In a review of Shalimar, John Updike noted that while Rushdie had always shown an interest in celebrity, the fatwa and his subsequent superstardom had given his work a “distracting glitter.” (The book, which is largely about Kashmir, has a central character named after a celebrity for no discernible reason.) When the narrator discussed “fame and theatricality,” the reader was now likely to notice the author peering out from behind the curtain.
The shortcomings concern more than just celebrity. Rushdie’s early books combined his unique magical realism with searing history. He made no apology for the outrageousness or ridiculousness of his dialogue and characters, and because they complemented his larger vision, the reader could enjoy them on their own terms, realism be damned. Rushdie did not become a stylistically different writer under the fatwa, but in his later work, the larger subjects of religion and intercommunal warfare become secondary to his ostentatious prose, which often exists merely for its own sake. (In Shalimar, Paris is described thusly: “That innocent-uninnocent city was a prostitute, was a gigolo, was sophisticated infidelity in the guilty-unguilty afternoons.”)
This might be less problematic if, as Joseph Anton reveals, Rushdie did not manifest a newly positive attitude toward realism, which he seems to pride himself on while simultaneously showing an unwillingness to sacrifice the decidedly unrealistic aspects of his fiction. He recounts the “advice he never forgot,” given to him by the medievalist Arthur Hibbert during the former’s time at Cambridge.
“You must never write history,” Hibbert said, “until you can hear the people speak.” He thought about that for years, and in the end it came to feel like a valuable guiding principle for fiction as well. If you didn’t have a sense of how people spoke, you didn’t know them well enough, and so you couldn’t—you shouldn’t—tell their story. The way people spoke, in short, clipped phrases, or long, flowing rambles, revealed so much about them: their place of origin, their social class, their temperament, whether calm or angry, warmhearted or cold-blooded, foulmouthed or clean-spoken, polite or rude; and beneath their temperament, their true nature, intellectual or earthy, plainspoken or devious, and, yes, good or bad.
If spoken, this paragraph would certainly reveal Rushdie himself as someone simpleminded and Manichaean: How else to explain the belief that we can decipher whether someone is “warmhearted or cold-blooded,” let alone “good or bad,” by the way they speak? But the truly odd thing to note is that people almost never speak the way people speak in Salman Rushdie’s books. Sometimes this can be a joy; other times, not. In Fury, surely Rushdie’s worst novel, he presents us with an octogenarian German Jewish plumber named Joseph Schlink:
My name amuses you? So laugh. The chentleman, Mr. Simon, calls me Kitchen Schlink, to his Mrs. Ada I’m also Bathroom Schlink, let zem call me Schlink the Bismarck, it von’t bother me, it’s a free country, but in my business I haff no use for humor. In Latin, humor is a dampness from the eye. This is to quote Heinrich Böll, Nobel Prize nineteen hundred seventy-two. In his line of vork he alleges it’s helpful, but in my job it leads to mistakes. No damp eyes on me, eh?, and no chokes in my tool bag. Chust I like to do the vork prompt, receive payment also prompt, you follow me here. Like the shvartzer says in the movie, show me the money. After a war spent plugging leaks on a Nazi U-boat, you think I can’t fix up your little doofus here?
Rushdie’s work is filled with such rants or riffs, usually funnier than this dud. But if a Rushdie book does not have a Rushdie-like narrator (such as the one used to great effect in Shame), it is still filled with people who quite explicitly feel like creations of the author. Consequently, these characters get saddled with dialogue that is inorganic to who they are. In reviewing Shalimar, Updike wrote that Rushdie
propels his ill-named Ambassador, the usually cool and laconic Maximilian Ophuls, into uttering “a series of high-flown locutions” in a television interview, culminating in the cri de coeur “In Kashmir it is paradise itself that is falling; heaven on earth is being transformed into a living hell.”
The same issue occurs in The Enchantress of Florence (2008), such as when Machiavelli (that Machiavelli) speaks of his exclusive attraction to women and adds to a young male friend, “So you don’t have to worry about me jumping you in the woods.” He soon adds, to a prospective clerk, “Clerks never get fucked … but you’ll be the envy of us all.”