There once lived, at a series of temporary addresses across the United States of America, a traveling man of Indian origin, advancing years, and retreating mental powers, who, on account of his love for mindless television, had spent far too much of his life in the yellow light of tawdry motel rooms watching an excess of it, and had suffered a peculiar form of brain damage as a result. He devoured morning shows, daytime shows, late-night talk shows, soaps, situation comedies, lifetime movies, hospital dramas, police series, vampires and zombie serials, the dramas of housewives from Atlanta, New Jersey, Beverly Hills, and New York, the romances and quarrels of hotel fortune princesses and self-styled shahs, the cavorting of individuals made famous by happy nudities,…
As a consequence of his near-total preoccupation with the material offered up to him through, in the old days, the cathode-ray tube, and, in the new age of flat screens, through liquid-crystal, plasma, and organic light-emitting diode displays, he fell victim to that increasingly prevalent psychological disorder in which the boundary between truth and lies became smudged and indistinct, so that at times he found himself incapable of distinguishing one from the other, reality from “reality”….
What kind of book is this? A road novel? A romance? A buddy story? A family saga? A science fiction tale? An homage, a pastiche, a picaresque, an indictment of contemporary American culture and attitudes? Yes.
I’ve seen some pretty tepid reviews out there. “Strenuous and grating” says NYT. “Internetitis” as The Guardian puts it. I can’t disagree. But I’m more with Jason Sheehan for NPR: “So Quichotte, as a book, is a mess. But it is a beautiful mess.” He also feels it’s so convoluted you might need one of those “boards made of index cards and string just to unpack the plot.” I happen to have the MSWord equivalent, because, he’s right. So? I do that with books that I expect to get complicated.
I’ve never read Rushdie before, so I have no idea how this fits into his oeuvre, and I’m not sophisticated enough to look at questions like “is it good literature.” My own yardstick is this: given my enthusiasm for the original Don Quixote, which I explored for a few months last Fall with the help of an OCW, a mooc, and a couple of supplementary texts, in preparation for reading this novel – an enthusiasm that has had me seeing the hidalgo in multiple stories ever since – did the present novel honor the past? Do I welcome it into the web of interrelated thoughts about DQ? Am I happy I invested the time in all of this?
The author of the preceding narrative – we will call him Brother – was a New York-based writer of Indian origin who had previously written eight modestly (un)successful spy fictions under the pen name of Sam DuChamp. Then in a surprising change of direction he conceived the idea of telling the story of the lunatic Quichotte and his doomed pursuit of the gorgeous Miss Salma R, in a book radically unlike any other he had ever attempted. No sooner had he conceived this idea then he became afraid of it. He could not at first fathom how such an eccentric notion had lodged in his brain, and why it insisted so vehemently on being written that he had no choice but to start work. Then as he thought about it further, he began to understand that in some fashion that he did not as yet fully grasp Quichotte – the loner in search of love, the loser-nobody who believed himself capable of winning the heart of a queen – had been with him all his life, a shadow-self he had glimpsed from time to time in the corner of his eye, but had not had the courage to confront.
His next thought was even more alarming: to make sense of the life of the strange man whose latter days he was setting out to chronicle, he would have to reveal himself alongside his subject, for the tale and the teller were yoked together by race, place, generation, and circumstance. Perhaps this bizarre story was a metamorphosed version of his own. Quichotte himself might say, if he were aware of Brother (which was impossible, naturally) that in fact the writer’s tale was the altered version of his history, rather than the other way around, and might have argued that is “imaginary” life added up to the more authentic narrative of the two.
The book crams in everything but the kitchen sink. The Odyssey to The Bachelor. Three countries on three continents. The opioid crisis, Elon Musk, violent racism. Family issues from trivial to tragic. Attar of Nishapur’s 12th century Persian poem, “The Conference of the Birds” and Ionescu’s play, Rhinoceros (while I was kind of impressed with myself for recognizing so many of the literary references, these last two were new to me, so thank you Wikipedia). I think, if I had to construct a pre-reading list, I’d only include Arthur C. Clarke’s story “The Nine Billion Names of God” which is probably not widely read (I happen to have his collection of the same name on my shelf; it’s a favorite story of mine). Everyone’s seen the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, right? And I assume the basics of DQ’s story – crazy guy thinks he’s a knight, adventuring to win the heart of the non-existent Dulcinea, sidekick Sancho Panza – are pretty much part of the general consciousness.
