In his wildly inventive new novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie offers up a modern tale set in the international firmament of pop music. This is the writer who infuriated a sizable portion of the Muslim world with The Satanic Verses, so don't expect a trite cautionary tale of decadent glamour and eventual comeuppance a la Jackie Collins. Rushdie has more than drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll on his mind. Much more. His lengthy, allusion-packed narrative is, in fact, a riff on the Orpheus myth, in which said hero must descend into the underworld to reclaim his love.
The novel begins at nearly the end of the story, as legendary singer Vina Apsara vanishes from the face of the earth during an earthquake. With Vina when she is presumably swallowed up is a photographer named Rai, who becomes the narrator of the book. Rai (whose real name, Umeed Merchant, can be translated as seller of hope ) has known Vina since they were both children in Bombay. As her constant friend and sometimes lover, he becomes the somewhat unwilling Boswell for her and for Ormus Cama, a giant of musical talent and the love of Vina's life.
The story these three share begins in India, and ricochets around the globe London, New York, Mexico, Southeast Asia. Rushdie cleverly constructs a parallel, though hardly less turbulent, history for the last 60 years, with the British in Vietnam along with the Americans, Kennedy narrowly escaping assassination, and Watergate just the fictional plot of a pulp thriller. Against this hyperbolic backdrop, Ormus and Vina are separated and reunited more than once, and both rise to the pinnacle of stardom. But their star-crossed love, mythic and transcendent, never seems to survive on solid ground. Rushdie's breathless, often funny prose is laced with real and imagined song lyrics, and informed by countless references to Eastern and Western gods, both secular and divine. Indeed, throughout The Ground Beneath Her Feet, there is a startling juxtaposition of opposites: English v. Indian cultures, the terrestrial v. the unearthly, the often ridiculous world of celebrity v. the intrinsic human need for a spiritual grounding. It's as if, for Rushdie, the earth can't bear the weight of such contradiction and must, in the end, give way to the inevitable cataclysm, devouring the folly of our human endeavors.
Robert Weibezahl lives in Los Angeles, where he writes about books and culture.