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Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

Books Reviews Salman Rushdie
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<i>Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights</i> by Salman Rushdie

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights brings Salman Rushdie back to his more flattering of authorship, not dissimilar in scope from the beautiful Midnight’s Children, the sprawling Haroun and the Sea of Stories and the controversial Satanic Verses.

“This is the story of our ancestors as we choose to tell it—which, of course, makes this tale our own story, too.”

This mock historical work describes a time when magic and reality slips together, co-existing on Harry Potter levels. It’s told by academic narrators near the end of the third millennium, after humanity has fallen into a quiet, rational peace. This tale contains legends, myths and partial records stitched together in Rushdie’s recreation of A Thousand and One Nights, and it is bold and bountiful.

The story opens in 12th-century Spain, where the philosopher Ibn Rushd (which was purported by Salman’s father to be the true surname of his family) has unwittingly fallen in love with the Dunia, who is actually a jinnia (or genie) in disguise. Rushd and the jinnia princess Dunia marry and give birth to many human-jinn children. Rushd, an Aristotelian rationalist of the old order, is devoted to disproving the claims of orthodox Islam in the guise of the theologian Ghazali. Ghazali spews a hate driven doctrine of fear and divine supremacy.

The story jumps to New York City in the near future, as Ibn Rushdie and Dunia’s distant descendants discover they have special powers. The main character, Mr. Geronimo, is a landscaper who one day starts to float.

From there, the book’s filled with quirky, bizarre supernatural events that lead toward an apocalyptic end-of-the world free for all. Essentially, these characters are superheroes, and Rushdie provides a buildup toward an Orson Wells-esque super bowl for the mightiest to save the day, or not: “War of the Worlds” vs. the end of days (some combination of Percy Jackson meets Thor, meets The Hunger Games, or something like that).

These superbeings shoot lightning bolts from their fingertips, turn tree branches into gold and levitate. Rushdie is having fun here: absurd backstories, flying carpets, giant serpents, death duals and sex in gargantuan proportions: “If we can’t have sex at least a dozen times a day, darling,” she cried, “we might as well be nuns.”

As usual, Rushdie is thumbing his nose at traditional format. The novel combines elements of science fiction, magical realism and love story within American hubris. And while the story contains a universe of endless possibilities, the textured, culturally nuanced creation doesn’t hold together. It is too disjointed. Too hidden in satire. Less thrilling, more work. And, ultimately, it is in the language where Rushdie falters.

Since the novel is dependent upon such description, it is a “historical” novel after all, the lack of overpowering scene and the lack of story tear down interest. In a hard movement into the epilogue which keeps recreating rather than closing the story, the clunky phrasing is astute: “Men and women of our city, your costumes please us, close-fitting, colorless, fine; great city, your foods, your odors, your speedy sensuality, casual encounters begun, fiercely consummated, discontinued, we accept you all; and meanings jostling in the street, rubbing shoulders with other meanings, the friction birthing new meanings unmeant by the meaners who parented them; and factories, schools, places of entertainment and ill repute, our metropolis, thrive, thrive!” It’s as if the Cone Heads deliver the final sermon.

When Rushdie is on, however, it is familiar and welcome: “Human sanity was a poor, fragile thing at best, she thought. Hatred stupidity devotion greed the four horseman of the new apocalypse,” or “You’ve spent your whole life carousing, killing, gambling, fucking, and then sleeping it off … so sainthood sits as uncomfortably on you as that golden crown, which, by the way, is too small …” But this continued interior is not sharp enough to bring the novel to life.

With the exception of his last book, the uneven memoir Joseph Anton, which focused on the well-publicized fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini for Rushdie’s excellent The Satanic Verses, this is the usual territory that Rushdie shines. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, in theory, should be his coming home. He has created this excellent style in the past to illuminate the ideas of alienation, exile, the new and uncontrollable. This coming home, however, is sloppy, repetitive, and, dare I say it, lazy. Rushdie is too redundant in idea, languidly stiff in prose, and too wide-sweeping in theme. It’s both too much, and not enough at the same time. Ultimately he is trying to have fun here, and maybe that is the point, but he has done better.

Mark Eleveld is the editor of The Spoken Word Revolution series. He programmed the first Poetry Jam at the White House for President and First Lady Barack Obama. He is a co-publisher at EM Press, a board member of the Society of Midland Authors, and teaches at Lewis University.