Scheherazade and the 1,001 nights inspired the title of Salman Rushdie’s new novel, much as the legendary tale-teller has fascinated Rushdie throughout his life. Two years, eight months, and 28 nights add up to, yes, the 1,001 nights Scheherazade delighted King Shahryar by narrating cliff-hangers from the evening hours til dawn – and, in so doing, forced the king (who was also her husband) to postpone her beheading, enchanting the king so much he allowed her to live.
“Stories told against death, to civilize a barbarian,” Rushdie writes. “And at the foot of the marital bed sat [Scheherazade’s] sister, her perfect audience, asking for one more story, and then one more, and then yet another.”
Rushdie tells his story of stories between several millennia, with the major events occurring over 1,001 nights in the contemporary world. A hurricane batters New York and the East Coast, setting off a time called the “strangenesses.”
Characters from two worlds – the mundane, human existence we know and the powerful but aimless jinni of another realm – set off an era of chaos that, our narrator tells us from a vantage point a thousand years removed, led to the end of religion and its most destructive side effects.
“Instead, fear was overcome, and with its defeat men and women were able to set God aside, as boys and girls put their down their childhood toys, or as young men and women leave their parents’ home to make new homes for themselves, elsewhere, in the sun,” the narrator tells us.
Given the author’s history – the late Ayatollah Khomeini, in 1989, forced Rushdie into hiding for nine years after publicly calling on Muslims to kill Rushdie for what they deemed religious blasphemy in “The Satanic Verses” – this new book shows him to be as steadfast as ever when it comes to artistic freedom and courage.
Those traits have never been in question with Rushdie. Where he struggles, despite characteristic whimsy, far-flung allusions, and dazzling wordplay, is with cohesion in his recent novels. “Fury,” “Shalimar the Clown,” and “The Enchantress of Florence” all have their moments, but too often their Scheherazade wanders off into the desert, leaving readers thirsty for more empathetic characters and sturdier plots. His best-reviewed book of the past 15 to 20 years is “Joseph Anton,” Ruhdie’s memoir of living in hiding because of the ayatollah’s death sentence.
In “Two Years …” Rushdie once again delivers a range of observations on the incoherence of our times. (Incoherence is the name of a fictional East Coast estate, the setting for key events in the book, as well as part of the titles of dueling ancient philosophy texts that figure prominently in the novel.) “All our stories are told more quickly now, we are addicted to the acceleration,” he writes. During an unexpected diversion to Pigeon Forge, Tenn., he describes vacationers “eating tourist food and driving tourist bumper cars and posing for pictures with a picture of Dolly Parton and mining in a tourist mine for tourist gold.” His sentences can, and often do, sing.
A more timeless sentiment pops up elsewhere in the novel: “The most effective tyrannies are characterized by their excellent powers of organization.”
Too often, though, the tangle of secondary characters (human and otherwise) and arcana of the jinni (“creatures made of smokeless fire”) – they’re lustful, they’re indolent, they’re bratty, they’re sneaky, etc. – devolve into digression. Rushdie’s War of the Worlds proves anticlimactic and begs an obvious question: Why is Dunia, the powerful queen jinni, able to pick off her four male jinni rivals one by one without these all-powerful creatures, who enjoy the benefits of telepathy and telekinesis, teaming up against her? And, will other readers, unlike me, be able to keep straight the powers and personalities of Zabardast the Sorcerer and Zummurud the Great? What about Dunia and her various identities: the Lightning Princess, Queen Skyfairy, and Aasmaan Peri? She isn’t tied to the Lady Philosopher, Alexandra Bliss Fariña, right? Right.
Then, too, “the distant city of B.” must be distinct (or should it?) from “the faraway country of A.,” but I can’t remember why. Teresa Saca kills men without remorse on earth while Dunia, the jinni who spawned 30 or so children in the 12th century with a human husband, comes back in the 21st to protect her descendants, but more out of revenge over her father’s death than anything else. Nothing wrong with indifferent gods, or jinni, but so many characters in this novel become a confusing jumble because selfishness blurs them together. Perhaps that is part of Rushdie’s intent, but, for this reader, spending time with this crew became a slog.
Geronimo Manezes, a world-weary landscaper and a grandson many great-great-greats removed from Dunia, and Jimmy Kapoor, another confused member of what Rushdie calls the Duniazát (“the people of the world”), eventually accept their distant grandmother’s otherworldly powers, in reduced form, with a sense of awe. Kind of fun, yet kind of perfunctory.
Rushdie can’t ever be boring, he’s too smart for that, but the clanky machinations of his polemic drag this rumination on religion and faith into the muck of mixed blessings.
To borrow from Rushdie’s delightful fairy tale, “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” the novelist falls prey to being a “Shah of Blah” often enough that we wonder at the absence of his “Ocean of Notions” fabulist. I have faith the “Ocean of Notions” version of Rushdie will assert himself next time around, perhaps as soon as 1,001 nights from now.