Vol. XIX, #3 The Best of The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Review of Contemporary Fiction
The Ground beneath Her Feet, by Salman Rushdie
reviewed by Robert L. McLaughlin
Henry Holt, 1999. 575 pp. $27.50.
Rushdie’s funny and rich new novel uses the history of a fictional rock band—from difficult beginnings to superstardom through the inevitable legal problems and breakup to a nineties reunion tour—to look at the stories of our time and to examine the role of art in expressing who we are and how we understand our world. Ormus Cama, musician and songwriter, and Vina Apsara, singer extraordinaire, are the driving force behind the band, and their playing out of a variation of the Orpheus-Eurydice myth, as narrated by Rai, photographer and friend to both, is the focus of the story. The thematic focus is on the clashes of competing versions of reality and art’s part in articulating them. The novel is set in an alternative reality. The world Rai describes shares much with ours but in many places goes in its own direction: JFK escapes assassination in Dallas; the Nixon presidency and Watergate exist only in a political novel; Stephen Dedalus is the great novelist of the twentieth century. Ormus’s genius and eventually his obsession result from his being able to see into another, competing world (clearly, our world), which he foresees invading and shaking apart his world.
Knowledge of these worlds, any world, is mediated through art. Rai tells his story via a plethora of artistic references and allusions: from myth, Western and non; music, classical and pop; literature, highbrow and low. (N.B. Pynchon fans: Rushdie even supplies an ending for the notoriously inconclusive The Crying of Lot 49.) But the sheer pleasure one takes in the wealth of knowledge displayed here is countered by an undercutting of art’s ability to make new worlds possible. Ormus’s revelations become routinized as they are explicated and critiqued by reviewers and commercialized as the band’s fame grows. Moreover, the novel’s anticipated apocalyptic moment is deferred as the mundane asserts itself and takes over.
The Ground beneath Her Feet is a brilliant novel, delighting us with the many worlds it contains and the stories they’re told through, challenging us to think about how stories can help to make and unmake worlds.