The Ground Beneath Her Feet

February 23, 2008

Great works of art leave their audience with some mixture of inspiration, desire to emulate, a deeper understanding of what it is to be human, and, towering over all else — a tremendous sense of pure awe. Salman Rushdie's Ground Beneath Her Feet is such a work, though so incredibly dense and alive that, in the reading, it is sometimes easy to overlook, nay, to become lost in, its grandiosity.

How can one overlook greatness? Think of a rich sonata, the most complex you can bring to mind (Brahms?). Focus in on a single instrument. Then try to hear just a few instruments, ignoring the rest of the orchestra. What you hear is certainly great; but, is it Great? That analogy might not work for you, but that is the closest I can come to describing my experience with GBHF.

Having finished the book late last night, after spending three to four weeks with it, my reaction is still dominated by awe. Let me add one more quality bestowed on reader — inadequacy, in such measure that it overrides the inclination to emulation. This is an edifice that one does not seek to equal. If one can even build at all, it will be with the full knowledge that the result might be pleasing enough, but will always lie hidden in the shadows. Look on Rushdie's work, ye Mighty, and despair!

The perfect book does not exist, yet what flaw can this puny mortal recognize in Salman Rushdie's magnum opus? Perhaps that it is too erudite, relying heavily on cultural references. These particularly derive from the records of modern music and of ancient myth. Many times a character would spell out an allusion, making plain what I would have preferred to remain, esoterically, just between the two of us. No sooner did I wished this than I quietly acknowledged the genius of such exegesis — in the many cases where the references were otherwise lost on me. I love literature, but "Miles Standing" was never more than an oblique R.E.M. reference, so I must thank Rushdie for explicating the Longfellow connection, for instance.

In doing so, not only am I enriched, but the author pays explicit tribute to the Mighty shoulders vaulting him into the stratosphere. Rather then pretend that he came up with all these notions on his own, he lets us know exactly what is borrowed and often from whom. There are more than enough bon mots, so I presume, of Rushdie's own devising. There is no need to claim falsely the allegories of Eurydice or Elvis as his own.

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