Rushdie made his name on the breathtaking originality of his 1981 novel, “Midnight’s Children,” the story of a boy “handcuffed to history,” born at the exact second of Indian independence. It was told in the voice of Bombay — rowdy, musical, tender and profane — a new voice for a new literature of migration and identity; the wave of writers influenced by the book were called “Midnight’s Grandchildren.” He followed it with “Shame,” on the birth of Pakistan, his angriest, funniest, finest novel, to my mind. His next, “The Satanic Verses,” sealed his literary immortality. The Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, and sent the writer into hiding for nine years “a fretful, scuttling existence,” as he described it in his memoir, “Joseph Anton.”
That famous style has congealed in recent years; the flamboyance that once felt so free now seems strenuous and grating. “If he had a fault, it was that of ostentation, of seeking to be not only himself but a performance of himself,” Rushdie writes of a character in his novel “The Enchantress of Florence,” which could read like stinging self-critique. The later books — “Shalimar the Clown,” “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights,” “The Golden House” — are all tics, technique and hammy narration that try to toupee over patchy stories, exhausted themes, types passing as characters. For a writer so frequently praised for ingenuity, Rushdie actually follows a formula of sorts. You could make yourself a bingo card: Classic Novel or Myth used as Scaffolding, Femme Fatale, Story within the Story (recounted by a Garrulous Narrator), Topical Concerns, Defense of Hybridity.
Let’s play. The new novel, “Quichotte” is a retelling of Don Quixote (there’s our Scaffold), with debts to “Back to the Future,” the Odyssey, “Lolita,” Pinocchio, the Eugène Ionesco play “Rhinoceros,” and — why not — the 12th century epic, “The Conference of the Birds.” Our hero, a traveling salesman of Indian origin, becomes addled by his obsession with American television (in the original, the Don is addicted to heraldic romances). He begins to believe himself an inhabitant of “that other, brighter world” and resolves to win the heart of a beautiful television host (meet our Femme Fatale), Salma R. He sets off in pursuit of his beloved, and channels for himself a companion, a son he calls, naturally, Sancho. In their quest they encounter an America of Trump voters and vicious racism (allowing for that Defense of Hybridity) and become tangled in a subplot involving the opioid crisis (Topical Concerns — check!). This story is revealed to us as a work in progress, however, the creation of a second-rate crime writer, another uneasy Indian in America who writes under the name Sam duChamp (a.k.a. our Garrulous Narrator), who has some unfinished business back home.
I didn’t even mention the mastodon invasion. Or the rip in the cosmos. Or the character inspired by Elon Musk. Or the unhappy appearance, toward the end of the book, of a Jiminy Cricket-type character. “This isn’t really happening,” Sancho says. This isn’t really happening, I thought.
Of all genres, fantasy, E.M. Forster has argued, requires perhaps the greatest adjustment on the part of the reader, a special suspension of disbelief. It is not necessarily a great adjustment but it must be accounted for, and it must be made, otherwise the reader will be left on shore, watching the author’s proud, meaningless exertions with increasing detachment and coldness. When Rushdie’s previous books have succeeded it is because he has been guided by this awareness and found ways to entice us on board, to poke fun at his own excesses. In “Midnight’s Children,” blunt Padma performs the function of in-house literary critic: “Here is Padma at my elbow, bullying me back into the world of linear narrative, the universe of what-happened-next,” our garrulous narrator tells us.