The master’s voice

You can now listen to Salman Rushdie’s mellifluous British tones in an interview on NPR (thanks, Abhi). The PR tufan bears all the hallmarks of a practiced public speaker: note the near-total absence of fillers like ‘um.’

Now that I think about it, although I’ve bumped into him at Midnight’s Children the play, I don’t think I’ve ever heard his voice before. As usual, it’s not quite how I imagined it.

Here’s a lame, anti-epic review of Shalimar the Clown, which I rather enjoyed, in the NYT. I place it far above Fury and just a hair below his best work, but it’s a clear return to form.

Cascading clauses are a Rushdie trademark; they can be taken as a manifestation of abundant imagination or as a symptom of poor writerly discipline.. It’s hard, though, to see them as anything but laziness when they’re misapplied…

As a rule, Rushdie’s characters lack a plausible inner life; instead they have bizarre quirks, unusual looks or magical powers, like the figures in a fable… For the creation of such a description-mad writer, Rushdie’s Pachigam remains stubbornly hazy: How big is it? How developed? How many rooms do the houses have and what are they made of? Do they have electricity? Are the roads paved? Your guess, even if you haven’t read the book, is as good as mine. [Link]

Yes, and please specify the width of the caulking in the bathrooms. Reviewer please. This kind of dis on Rushdie is not only widespread, it’s absurd. Don’t hate on the book just because you don’t dig the genre. Westerns don’t have a lot of interior dialogue either. Rushdie’s style is very male, and his stories, like Vikram Chandra’s Red Earth and Pouring Rain, are sweeping, masculine epics with strong, idealized women. Sometimes you’re in the mood for circumscribed domestic weepies, sometimes you’re not.

As for his exuberance of prose, either you can handle the wide channel of long sentences and maximalist prose or you can’t. You don’t send a cowbell player to review an orchestra. At the root of it isn’t always a legitimate style issue. It’s often a limitation of the reviewer, the simple inability to get through the text.

These kinds of reviewers would be hating on Gabriel García Márquez if he hadn’t already been beatified and it weren’t career suicide. I dig Márquez only in small doses — he spews tissue-thin plot like he’s paid by the word — but it’s not because of sentence length.

29 thoughts on “The master’s voice

  1. Was waiting to hear your/SM’s take on Laura Miller’s recent review. Many of my friends who have read the book and read this weekend’s NYTBR piece have said the same – Miller just doesn’t get it.

    (I haven’t read Shalimar the Clown yet so I don’t have anything to say about the book.)

  2. You donÂ’t send a cowbell player to review an orchestra.

    Don’t diss the cowbell, ma’an! I want more cowbell.

    Did you see my performance on SNL with “Queen’s of the Stone Age”? It was masterful, to say the least.

  3. As a rule, RushdieÂ’s characters lack a plausible inner life; instead they have bizarre quirks, unusual looks or magical powers, like the figures in a fable

    Miller gets it right. Having just finished ( Boy was it dificult!) Shalimar, i feel like Miller was entirely correct. I have read other reviewers say the same thing.

    I never felt any emotion for any of the characters. I know, I know this is my inabiliy to get it just like Miller and numerous other reviewers.

  4. I still have to finish reading Shalimar, not for any lack of interest or stickiness. I just like to be able to concentrate on my novels, and that hasn’t been possible.

    That said, I was not such a big Rushdie fan before. Fury was short enough to let me enjoy his writing style, but previously I found it overwrought. As I’ve blogged recently, Rushdie speaks beautifully. I also have learned to avoid high literary reviews like the plague until after I’ve read the book, preferring discussions with people whose tastes I share and the practical if bland descriptors of Publisher’s Weekly and Library journal. Neil Gaiman often writes of this problem. There are too few reviewers who see their work as a service to the reader, and too many who see it as a chance for making themselves look good.

  5. I’m in the middle of Shalimar the Clown and I can’t get enough. To me, the sense of place he creates in every novel is worth more than a hundred memorable characters. Shalimar is no exception, I just finished the Boonyi chapter and am ready to try snorting the book for faster absorbtion.

    Klingon reference (coupled with the best description of Klingon ever written) on the very first page greatly heightened my excitement.

  6. …Rushdie speaks beautifully

    I SO agree. I heard him speak in NYC and I was in so much awe. I couldn’t even stop swooning when I was having my picture taken with him.

  7. SepiaMutiny Effect from July Onwards: I am starting to like Rushdie.

    I heard him on NPR yesterday, he speaks very well.

    My first exposure to Rushdie’s work was when I was very young and I guess one needs to mature to find pleasure in his prose. I have always admired him for stuff he went through and his bold OpEds. He still loves himself too much though.

  8. I couldn’t even stop swooning when I was having my picture taken with him.

    Is that why your eyes are closed? 😉

  9. SepiaMutiny Effect from July Onwards: I am starting to like Rushdie.

    SepiaMutiny Effect from July Onwards: I am starting to like M.I.A. 🙂

    You know, I had to throw it in there, since she hasn’t been mentioned in the last two hours or so.

  10. Wasn’t he on Real time with Bill Maher a little while ago, i thought he was fairly interesting.

    As for marquez, he’s hysterical, has anyone read his new book Memories of my melancholy whores? any reviews?

