Shalimar the Clown
Very roughly speaking, life holds two basic types of disappointments. There are those that one has always more or less expected, and then there are those that creep up on a person unawares. It’s the difference between, say, shelling out good money to go to a Mets game and shelling out money for a Mets game and getting mugged in the parking lot afterwards. Or, applying said distinction to more literary matters - a three-hundred page Bret Easton Ellis novel composed exclusively of anagrams for designer sunglass labels versus a polite metafictional riff on the Jane Austen oeuvre by Chuck Palahniuk. Neither notion entices, exactly, but the first, at least, wouldn’t require any large scale rearranging of a reader’s worldview. An 8,000-line Updike epic poem dedicated entirely to the author’s penis? Well, of course. Surprised it hadn’t happened earlier. Ben Marcus tossing off a New Yorker-ready short story about cheating couples in the Tristate suburbs? That’s a little bit sneakier.
Set Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, Shalimar the Clown, on the sneaky side of things. It’s a disappointment, no doubt, but it disappoints in a way that few would have anticipated.
The story opens in Los Angeles, where its ostensible heroine India Ophuls whiles away her days entertaining vague notions of becoming a documentary filmmaker and (as most all Rushdie heroines are wont to do) being distressingly beautiful. She is the daughter of Max Ophuls - one-time US ambassador to India, former figure in the French Resistance, currently a massively charming if somewhat rakish octogenarian-about-town. Some 40 pages into the book Ophul’s throat is cut by his driver on his daughter’s doorstep, and the story plunges several decades backwards into the past - to a Kashmiri village and India’s mother - whom she never knew - as a teenage girl.
It would be difficult to name a writer more intimately engaged with history than Rushdie. That he himself had a certain historical significance thrust upon him by the Ayatollah’s infamous Valentine is well known. To what extent this perversity has affected his work, his choices, his material, is less easy to say. Certainly his books, fanciful as they may be, have always been heavily invested in what might be called current affairs. At his best - Midnight’s Children, for instance ? he manages to make the contemporary seem at once immediate and epic. He takes the stuff of newspaper headlines and tears and twists and contorts it until it becomes strange again, and, consequently, striking.
This time the topic at hand might be called Globalization and Its Discontents, or to repeat a Rodney King quip that Rushdie quotes towards the tale’s end, “can’t we all get along?” The answer would seem to be no. In Kashmir after the Ambassador’s death we are treated to a people’s long fall from grace, as the region devolves from an earthly paradise into a blighted war zone. The book hits other such spots along the way, going back with Max to Alsace in the late 1930’s, tracing his path from Strasbourg to America to India to his fatal meeting with the novel’s by then blood-obsessed namesake. It is, at root, a simple enough story of a lover done wrong, but one notices, also, a broader pessimism skulking about in the corners. Heraclitus hangs heavy over the affair, swinging by for a couple of cameos in the book’s latter half. Read in the shadow of the novel, his famous aphorism “everything flows, nothing stands still” comes suddenly to stand as a tragic formulation of the present age.