Orpheus rocks

The world goes pop, with death as a designated driver.



As in a standard thriller, what moves the plot in Salman Rushdie’s new novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, is death.

Oh, not any kind of death, mind you, but the earth-splitting, rolling-thunder, gasping and cracking kind; an ass-whipping, merciless eviction notice from the skies; a celestial rave party gone boffo; the final supernova exploding and divine passing of Vina Apsara, postcolonial Cinderella, Calamity Jane, Medusa, Helen of Troy, Beloved and Eurydice, all rolled into one mythic rock goddess, the bigger-than-life star who shook millions to their unbearable naked souls, swallowed up in a seismic orgasm measuring a full 10 on the Richter scale, and returned home, underground, like an abducted daughter. No more pain. No more longing. That kind of death, baby! "All Shook Up." "Slippin’ into Darkness." "I’ll Take You There."

Inscribed on the first page of the novel, Vina Apsara’s death in the Guadalajara earthquake of 1989 will stain the music with its rich presence, lend it that otherwordly tone and dub the sacrificial circuit between celebrity and fans. On the narrative level, it will become the designated driver, what the ancients called a psychopompos, a guide of souls, the one who must bring the shapely Eurydice back aboveground. Can love deliver us from hell? Will Orpheus remember the password and the "no looking" instructions? "Hold On I’m Coming."

The unhappy conclusion of the Orpheus story. Eurydice, lost forever because of Orpheus’ backwards look, was always a problem for composers and their librettists. Hey, Calzabigi, what’s this ending you’re giving me here? Such a downer. I should send folks home with their faces long like a wurst? Hello? Happy it up, ja! Sure, Herr Gluck, don’t get so agitato. No problem! Love, it is stronger than Hades. Love, it make the gods merciful. How’s about they send her back anyway? "Get outa here, kid, the guy’s crazy for you! What’s one little peek?"

In this postmodern rewriting of rock ’n’ roll mythology, Rushdie gives us a story to mirror our passionate engagement with popular music, and one only needs to glance at some chapter headings (i.e. "Season of the Witch," "Transformer") and the hysterical name-dropping (Texan lesbo drummer Pattie LaBeef, or Eno Barber, "undisputed king of the loop, the czar of texture") to connect with the material.

But if the music-love-death triangle is a well-known refrain, the internal rhymes Rushdie spells out are undoubtedly new. Behind the electric riff, the author makes readers see a rift, a rending of the real. Within the legend of Orpheus, we are asked to locate the orphan, "a lost child crying for her parents" photographed by the narrator in the middle of that Mexican quake and stamped on our retina as an archetypal image and a possible source for song.

"Wherein lies the power of songs?" The Ground Beneath Her Feet asks in its opening pages. Could it be that music puts us in touch with the unknown, that immense other dimension, call it divine or sublime? Does it ferry us mortals to the forbidden gates where "dreams invade the day," where we stumble upon the "fissured ground" and enter "the world of ruined selves"? Rushdie proves himself a keen musicologist. He knows that music is both damage and repair – both articulation of loss and a transcendence, a going-beyond like the logic of the blues. "It’s Gonna Work out Fine."

This is a mythic extravaganza spanning three decades, girding the planet with its simulcast wall of sound from Bombay to LA, from Beijing to Berlin. To hear its story as a straight line would be like reading a great song’s lyrics on the back of the record. This dutiful plot recap would still leave a hole where the actual music lives.

The Rushdie of the infamous fatwa, the Rushdie of India’s partition and its painful chronicle has written here a contemporary tale in tune with the "faulty earth" and the loss of the East. Yes, in spite of the amplified hooks of VTO – the novel’s super rock group – in spite of the flamboyant rock glamour, in spite of the platitudes about r ’n’ r being an international language, The Ground Beneath Her Feet manages to feature the sociopolitical music of exile, longing and orphanhood, themes dear to the heart of this East-born writer. "India, fount of my imagination, source of my savagery, breaker of my heart. Goodbye." What Ormus Cama and Vina Apsara, the sacred monsters of rock ’n’ roll at the center of this narrative, perform on the global stage of "McWorld" is the ungodly melody of being in transit: "slip your chain, step off the map, go absent without leave, scram, vamoose."

The immensely huggable narrator Rai, named so after Algerian popular music and not "‘Ray’ in that mighty democracy of mispronunciation, the United States," is the third segment of the Ormus-Vina triangle, the snake that the original goddess steps on. A photojournalist, he documents the public upheavals, the sundry chasms of the times while keeping the private tremors on his brass bed unfilmed.

Like a shimmering Ali Baba’s cavern or a five-story Tower Records on the Champs Elysées, the book overflows with stuff, more than enough to write 10 other books with. Movie and novel characters make cameo appearances with disarming charm; the young Ormus still in his native Bombay sings "Yesterday" before the Beatles record it in London; a naked Indian nurse literally sprung from thin air performs fellatio on the comatose Ormus; twins, freaks, double vision and other abnormalities round out this outlaw roster.

My favorite character is a Vina impersonator, Mira Celano, a graft between Mira Sorvino as the hooker in Mighty Aphrodite and Patti Smith at the time of Horses. Like Orpheus’ twin sister, she brings Ormus back from the dead and steals Rai’s heart with her sheer beauty.

Beginning with Gluck’s "Trionfi Amore" and ending with the "Dies Irae," this extraordinary novel – which literalizes the "shake ’em" motto of rock ’n’ roll and which narrates the seismic powers of our music – concludes with a domestic story of happiness: "Here’s ordinary human love beneath my feet … I’ll stand my ground, right here … This is mine."

Indeed, richly deserved. "Let’s Stay Together."

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