'This is the story of a jinnia," Salman Rushdie tells us in the opening pages of his new novel, "a great princess of the jinn, known as the Lightning Princess on account of her mastery over the thunderbolt, who loved a mortal man long ago, in the twelfth century, as we would say, and of her many descendants, and of her return to the world, after a long absence, to fall in love again, at least for a moment, and then to go to war."
That sentence alone is quite enough to lure anyone with an appetite for bedtime stories that last a lifetime, for fables and fairy tales or any story that begins "Once upon a time," which is, essentially, how this novel begins, looking backward from the future, a thousand years from now. Rushdie's now is an early 21st century world infected by religious fanatics, "strangenesses," and a New York City coming to grips with the aftermath of a megastorm that makes Hurricane Sandy seem like a damp summer breeze. Commence the apocalypse, and of course everything changes.
Sea monsters swallow ships in New York harbor; citizens around the globe levitate into the ozone layer; an abandoned baby displays the ability to make the skin of corrupt officials erupt in boils. One might presume that these happenings have descended because we 21st century earthlings have achieved a threshold of rottenness that has warranted cosmic payback, but that would not be the case.
What's going on is the genies — the jinn — are at war with one another, and earth is their battleground. The forces of dark and light have each enlisted legions of earthlings to fight in their cause. The bad guys conscript the religious nuts; the righteous jinn have the Duniazat, the descendants of the Lightning Princess and a 12th century philosopher/writer from a time when the jinnia last came to earth to fall in love with a mortal.
There's an abundance of authorial winking here, the unabashed symbolism and double entendres quickly stacking up in a manner that wires Rushdie into an ancient storytelling tradition without preventing him from maintaining his own claim on originality and freshness. Once upon a time means now, although "now" is also the 31st century, the time of the novel's narration. And besides glimpses into that future, better time, we are also periodically pulled back millennia to the origin tales of the fated couple — stories nested within stories.
Two years eight months and twenty-eight nights, the duration of the war, add up to a magical thousand and one nights, a reference to the classic Persian collection of tales. The exiled philosopher who mated with the Lightning Princess, thus becoming the patriarch of the half-human half-jinn descendants who will save the world eight centuries later, was named Ibn Rushdie. He was a writer "discredited and disgraced on account of his liberal ideas" whose work was "banned and his books burned." This Rushdie is the anti-Scheherazade: His yarns endangering his life, while Scheherazade's saved hers.
No comment or explanation necessary, except to say that Salman Rushdie is not shy. The literal risks he takes as a writer, while not unique, are certainly uncommon, and the fight he picks here, through the guise of his alter ego, with his enemies — the enemies of reason, logic and science; the purveyors of fear and religious hatred and hysteria — is more potent and deliberate than the lethal contretemps inspired by his novel "The Satanic Verses.'' In that book the blasphemies were not explicit, but imagined by some who never read it.
In "Two Years Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights," however, heresy is front and center. Even the jinn, supernatural beings who reside in a realm veiled off from the earth, are unsure about the existence of God, and indifferent to the issue, preferring to utilize eternity engaged in non-stop sex rather than contemplate the divine order of the universe. Which is to say, while the novel is a circus of the fabulous, it is also a cemetery for the theocratic follies of humanity.
One of the defining elements of Rushdie's sensibility as a writer, a quality that distinguishes him from other novelists who have conjured up geopolitical allegories or dystopian fantasies — Orwell, for instance — is his disarming (others might say weaponized) habit of playfulness, a sometimes dark but always happy mischief, energized by good old-fashioned magic, the sort to be found in the creation myths of any civilization on earth. Or Spielberg's or Disney's Hollywood, for that matter.
The plot twists in ways familiar to any fan of Marvel comic books, with the characters struggling to transcend their fate as pawns in a game of thrones. But the narrative choreography proves once again that while Rushdie is rightfully considered a world-class storyteller, the novel shines brightest in the panache of its unfolding, the electric grace and nimble eloquence and extraordinary range and layering of his voice.
E.M. Forster wrote that "the final test of a novel will be our affection for it." And although the degree of one's affection might swing widely between Harper Lee and Dante, surely "Two Years Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights" will be welcomed with a pure and generous affection by many, rather than the shock and awe of some of Rushdie's earlier works. This is not simply because this novel is great fun, nor because of the uplift of its good-guys-win climax, but mostly because of the splendid and heartfelt optimism at the end of the story. There the narrator salutes the world we humans eventually create, 1,001 years from now, when fear has been overcome, God has been set aside, and violence is a thing of the past.
But perhaps therein lies the flaw in the author's vision, the novel inadvertently invoking the theological irony and great sadness that comes from imagining — or believing — only transformative magic and super-powered heroes can reverse pessimism into optimism, can save the world, and deliver the happy ending. Ultimately, only one superpower seems available to mankind – love – and as the evidence has it, there's not enough of that to go around, on earth as it is in Fairyland.
Bob Shacochis's most recent novel, "The Woman Who Lost Her Soul,'' was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2014.