Magical Fundamentalism: Salman Rushdie’s New Novel Spoofs the Arabian Nights

Loosely modeled on the One Thousand and One Nights, Salman Rushdie’s new novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, is digressive. And digressions, as Laurence Sterne reminds us in Tristram Shandy, keep the reader at the dinner table. Of course, Sterne adds, “all the dexterity is in the good cookery.” Seven years since his last adult novel, the question is whether Rushdie still knows his way around the kitchen.

The novel begins, like the Arabian Nights, with a frame story, one that suggests Rushdie is trying to mix metafictional and magical realist tropes in the same mulligan stew. Like the Arabian Nights, too, it opens with a Scheherazade, a figure who acts as the narrative’s prime mover, whose own story is meant to anchor the stories that proliferate. In this case it’s the Islamic polymath Averroës, otherwise known Ibn Rushd, the Aristotelian philosopher from whom Rushdie’s father borrowed his family’s surname.

In the opening pages, we find Rushd pushed into exile by Berber fanatics who would thwart the rise of secularism, the philosophy or worldview that Rushdie’s adopted forebear helped guide into being. Fortunately for Rushd, his exile lasts just long enough (to be exact: Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights) for him to meet Dunia, a girl “of perhaps 16 summers,” whose name means “the world.”

Here’s where the magic begins: Dunia turns out to be a jinnia, a female member of the jinn, a race of nonhuman beings that lives in another realm called Peristan (or Fairyland). And the jinn, Rushdie never tires of reminding us, are remarkable for their insatiable sexual appetites. Besides sex, it turns out, all that enlivens Dunia is the humanity that graces well-told stories. Luckily, Rushd is the kind of man who never tires of telling the world the story of his plight. In his case, he’s locked in a centuries-old duel with the religious philosopher Ghazali, who believes that rationality is a pipe dream that distracts humans from a healthy fear of God.

Eventually the half-jinn children of Rushd and Dunia go forth and multiply (like Scheherazade’s stories) — although the narrator reminds us that, being the progeny of a jinnia, they aren’t all Rushd’s children. Not only that, it turns out that Dunia’s brood — Rushd calls them the Duniazát — are (unbeknownst the themselves) a kind of royalty. Dunia, as it happens, is a princess, and her kids are marked not only by lobeless ears, but also with magical powers.

At this point, in two senses, the problems begin. In the case of the original Nights, Scheherazade’s stories are told to stay her execution; in Rushdie’s Nights, the many digressions that follow are more like manic attempts to restore the novel’s shaky edifice. This is to say that Rushdie repeatedly confuses the stories with the frame itself, nailing panel after panel to the narrative structure, hoping to achieve a kind of charming makeshift quality. But there is another name for a story told entirely with panels and frames: a comic book.

Still, given the baseline grotesquery of his characters, and the fact that one of them is a graphic novelist, it’s safe to say that Rushdie is aware that his Nights is cartoonish. I’m less convinced, however, that he meant to sift out the realism and leave only the magic. Or that he wanted his novel to bear the allegorical weight of X-Men.

Have you ever heard someone summarize a comic book? Here, we meet a cast of characters — many are Duniazát — who are flatly drawn according to their religious and political dispositions or their attitudes about sex and contemporary life. There is Mr. Geronimo, the levitating gardener and widower who floats at the novel’s proverbial heart. There is Alexandra Bliss Fariña, billionaire heiress and Schopenhauerian pessimist. Or Jimmy Kapoor, the graphic novelist who finds himself babysitting a wormhole through which the jinn enter a 21st-century world. Then there are the jinn themselves, who come in indifferent and dark (bad) varieties. And there are plenty of characters who get struck by lightning.

Speaking of lightning, one way we know that Rushdie’s Nights gets away from him is that the novel opens with a kind stylistic elegance that soon gives way to the speed of its digressions. The most beautiful of all these passages details the lightning strike that kills Mr. Geronimo’s wife:

[T]he lightning flash emanates from the rear of a thundercloud and travels as many as 25 miles away from the storm area, then angles down and strikes the ground, or a tall building, or a lone tree in a high place, or a woman standing alone on a hilltop watching the river pass by. The storm from which it came is too far away to be seen. But the woman on the hilltop can be seen, falling slowly to the ground, like a feather complying, very reluctantly, with the law of gravity.

Unfortunately, this is the last of the novel’s genuinely moving passages, and it comes before its 50th page.

What follows is a blitzkrieg, the rapid-fire exposition (and deferred resolution) of a war between the dark jinn and the children of Dunia, one that is somehow meant to shed light on the post-secular conundrums that now bother much of the world. Although Rushdie has already been praised for avoiding “what could have been a shrill parable about the evils of religion,” it’s hard to see why. He still chooses to gentrify the intricacies of local and global conflict with the either/or logic of a War of the Worlds (his phrasing). He still pitches modern life as a manichean fight between reason and unreason. Along these lines, the novel’s sometime hero, Mr. Geronimo, experiences an epiphany that shares all the hallmarks of fundamentalism:

The doors of perception opened and he saw that what was evil and monstrous about the jinn was a mirror of the monstrous and evil part of human beings, that human nature too contained the same irrationality, wanton, willful, malevolent, and cruel, and that the battle against the jinn was a portrait of the battle within the human heart, which meant that the jinn were somehow abstractions as well as realities, and that their descent to the lower world served to show that world what had to be eradicated within itself, which was unreason itself, unreason which was the name of the dark jinn within people…

On the other hand, the closer you look at Rushdie’s Nights, the more you begin to wonder whether he’s wrestling against his own dark jinn: the voice inside him that, for example, equates all terrorists with “male individuals who were either virgins or unable to find sexual partners.” In this novel, Rushdie at least bothers to filter most of his more militant asides through a collective, future society (that calls itself “we”), one that brings to mind both Ayn Rand’s Anthem and Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island. (And, yes, it’s yet another frame narrative.) The takeaway may be that, like Houellebecq, whom he once defended, Rushdie’s own hardline view is softening, with or against his will.

Or maybe not. In the case of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, though, it hardly matters which side Rushdie (or the reader) takes. This digressive novel — as the author of Tristram Shandy would have it — leaves a bad taste in the mouth. There’s no dexterity in the cookery: I wouldn’t kiss the cook.