Let’s do some compare/contrast on those crucial points of intersection with the original. Where DQ was obsessed with romances about knight-errantry – the dime-store romances of his day – our more modern Quichotte has become obsessed with television, particularly reality TV featuring real housewives, Kardassians, and all the rest. DQ invented Dulcinea, his lady love, as an amalgam of damsels in distress, and went questing to prove his owrthiness of her. Quichotte is enamored with a former movie star from Bombay and current New York daytime talk show host, Salma R. Where DQ co-opted his neighbor, Sancho Panza, into serving as his squire with the promise of governorship of an island at some point in the future, Quichotte conjures up a son of his own at Devil’s Tower (hence, Close Encounters), a teenager named Sancho.
Going a little beyond those basics was very rewarding for me. One of the aspects of DQ I enjoyed the most – and would never have recognized had it not been for the Yale lectures – was the puzzle of narration. The first narrator bows out after eight chapters and we find ourselves reading the work of another narrator, plus a translator. Stories about storytellers telling stories. And, of course, Cervantes, the author behind it all. And behind him? If it’s turtles all the way down, it’s narrators all the way up. God, no longer the Unmoved Mover, but now the Unnarrated Narrator.
I know things. Educated things. But how do I know so much, being the teenage son of a seventy-year-old, and born just the other day? I guess the answer is, I know what he knows.…
There’s something else. It’s the strangest thing. Sometimes, when I’m in here, rummaging around in my own head, using the words he gave me and the knowledge he passed down , uncovering my memories which are his memories, his life story which I could claim as my own if I weren’t smart enough to know better …just sometimes, not every time …I get the weirdest sense that there’s someone else in here. Crazy, right?
I’m as crazy as he is, the old guy. But who or what is this third person? I’m just going to say this the way it comes to me just say it, even though it makes no sense and makes me sound…unreliable. It feels to me, at those moments when I have this sense of a stranger, as if there’s somebody under slash behind slash above the old man. Somebody – yes – making him the way he made me. Somebody putting his life, his thoughts, his feelings, his memories into the old man the way the old man put that stuff inside me. In which case whose life am I remembering here? The old man’s or the phantom’s?
Quichotte (which Rushdie goes to some effort to inform us, in “A Quixotic Note on Pronunciation,” is best pronounced “key-SHOT”) begins with “Chapter 1: Quichotte, an old Man, falls in Love, embarks on a Quest, & becomes a Father.” The descriptive chapter titles are another nod to the original DQ; they also help keep the reader focused in a book that does everything it can to derail focus. But in “Chapter 2: An Author, Sam DuChamp, reflects upon his Past, & enters new Territory” we learn Quichotte is a character in a book, which explains how a son, a “monochrome boy” could just appear out of nowhere. And we learn that Sam DuChamp is a pseudonym the writer has used for a series of spy novels; he refers to himself generally as Brother. In the next few chapters we learn about Quichotte’s inamorata, a TV star named Salma R, about Brother’s Sister, about Quichotte’s cousin and erstwhile employer, Dr. Smile, before returning to hear more from Sancho, the black-and-white son.
See? Even though there’s a lot going on, this is a nice introductory sequence to show you who each character is. If you can remember only Brother and Sister are actual people, while everyone else is a character in a book Brother is writing… oh, except, yeah, Brother and Sister are characters, too, but in the book they’re… hmmm.
An interjection, kind reader, if you will allow one: It may be argued that stories should not sprawl in this way, that they should be grounded in one place or the other, put down roots in the other or that one and flower in that singular soil; yet so many of today’s stories are and must be of this plural, sprawling kind, because a kind of nuclear fission has taken place in human lives and relations, families have been divided …And inside the broken families are broken people, broken by loss, poverty, maltreatment, failure, age, sickness, pain, and hatred, yet trying in spite of it all to cling to hope and love , and these broken people – we, the broken people! – may be the best mirrors of our times , shining shards that reflect the truth wherever we travel, wherever we land, wherever we remain. For we migrants have become like seed-spores, carried through the air, and lo, the breeze blows up where it will come up until we lodge in an alien soil, where very often – as for example now in this England with its wild nostalgia for an imaginary golden age when all attitudes were Anglo-Saxon and all English skins were white – we are made to feel unwelcome, no matter how beautiful the fruit hanging from the branches of the orchards of fruit trees that we grow into and become.
