Rushdie, Salman. 1999. The Ground Beneath Her Feet. New York: Holt.

Reviewed 02 June 1999

The Ground Beneath Her Feet (cover) Salman Rushdie is a very intelligent writer. If I graded books solely upon their use of language—as the reviewer for The New York Times seemed to do—there is little question that this book would merit an "outstanding" rating, as would the remainder of his work. What this book has in linguistic play, though, it loses in sheer perversity.

Why, then, bother with it at all? Not just "because it's there," but because, like Gravity's Rainbow (a far better book at 5 stars), this book will be viewed in five or ten years as the keystone of one arch between speculative fiction and "literary" fiction. I'm not entirely sure what label the arch will bear; and that, perhaps, is the real flaw in the book.

One could, perhaps, call this book an alternate history, postulating as it does a just slightly askew present world. Unfortunately, the alternate references were not really necessary to the story; often they were (at best) distractions, particularly given the artiness. Or should I say popculturiness, since the unifying plot element is pop music? Further, unlike the traditional speculative fiction version of alternate history, trying to identify the diversion point (or even general locus) is futile. There are three or four candidates; I ruled out a couple (red herrings at best), and another review claims to have ruled out another. Further, there is no spirit of "what if" in Rushdie's work, only "this is." That is a description, not a criticism. One is reminded of Disch's On Wings of Song (4 stars), but only superficially; Rushdie doesn't betray all that much understanding of what he's doing, while Disch does.

Another possibility is "magical realism." Some of Rushdie's other work is of that school. But The Ground Beneath Her Feet is not. Magical realism, as I understand the term, has an inescapable political element, even at the personal level. The Ground Beneath Her Feet doesn't so much deny the political as ignore it, except when the opportunity arises to subtly criticize certain political figures unlikely to be familiar to Americans. This criticism, however, almost seems a spot of lavender in a seascape—one must look very close to find it, and then one must ask "why?"

I won't bore you with other theories about this book. It will, no doubt, be part of the "literary fiction" discussion for several years. It is far from Rushdie's best work; neither is it an effort to be ashamed of. Rather, The Ground Beneath Her Feet seems to be like the Michaelson-Morley experiments. It's virtually impossible to prove the absence of something. Rushdie has gone a long way to "prove the absence" of externally consistent referents as a requirement for a literary novel. It is, in that sense, an important (but failed) experiment. Nothing more, and nothing less.

In the end, Rushdie's novel fails Le Guin's test: The morning after finishing this 500-page tome, it's difficult to recall the names of the major characters. (It's also difficult to remember any of the plot, but that seems a part of the book's purpose.) One never feels that the author cares about any of the characters. However beautiful the writing, it isn't fiction. It's just writing.

Overall rating: 3 stars
Good.
The book demonstrates Rushdie's command of language and sly idiom. However, it conceals a certain hollowness of approach (not of preparation) upon which the novel ultimately collapses, leaving behind only a few shiny bits of paper and the wish for something more substantial. It's "hefty" and "weighty" enough, but one's reaction depends too much on what one brings to the book, and not enough on the book's ability to challenge (or satisfy) preconceptions.


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