"Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights" by Salman Rushdie, Random House, $28
In all that has been written about him, no one has accused Salman Rushdie of lacking imagination. The author of the Booker Prize-winning "Midnight's Children," one of the past century's great novels, as well as "The Satanic Verses," the novel that brought a fatwa upon him, Rushdie has showed immense creative power.
Over a little less than 300 pages, his new novel, "Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights," continues his impressive and inspired record, bursting with stories, anecdotes, ideas, outlandish characters, clever and bawdy jokes, verve and wit.
But it also does something novel for the author: It zips past Rushdie's usual magical realism right into science fiction. Above our world, "Two Years" says, there is another realm, Fairyland, wherein dwell the jinn, nonhuman beings of smoke and fire who spend most of their days having sex with one another. But when one of them, Dunia, falls in love with the brilliant (and human) philosopher Averroës, she produces voluminous descendants, half-human half-jinn individuals with latent powers and abilities.
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Meanwhile, Averroës' philosophical nemesis, Al-Ghazali (also a real life philosopher), happens upon a dark jinn stuck in a bottle. After the two philosophers’ intellectual dispute continues beyond the grave, Al-Ghazali uses a wish to ask the dark jinn to attack the world and show Averroës who is right about humanity's faithfulness. The barrier between Fairyland and the world ruptures, and Dunia attempts to enlist her descendants to fight the dark jinn invaders.
Their battle ends up turning the world upside down: "Only science fiction," Rushdie writes, "gave people a way of getting a handle on what the formerly real world’s non-CGI mundanity seemed incapable of making comprehensible." This absurdity occasions comedy, such as when one of the dark jinn declares, "You are all my slaves" to a mass of people, only to have them believe "he was promoting a new opera at the Met."
The pell-mell story draws on a voluminous amount of fiction, history and fable—including, most prominently, "One Thousand and One Nights," the compilation of Eastern folk tales probably made, at least to Westerners, most famous by Disney's "Aladdin." The Scheherazade in "Two Years" is an anonymous, omniscient chronicler a thousand years in the future, who can spew wisdom and biting satire, showing the unreality of the real and realness of the fake.
What it all adds up to isn't perfect—sometimes the chapters feel more like sketches, and the book seems haphazardly structured, with a lot of explanation even toward its climax—but its encyclopedic scope and endless inventiveness eventually satisfy.
With the ire his writing has produced in some extremist circles, Rushdie is keen to the complicated role our fantasies and illusions play in our lives, and the constant battle between faith and reason.
As can easily be discerned from his memoir, "Joseph Anton," which recounted the strange time when he lived under the most intense parts of the fatwa, Rushdie sides with Dunia and the forces of reason. But his understanding, of course, is a little more nuanced. As one character says in "Two Years": "[O]ur fictions are killing us, but if we didn’t have those fictions, maybe that would kill us too."
Greg Walklin is an attorney and freelance writer.