Opening a new Salman Rushdie novel after reading almost any other contemporary writer is like stepping off a plane in Mumbai, or New York in a heatwave: it immediately hits you how much milder and quieter things are back home. Quichotte overwhelms you from the first page with a lightning storm of ideas and a monsoon of exuberant prose. Dissonance, multiplicity, excess: these are Rushdie’s themes and his method. If you happen to experience, along with one of his characters, ‘a certain dizziness brought on by the merging of the real and the fictional, the paranoiac and the actual outlook’ – well, that’s all part of the fun.
The main part of the novel concerns two Indian-born Americans: Quichotte and Miss Salma R (the names indicate that we are far, far away from the land of conventional realism). Quichotte, a travelling pharmaceuticals salesman, has consumed so much motel-room cable TV that he has fallen ‘victim to that increasingly prevalent psychological disorder in which the boundary between truth and lies’ becomes ‘smudged and indistinct’. Salma R is a world-famous, Manhattan-dwelling talk-show host who happens to be addicted to precisely the kind of opiate medication Quichotte peddles. He becomes dangerously obsessed with Salma and, inspired by Cervantes’s mad knight, sets off on a road trip across America, hoping to find her ‘and, by deeds as well as grace, to win her heart’.
But Quichotte is not alone in confusing imagination with reality. We learn that his tale is the brainchild of an author called, simply, Brother, who is writing a novel about the way in which ‘we are being crippled by the culture we have made, by its most popular elements above all’. Brother has been estranged from his sister, Sister, since their tumultuous childhood in Bombay (as it was then known). Now, as he increasingly contemplates his mortality, and feeling that an ‘empty cloud filled the space where family should have been’, he finds himself ‘weighing the benefits of putting down the burden of their quarrel and making peace before it was too late’. Brother slowly comes to understand that his protagonist’s quest is a distorted echo of his own longing for reconciliation with Sister. As he writes, uncanny parallels begin to appear between Quichotte’s story and his own, until finally they resemble facing mirrors, a corridor of reflections tumbling away to infinity.
Quichotte has all the verbal pyrotechnics and outlandish invention that will be familiar to readers of Rushdie’s fourteen previous novels, but at heart it is a serious and affecting tale about the irresistible pull of history. Both Quichotte and Brother have left India behind in an attempt to erase their origins and, by means of strenuous self-narration, invent new American lives. But, with shades of that archetypal American self-fashioner Jay Gatsby, each discovers ‘the ability of the past to insist, in spite of everything, on its right to return to haunt the present’ – and so they beat on, boats against the current.
Rushdie’s style is one of manic superabundance, exemplified by his fail-safe rhetorical effect, the list. Quichotte devours ‘morning shows, daytime shows, late-night talk shows, soaps, situation comedies, Lifetime movies, hospital dramas, police series, vampire and zombie serials, the dramas of housewives from Atlanta, New Jersey, Beverly Hill, and New York, the romances and quarrels of hotel-fortune princesses and self-styled shahs’ (and so on, for half a page). His romantic history receives similar treatment: there is ‘the horticulturist, the advertising executive, the public relations dazzler, the antipodean adventuress, the American liar, the English rose, the ruthless Asian beauty’. Even dramatic action is apt to be slowed down by a list of similes: ‘The plane lost altitude suddenly and fast, like one of the balls Galileo imagined dropping from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, like an elevator plunging down a lift shaft, like a falling man.’
If Rushdie’s hyperloquacity sometimes goes too far, it is because going too far – and then a little further – is how he attempts to capture the vast panorama of contemporary reality: ‘the everything of everything, the roar of narratives, the endless transformation, the myth factory lost in the myth of itself’. Quichotte is a melting pot of genres and styles: picaresque, spy thriller, sci-fi fantasy, mock-mock-epic. In the Brother/Sister sections, Rushdie even experiments with, and succeeds beautifully at, naturalistic family drama. In addition to the main characters, each of whom is given not just a back story but also parents and grandparents with their own back stories, there is a large gallery of minor characters, including a cross-dressing High Court judge, a cricket who speaks fluent Italian, a technology billionaire called Evel Cent and a blue fairy who dispenses hard-bitten wisdom on a Greyhound bus.
‘You need your wits about you if you want to ride the road,’ says Rushdie’s blue fairy. ‘It’ll twist and turn on you. It’ll duck and swerve and land you where you don’t expect and you got no business being.’ Reading this novel is a similarly disorientating experience; not every reader will complete the journey. Those who do will be driven to their wits’ end and back again. But those who are prepared to sit back and enjoy the ride will encounter scenery like none they have ever seen.