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The Writers' Writer's High Priest in the Church of the Devout

Salman Rushdie looks good. He looks clean. He’s having fun. He’s come to Cambridge tonight to read from his new novel, Fury. In fact, this is the book’s second `coming out’; the proper debut occurred last night in Manhattan. Yet that was at a downtown Barnes and Noble. Tonight takes place at the First Parish Church in Harvard Square. The irony is intentional, and it works. This is a performance, complete with set, design, lighting and, of course, star. The place is absolutely packed.
The line to get in, not surprisingly, slinks around the block. People blather on about which works of Rushdie’s they have read, or are reading, or plan to read (Midnight’s Children, perhaps, being the best known for having won England’s prestigious Booker Prize). You can’t call yourself an intellectual without at least a cocktail knowledge of his oeuvre. And of course this is an intelligent audience: young, clean, many in the process of becoming Ivy-educated. So Rushdie will be preaching to the choir-quite literally.

Fury is a departure from the rest of Rushdie’s work, not only because it’s about New York City, and about America, but because it’s very short-259 pages. This constitutes a rare event in the current, gluttonous publishing climate. Following a brief and duly reverent introduction by Alan Lightman, Mr. Rushdie approached the altar. He clears his throat; he puts on his reading glasses. His suit seems newly pressed.
Rushdie reads from the center of the story, which takes up the life of one Professor Malik Solanka (`retired historian of ideas’), a man who’s fled London for New York. Yet this is not the average academic roman … clef; this is a story of wanting and getting and spending. The first five minutes are a roll call of now-nearly past pop cultural, past century flashes in the Power Pan. It’s Rushdie’s rogues gallery of influence among the social, political, and bookish: The Temple of Dendur, Saul Steinberg, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, George Schultz, Susan Sontag, Nadine Gordimer, Cynthia Ozick, Arafat, Barak, Clinton. Later we hear the names of Donald Barthelme, Gunter Grass, Grace Paley, John Updike. And even Miss Christina Aguilera.

Yet while Fury is a book bound in time, the time is ours. The time is yesterday. It’s a Balzacian riff on the turn of our new millennium and the giddy, sick excesses of too much money gained by too many at too young an age (Rushdie freely offers up his debt to the French novelist’s techniques of setting a scene). And yet, the book seems replete with the cool reverence of a wide-eyed foreigner, someone who has looked inside the mind of American materialism and lived to tell the tale. Well, the tale is over now; Fury is a wise document of an epoch’s fall from grace. There is love. There is sex. There is death.

Rushdie’s charm cannot be overestimated. For a man who ran and hid for years he’s astonishingly easy in a crowd. He’s perhaps the greatest (the only?) literary rock star the world has left, and he rises to the occasion of this rapt audience with numerous precious pull-quotes. Putting the book down at one point he recalls a parlor game played with “my friend Christopher Hitchens” wherein the two imagine the classics recast as pure pulp fiction. “We did all of Shakespeare,” he says, giggling (Salman Rushdie giggles!). “You know, Lear becomes The Cordelia Conundrum. Hamlet becomes The Elsinore Vacillation. We made them all up.”

Asked in the Q and A to comment on the vacillation in his work between the imaginary and the real Rushdie points out that, well, that’s just how life works. “Everyday, you know, you have the constant interaction between what’s going on outside your mind and what’s going on internally. There is a continuous spillage between the imaginative and the real. This is not a trick of fiction; this is how we all experience our world. Take love. Falling in love is the case where the imagination-as an act of optimism-falls into the real world. Sometimes it works. Or consider America. This is a country built on a dream. Look what happened.”
The church erupts. Salman Rushdie kills.

September 10, 2001
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