Salman Rushdie has nothing to prove. Yet he finds himself, in his early 70s, deeply out of fashion. Too old to seize a moment, too active to be rediscovered, he’s been subject over the past two decades to some of the unkindest reviews ever delivered to a talent of his magnitude.
The magazine Cahiers du Cinéma once had a rating system that included a black dot for “abominable.” If critics could be handing Rushdie these dots, they would be. It has to sting.
The rap against Rushdie’s fiction is that it’s become increasingly “magical,” wonder-filled and windy, as if he were typing in turquoise and burnt sienna. His novels are tricked out with genies and tarot cards and magic mirrors and references to things like evil chicken entrails powder and witches and dragon ladies. These productions feel forced: talky, infelicitous and banal. They have no middle gear, and no real humans wander through them.
Reading these novels, one begins to feel like the English academic Hugo Dyson who, while J.R.R. Tolkien was reading aloud from an early draft of “The Lord of the Rings,” was heard to comment: “Oh [expletive omitted], not another elf!”
In his new book, “Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020,” Rushdie attempts to perform a defensive castling move. He suggests his work has been misunderstood and mistreated because the literary culture has turned from brio-filled imaginative writing toward the humbler delights of “autofiction,” as exemplified by the work of Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard.
Rushdie fears that writers no longer trust their imaginations, and that the classroom imperative to “write what you know” has led to dullness, angst and dead ends: cold and bony literary mumblecore.
There is nothing ordinary about ordinary life, Rushdie writes. Behind closed doors, family existence is “overblown and operatic and monstrous and almost too much to bear; there are mad grandfathers in there, and wicked aunts and corrupt brothers and nymphomaniac sisters.” He praises the “giant belchers” and “breakers of giant winds.” He sees himself as a maximalist in a minimalist world; a wet writer in a dry one; a lover of bric-a-brac in an era of Shaker modesty.
He lashes a lot of names to his wagon train, setting his work alongside that of Italo Calvino, Gabriel García Márquez, Günter Grass, Angela Carter, Jorge Luis Borges, Jerzy Kosinski, Jean-Luc Godard and Luis Buñuel, among many other writers and filmmakers.
I read Rushdie’s arguments with much interest and little agreement, as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. used to say. He is fencing with a poorly stuffed straw man. For one thing, there have been autobiographical novels — “David Copperfield” is one — since the form was invented.
And if there has been a boomlet in autofiction, it is surely in part an attempt by writers to claw back breathing space from the culture-strangling juggernauts that are Marvel movies and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe and George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones.” Fantasy has quite won over America, in nearly every sphere.
What’s more, contra Rushdie, we’re in a fat period for deep and sustained invention in literary fiction. Two examples: Among the most revered and popular novels of the past decade are Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” and George Saunders’s “Lincoln in the Bardo.”
In the first, the metaphorical underground railroad becomes an actual underground railroad. The second is a garrulous ghost story, reality as seen through the eyes of people stuck in an intermediate state between death and rebirth. No lukewarm autobiography here.
Much of the rest in “Languages of Truth” is limper and less interesting. The book contains several sleepwalking commencement speeches (“new beginnings, no matter how exciting, also involve loss”), semi-obligatory memorial lectures (“to achieve your dream you leave your safe place”) and the introductions to books and speeches delivered on behalf of PEN America, of which he was president from 2004 to 2006.
You no longer quite feel that Salman Rushdie is writing these things, but that “Salman Rushdie” is, in a way that reminds one of John Updike’s observation that “celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.”
Rushdie sneaks more humanity into his remembrances of deceased friends, including Harold Pinter, Carrie Fisher and Christopher Hitchens. There’s a fond piece about changing from a Christmas refusenik into a borderline Christmas fundamentalist.
There is also an alert essay about the pandemic. Rushdie, who has asthma, came down with a frightening case of Covid early on. People later joked to him that, having survived a fatwa, lockdown should be a breeze. He didn’t find this funny at all.
It’s interesting to compare “Languages of Truth” with another book of Rushdie’s nonfiction, “Imaginary Homelands,” published in 1991. It’s a mighty book — one of his three or four best, in my view — a lover’s quarrel with the world of politics and novels and film.
Back then Rushdie wrote nonfiction for editors, not for foundations and colleges. He was not a major critic but a strong one, and he wrote exactingly, and not always positively, about writers including John le Carré, Grace Paley and Julian Barnes.
He stopped writing reviews almost entirely, he wrote in “Joseph Anton,” his 2012 memoir, because, “If you loved a book, the author thought your praise no more than his rightful due, and if you didn’t like it, you made enemies.” He added: “It’s a mug’s game.”
He may be right. But the irritable Rushdie felt like the real one, or at least the wide-awake one. If his arguments about the state of fiction in “Languages of Truth” don’t convince, at least they’re genuine signs of life.