  11. Is that why your eyes are closed? 😉

    it will suffice to say, that its the idiot of the year picture. 🙂 But yes, there was much swooning.

  12. I am very big fan of Marquez – Have read quite a few of his work. Have not read “Memories…..”. I always recommend that the first book anyone should read from him is “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” – Maybe because it is the simplest, yet very deep.

    Isn’t he writing his memiors as a series of volumes – He is dying of cancer.

  13. I saw Mr. Rushdie on the Bill Maher show a few weeks ago too; SR was quiet, astute, and at times damn funny. He was on a panel with Andrew Sullivan and Ben Affleck — who were much more talkative than Rushdie — but Rushdie had the audience in stitches. He’s a pretty funny guy. At one point Ben said: “This guy is amazing — he survived a fatwa and he’s a comedian” or something to that effect.

    Some of the funnier things Rushdie said, from the transcript of the show:

    RUSHDIE: This – this “trust me” thing. It’s very, very interesting that both Bush and Blair essentially play the “trust me” card all the time. And in neither country does anybody trust them. [laughter] [applause]

    RUSHDIE: Well, I’ve been – I’ve been worrying about God a little bit lately. You know, it seems as if he’s been lashing out, you know, destroying cities, annihilating places. [laughter] And it seems like he’s been in a bad mood, you know. [laughter] [applause] And I think – I think it has to do with the quality of lovers he’s been getting. [laughter]

    RUSHDIE: You know, if you look at the people who love God now, you know, if I was God, I’d need to destroy something. [laughter] [applause]

    The “quality of lovers” line is classic!

  14. Do they have electricity?

    What? And should the reviewer also need to know howmanypaisasperkilowatthour it costs too? Just because it is Bombay and not Birmingham, (s)he needs the presence of electricity to be specified since otherwise (s)he would imagine that the residents simmer in Stygian curry-boiling heat? Pah!

    As for Marquez, I could not put down One Hundred Years of Solitude once I started it.


  15. Halfway through Shalimar, i have to say i’m pleasantly surprised. Having read the New Yorker review and briefly attempted Ground beneath her feet, i wasn’t expecting much from Sir Salman.

    If you can let go of the great writer from Midnight’s Children, Haroun, etc.. and not yearn for his orginality or rich characters and literary and pop references, his recent writings still have a certain charm to them. He is definetly a media whore these days (anyone living in NYC for the past 5 years has seen the Rushdie name at every lecture series) and his cute word-play and cultural head-nods really just seem like he’s trying to hard.

    But he is still the great Rushdie, and his pretension is truly hilarious and i actually am enjoying shalimar the clown.

    PS. Rushdie is speaking next week at the 92nd Y lecture series, for those of you who want another photograph with the Sir.

  16. “SepiaMutiny Effect from July Onwards: I am starting to like M.I.A. 🙂

    You know, I had to throw it in there, since she hasn’t been mentioned in the last two hours or so.”

    No offense Manish but I really don’t understand Sepia Mutiny’s obsession with M.I.A. She’s such a poser!

  17. “No offense Manish but I really don’t understand Sepia Mutiny’s obsession with M.I.A. She’s such a poser!”

    dude, you went there…

  18. Haven’t read it yet, but from the sound of things this is going to be better than the excrescential fury and ground beneath her feet (the latter just seemed fake)…don’t think he’s ever going to surpass Satanic Verses, but that would be a tall order… As for the NYT: people, you’re talking about a paper that had a policy of not reviewing Foucault’s work until some years ago (according to my former prof Perry Meisel); there was the hatchet job on the derrida obituary– when does that paper ever get it?

  19. Midnight’s Children is a triumphant novel. That is Rushdie’s permanent achievement–a novel that will probably be read 100 years from now. His stregnth is clearly exuberant language; his characterization is so-so (when he’s considered against the very best novelists: Naipaul, Saramago, Marquez and a few others). The last couple of novels have been disasters. He needs one more big one to grab that Nobel, or he does something in literary non-fiction, otherwise he may be out of contention.

  20. I didn’t like it because I found it banal, especially in its reworking of the Orpheus myth– didn’t see how Rushdie’s treatment added to my understanding of the myth, or vice versa. Further, I didn’t find his to be a meaningful meditation on the whole rock “scene,” and to this reader he seemed a bit out of his element.

  21. the hatchet job on the derrida obituary

    Umair, What exactly did you not like about the obit? Please do not take some left wing professors rants seriously. I think Kandell got it right.

  22. What I did not like about the obituary was the fact that for most of it the obituary relied on bitter and rather partisan critics of derrida. The NYT does not do this with other academics (recall the obituary on Isaiah Berlin). Giving extensive rein to Richard Wolin in Derrida’s obit is a bit like allowing Slavoj Zizek to go hogwild in Berlin’s. The result was that the view presented of Derrida’s work and thought was rather skewed, to the point where in my view it misrepresented his work.

  23. I also disagree with the notion that all those who were appalled at the obit were merely left-wing ranters. Among them were people whose work is very insightful and serious, such as Thomas Keenan, Avital Ronell, Gayatri Spivak and Judith Butler (but perhaps these are the very left-wing ranters you have in mind). The letters to NYT circulated online afterward (a handful of which were published in the NYT) indicated in many cases a nuanced appraisal of Derrida’s legacy, not legions of unthinking acolytes.