There’s a wonderful line in the book defining lunacy as “the inability to separate what-is-so from what-is-not-so.” This generally gets applied, aptly, to American culture and society throughout, but it often applies to the reader. It’s hard to keep straight who is and who is not, particularly since, ultimately, nobody is. As the novel progresses, the book-within-the-book and the author’s story converge more and more, increasing the potential for confusion. Maybe reading this book will give us a bit more compassion for those who fall down rabbit holes of misinformation, given it is so often presented alongside and in similar style to information.
The reader becomes aware of new elements and relationships slowly; often these change presumed motivations. There are brother/sister rifts; by coincidence I happen to be one party in a brother/sister rift, and even more coincidentally (really!) I wrote my estranged brother about a month ago for the first time since, oh, maybe the early 90s, before I started reading the book and knew about this element. I still haven’t heard a reply, but the letter (snail mail, how quaint!) hasn’t been returned as undeliverable, so I suppose that’s an answer of a sort. Moving on: Quichotte until recently worked for his cousin, Dr. Smile, who has made a bundle developing a sublingual Fentanyl derivative and he’s exactly as crooked and evil as that sounds. This sets up a connection between brothers and sisters that takes us through the later parts of the book.
“Is that what you believe,” Son asked him, “that life is meaningless and we are turning into animals without morality?”
“I think it’s legitimate for a work of art made in the present time to say, we are being crippled by the culture we have made, by its most popular elements above all,” he replied. “And by stupidity and ignorance and bigotry, yes.”
“So what have you done about it?” Son demanded. “What’s your contribution? What sort of mark do you think you’re leaving on the world?”
“I did my work, and then there’s you,” he said, hearing as he spoke the weakness of his reply.
Son shrugged and headed for the car. “OK,” he said. “Let’s move on.”
Your son, your grand inquisitor.
The Rhinoceros episode deserves special attention. It appears in the chapter titled “A Sequence of absurd Events during a brief Sojourn in New Jersey,” and features rampant panic as people are turning into mastodons. I was convinced the mastodon – an old, extinct form of elephant – was a pretty direct reference to the Republican party, but in an Interview with Dolen Perkins-Valdez at the Politics and Prose Booktore, Rushdie denied that was his intent. He says he deliberately kept the name of a certain President out of the book, because he didn’t want it to be about that; he wanted it to be about America.
By the way, in a different interview with Walter Isaacson for Amanpour & Co., he tells us his original vision did not include the writer’s story; he would just write the Quichotte story straight. The process of recognizing the story – which started, even more oddly, with a set of science-fiction scripts written for an abandoned cable TV project – is always fascinating, and here, with the intertwining of two stories and so many references, is miraculous.
The death of Don Quixote felt like the extinction in all of us of a special kind of beautiful foolishness, an innocent grandeur, a thing for which the world had no place, but which one might call humanity. The marginal man, the man laughably out of touch and doggedly out of step and also unarguably out of mind, revealed in his last moment as the one to care most about and mourn most deeply for. Remember this. Have this above all in mind.
As I came to the last chapters, I was surprised at the emotion I felt. the chapter “In which the Question of Sancho is Answered” was unexpectedly moving. The events were in the neighborhood of foreseeable; nevertheless, I didn’t see my reaction coming. I had to put the book down for a day to absorb it. And in the penultimate chapter, “Concerning the Author’s Heart,” a revelation is made so casually that its reverberation was again a shock, but this time, the entire book shifted for me. A line from a review of Mad Men came to me: “Who’d have guessed that in the end, it’d be all about family?” Of course, it was always about family, but the true point of origin, the knot that ties it all together, is left until just about the end.
And that leaves the very end, which, well, you’ll just have to read it for yourself. Anything else would be unfair.