytales. You are not going to get Sinbad in there, or Aladdin or Ali Baba. You are going to get male (jinn) and female (jinnia), and good and evil jinns (or djinns or genies), sex (a lot of it – did you know jinns have high libidos?), magic, a lamp holding a genie, wishes coming true, good battling evil forces, global warfare, regicide, and parallel worlds.

It is, as the One Thousand and One Nights was, stories within a story, tales within tales within tales, (or “embedded narratives”) so complicated that it is easy to lose track of who is related and is doing what to whom, when. But there are also other typical fairytale or mythological elements, such as, for instance “Pandora’s Box”‬:

“We tell this story still as it has come down to us through many retellings, mouth to ear, ear to mouth, both the story and the poisoned box and the stories it contained, in which the poison was concealed. This is what stories are, experience retold by many tongues to which, sometimes, we give a single name, Homer, Valmiki, Vyasa, Scherherazade. We, for our own part, simply call ourselves “we”. “We” are the creature that tells itself stories to understand what sort of creature it is. As they pass down to us the stories lift themselves away from time and place, losing the specificity of their beginnings, but gaining the purity of essences, of being simply themselves. And by extension, or by the same token, as we like to say, though we do not know what the token is or was, these stories become what we know, what we understand, and what we are, or perhaps we should say, what we have become, or can perhaps be.” (p.182, 183.)

Geronimo the gardener

The character most easy to make sense of is the gardener, “Geronimo Hieronymus Manezes”, descendant of a one-time lover of the jinnia, “Dunia”, who is made of fireless smoke. Geronimo is devoted to the garden and trees of the “thousand-and-one-acre La Incoerenza [Italian for inconsistency] property”.

I was reminded of “Chance the Gardener”, so disconnected from the world as to be super-natural in the film Being There, and of the closed-off (“walled”) state of mind represented by the family garden of the Finzi-Continis, isolated on their large estate, in the book The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani (of which there was also a film). Like Chance, Mr. Geronimo can also float above the earth. Like the Finzi-Continis’ safe enclave is breached by the Nazis in World War II, La Incoerenza is breached by the storm that strikes New York and the magic forces that are let loose by the warring jinns.

Meaning of the novel

I think Rushdie is saying in this novel that the time of genies and magic and dreams have gone. The “second world” where Dunia was queen is gone and humans can no longer easily pass between the human world and that of the jinns. The jinns, like fairies, dragons, elves, etc., no longer have the power to save or kill, and have become the stuff of stories and dreams and the subjects of ancient books.

“Mostly we are glad. Our lives are good. But sometimes we wish for the dreams to return. Sometimes, for we have not wholly rid ourselves of perversity, we long for nightmares.” (p. 286, last lines.)

The jinnia, Dunia, saves Mr. Geronimo and his garden in New York from the storm that destroys part of the city and causes strange things to start happening, like people floating above the earth and silence taking over. (And that, Dear Reader, is one teeny, tiny event in a massively complicated blockbuster-type plot.) Is that a metaphor for the events of 9/11 in New York? Is Rushdie implying that dreams, faith, the old ways could’ve helped the people of the city defeat evil – like Dunia did? Or that the root of destruction of the twin towers in New York lay in the city itself? (since jinns can be both good and evil, depending on their mood).

Either way, the novel is complicated, and it is more about weaving together myth, legend and fairytale than about characterization, pace and plot. It is very hard to read. I cared little for any character, whether anyone lived or died. It is classic Rushdie, a feat of storytelling but a bit self-indulgent, preachy, a self-conscious feat. Complexity for the sake of the argument, sophist, perhaps.

I hardly ever read reviews of novels by other reviewers before I write mine. But this time I thought, Rushdie is acclaimed. I have no doubt he is very clever and that it took a horrific amount of work to produce the novel. I thought I could be wrong that I neither liked nor entirely read the novel and that it somewhat bored me. But here is what the New York Times’s Marcel Theroux has to say:

“But while it’s true that novels are capacious and composed of superfluities, if a book is everything it risks being a formless nothing. The new novel quickly becomes a breathless mash-up of wormholes, mythical creatures, current affairs and disquisitions on philosophy and theology. Behind its glittery encrustations, the plot resembles the bare outline for a movie about superheroes. There’s a war between worlds, lightning comes out of people’s fingertips and it all culminates in a blockbuster showdown between the forces of good and evil.” Could not have put it better myself.

Actually unreadable

In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz overcomes the problems of both his language choice and his subject by his own personal enthusiasm for the Dominican Republic, where he was born, which he wants to convey to the reader. He reaches out with his words and characters and his passion and despite everything, a dialogue ensues and the reader is engaged. Rushdie, on the other hand, seems to show a carelessness, an aloofness to the reader, implying ‘I don’t care if you don’t get this, you ignoramus’. Intellectualism is fine – many writers have much of it in their writing, but combined with distancing it is a fatal flaw.

In this Rushdie novel, despite the riot of elements, there was no connect for me and I was not engaged. And so I speed-read, picked through and flipped forward Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights over a period of about three months and would regard it as both unfinishable and unreadable. Sorry, as we Canadians would say, but there you go.