Unlike Scheherazade’s bedtime stories, which kept her alive, Salman Rushdie’s fantasies almost did him in. The decade he spent in hiding from Quranic literalists for writing a novel partly poking fun at Muhammad was a pre-9/11 warning to the West that a war, as Rushdie would write, had erupted between “the godly and the largely defenceless,” namely secularists and religious minorities.
But in Rushdie’s new novel, the gods themselves venture onto the battlefield. Super villains worthy of inclusion in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they behave like a magically powered ISIS, intent on yoking humanity to a relentlessly cruel orthodoxy.
Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (add this up in nights, and you get the Scheherazadian number 1001) opens in the 12th century with the great Spanish-Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd languishing in exile for his enlightened views, which include a defense of Aristotelian logic. Into this reduced life walks an illogical being, a genie — or jinnia, to be exact — posing as a teenage girl.
Dunia, as she calls herself, becomes Rushd’s lover and bears him dozens of children, all of whom are afflicted with a slight deformity: no earlobes. More than 800 years later, their likewise genetically anomalous descendants will feature prominently in the “strangenesses” that befall New York City after a major hurricane rents the fabric of space-time, allowing Dunia’s fellow jinn to invade our reality. At first they just want to have fun. Cars are turned into porcupines. A giant snake wraps itself around the Chrysler building. Every man in Times Square is suddenly, embarrassingly, nude.
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But the evil genies, “dark jinn,” led by Zumurrud the Great, eventually set their sights on world domination. Zumurrud is a disciple of Ghazali, the vastly influential Persian scholar who provided the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic fundamentalism, the yin to Ibn Rushd’s rationalist yang. His fanatical minions stone, behead and crucify opponents of the new order, the “global jinn sultanate.”
Things get so bloody, in fact, that Ghazali’s ghost recoils at “the thoroughness with which [Zumurrud] was fulfilling the dead man’s demand that the human race be made afraid so that their fear might drive them to the divine.”
The real-life parallel is obvious. The dark jinn despise the uncertainties and ambiguities of modernity; what they offer instead, however, is a false clarity, chaos masquerading as order.
Assuming the mantle of earth’s champion is Dunia, who launches a fierce counterattack with the help of her bloodline. The fight scenes are vividly imagined and epic in scope, but after recent blockbusters you may grow weary of yet another catastrophic alien attack on New York. Rushdie concedes as much, when he notes “such destruction could be seen every summer in the movie business, and lost its effect by being portrayed too frequently.”
But this is the least of his problems. Littered throughout are underdeveloped characters. I for one would like to have seen more of Baby Storm, the foundling left at the mayor’s office, with the ability to reveal a person’s corrupt soul. And what of Sister Allbee, a hotel landlady who was “familiar with a certain type of American crazy ... drug crazy and politician crazy ... and Trump crazy”? She has potential, but Rushdie abruptly kills her off. Then again, he may have had no choice: this relatively short novel is overpopulated with characters. And with the exception of Dunia, we are not really encouraged to care for any of them.
While there are flashes of brilliance, the narrative gets bogged down with repetitive ideas, dull patches and a confusing structure. Rushdie is a born storyteller with a seemingly inexhaustible storehouse of knowledge, but sometimes his postmodern antics and exuberant language are not conducive to easy, pleasurable reading. The Incoherence of the Incoherence is the title of one of Ibn Rushd’s books, and one hopes Rushdie (who has fun with the similarity of their names) will understand the temptation is too great for a critic to resist making the snidely apt observation that he should have chosen this for his title as well.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.
Meet the author
Who: Salman Rushdie.
When: 7 p.m. Sept. 18.
Where: Auditorium, Miami Dade College, 300 NE Second Ave.
Info: Tickets required; purchase of book at Books & Books locations gets you two tickets; 305-442-4408 or www.booksandbooks.com.