Sunday, October 21, 2007

46. Fury - Salman Rushdie

Wow! This book blew me away from the first page to the last!

It was funny, sweet, unpredictable and endlessly surprising. All the characters were so lovingly drawn that even the most minor passerby was instantly imaginable. Take, for example, this image of the 'hero' attempting to lose himself in New York's varied culture:

Professor Solanka, who thought of himself as egalitarian by nature and a born-and-bred metropolitan of the countryside-is-for-cows persuasion, on parade days strolled sweatily cheek by jowl among his fellow citizens. One Sunday he rubbed shoulders with slim-hipped gay-pride prancers, the next weekend he got jiggy beside a big-assed Puerto Rican girl wearing her national flag as a bra. He didn't feel intruded upon amid the multitudes; to the contrary. There was a satisfying anonymity in the crowds, an absence of intrusion. Nobody here was interested in his mysteries. Everyone was here to lose themselves. Such was the unarticulated magic of the masses, and these days losing himself was just about Professor Solanka's only purpose in life. (6-7)

Professor Malik Solanka was born in Bombay, educated at Cambridge, happily married, father to a young son... With his wife's support, he gives up his work as an academic professor in order to follow his fascination with making dolls. His figurines are a great success, particularly 'Little Brain', who starts out by having her own tv show where she interviews various historical philosophers, but is gradually taken over by the marketing gurus and becomes bigger than Barbie. Malik is raking in the money, so he can't protest at the transformation of his beloved creation. Then one night he finds himself standing over his sleeping wife & toddler, testing the sharpness of the carving knife in his hand. Horrified by his unexplained fits of rage and the possibility that he poses a danger to his family, he jumps on a plane and flies to America, sure that there he will either be killed or cured. His family are bewildered, as is Malik himself, who reads about a mystery killer in the paper, targeting beautiful young socialites, and worries that the killings coincide with periods for which he has no memory.

As the story continues, we learn more of Little Brain, and how her commercialization is a major factor in the development of Malik's fury.

This creature of his own imagining, born of his best self and purest endeavour, was turning before his eyes into the kind of monster of tawdry celebrity he most profoundly abhorred. His original and now obliterated Little Brain had been genuinely smart, able to hold her own with Erasmus or Schopenhauer. She had been beautiful and sharp tongued, but she had swum in the sea of ideas, living the life of the mind. This revised edition, over which he had long ago lost creative control, had the intellect of a slightly over-average chimpanzee. Day by day she became a creature of the entertainment microverse, her music videos - yes, she was a recording artist now! - out-raunching Madonna's, her appearances at premiers out-Hurleying every starlet who ever trod the red carpet in a dangerous frock. She was a video game and a cover girl, and this, remember, in her personal appearance mode at least, was essentially a woman whose own head was completely concealed inside the iconic doll's. ... Professor Solanka remained aloof, refusing all invitations to discuss his out-of-control creation. The money, however, he was unable to refuse. Royalties continued to pour into his bank account. He was compromised by greed, and the compromise sealed his lips. Contractually bound not to attack the goose that laid the golden eggs, he had to bottle up his thoughts and, in keeping his own counsel, filled up with the bitter bile of his many discontents. With every new media initiative spearheaded by the character he had once delineated with such sprightliness and care, his impotent fury grew. ... Fury stood above him like a cresting Hokusai wave. Little Brain was his deliquent child grown into a rampaging giantess, who now stood for everything he despised and trampled beneath her giant feet all the high principles he had brought her into being to extol; including, evidently, his own. ... Malik Solanka was forced to admit a terrible truth. He hated Little Brain. (98-100)

He meets Mila Milo, intelligent daughter of Yugoslavian poet, playing at being a street teen-queen, and one of Little Brain's biggest fans. She even looks like her. Mila 'adopts' Malik and gets him to take another look at the world. I laughed out loud at her response to Malik's confession, quoted above. She told him about her father, having a great time drinking, smoking, loving and working himself to death, until he decided he was needed in the war between the Serbs and Croats:

That's what I started out to say, Professor, don't talk to me about fury, I know what it can do. America, because of its omnipotence, is full of fear; it fears the fury of the world and renames it envy, or so my dad used to say. They think we want to be them, he'd say after a few hits of hooch, but really we're just mad as hell and don't want to take it any more. See, he knew about fury. But then he set aside what he knew and behaved like a damn fool. Because about five minutes after he landed in Belgrade - or maybe it was five hours or five days or five weeks, who, like, cares? - the fury blew him to pieces and there wasn't enough of him found to collect up and put in a box. So, yeah, Professor, and you're mad about a doll. Well, excuse me. (114)

Mila turns out to be an extremely interesting character, one who kept me reading late into many early mornings.

Mila's special thing turned out to be the collection and repair of damaged people... (117-8)

I will leave you to discover her for yourself, and the ways in which she, herself, is a damaged person... and Neela, another brilliantly depicted, amazing character... and the new generation of puppets that Solanka creates... as I am finding myself being tempted to type out something from almost every page! At the start of this review, I referred to Malik Solanka as the hero, but in inverted commas. This is because he is not (until the very last moment) really very heroic. It is the women who shine in this novel, and the three women in Solanka's lovelife - his wife, Eleanor, Mila and Neela - who are really the heroines. (This feminine triumvirate echoes the three Furies, who are also major factors in the novel). I think I have said enough now to justify the high score I am going to give this one - and my heartiest recommendation so far!

If you have not studied English lierature, or are not American, there are going to be places where you feel a little lost among the names being dropped. However, the novel is so well-written and entertaining that you can easily let your eyes glaze over and skim these sections without losing anything of the story. Sure, at times, elements of the story are too way-out to be believable. The constant slapstick caused by Neela's head-turning beauty, for example, or the overly-simplistic responses of those involved in the civil war in Lilliput-Blefescue... but I did not find these elements out of place in a satirical comedy. If I had to choose something to dislike about this novel, it would be the dismissal of God and religion as a force in the society - but in a way, this works more powerfully than if religion were explicitly referred to, as in a novel so densely packed with cultural references, it is made more conspicuous by its absence. Where there were dismissive comments, I found myself internally arguing with the narrator, and after a while I began to wonder if this was Rushdie's intention. It is, on the whole, a very intelligent, active work that is larger not only than life - it is larger than fiction! The ending, by the way, was perfect - a joyful, hopeful image that I loved. Then there was a page headed "About the Author". The rest of the page, and the following pages were blank. I thought this was a nice touch, too - the book speaks for itself!

On finishing the novel, I have no hesitation in confirming my initial reaction - WOW! What an incredible story! The personal narrative of the characters is interwoven with social commentary so skilfully that it never really becomes intrusive or extraneous... just when you start to even think about getting bored, the plot takes a twist and you are right back in the middle of the action. It was also educational as well as being entertaining! For the first time in ages I found myself needing to look up a word (oenophile - one who appreciates and enjoys wine). There are stories within stories in this novel, and it would easily repay serious study, while remaining a fascinating experience for the casual reader. I really recommend this one! (Sorry about the over-effusive use of exclamation marks in this review. For once I wholeheartedly agree with the advertising hyperbole on the cover of 'Fury' - "A wickedly dark comedy from one of the world's truly great writers.")

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