‘When the truth grows outlandish, invention appears superfluous,” novelist Lionel Shriver wrote in early 2017. “Much like 9/11, America’s astonishing electoral upset, landing an ill-informed, volatile neophyte in the White House, makes novelists like me worry that nothing we contrive can compete. The products of mere imagination seem tinny and lame.”
No one, fortunately, appears to have informed Salman Rushdie of this.
“Quichotte,” Rushdie’s Trump-era reworking of Cervantes’s “Don Quixote,” is a frantically inventive take on “the Age of Anything-Can-Happen” we’ve endured these last few years. It’s a concoction of narratives within narratives that blends the latest news headlines with apocalyptic flights of fancy. While it’s more doomsday-driven than character-driven, it does have moments when Rushdie, now 72, seems to reckon with personal losses and failures as urgently as he handles the loss of all common sense and civility in our 21st-century world.
It would be a stretch to call “Quichotte” a masterpiece, but it’s certainly a novel for our times — a flailing, despair-fueled picaresque in which few of the usual rules of fiction apply. Its TV-addicted title character, aware that he’s “maybe a little cracked in the head,” has fallen victim to a “psychological disorder in which the boundary between truth and lies became smudged and indistinct.” Meanwhile, Quichotte’s creator in the book-within-a-book, an aging writer of mediocre spy thrillers named Brother, is being forced to admit that “truth had become far stranger than his fictions, and he no longer had the energy to try to outstrip the news.”
Both Quichotte and Brother grew up in Bombay/Mumbai and now live in the US. Like the Quichotte of his imagination, Brother too suffers “a rare form of mental disorder . . . in the grip of which the boundary between art and life became blurred and permeable.” Other parallels in their lives include painful, shameful estrangements from a sister.
Rushdie, an extravagantly self-conscious writer, cheerfully spells out what he’s up to as Brother explains what his fanciful work-in-progress will entail. “He talked about wanting to take on the destructive, mind-numbing junk culture of his time just as Cervantes had gone to war with the junk culture of his own age. He said he was trying also to write about impossible, obsessional love, father-son relationships, sibling quarrels, and yes, unforgivable things; about Indian immigrants, racism toward them, crooks among them; about cyber-spies, science fiction, the intertwining of fictional and ‘real’ realities; the death of the author, the end of the world.” Into this mix, he also wants “to incorporate elements of the parodic, and of satire and pastiche.” Plus, he adds, he plans to tackle opioid addiction.
That’s a lot to chew on, and Rushdie masticates it with his usual maximalist exuberance. His book-within-a-book takes the form of a cross-country road trip in which Quichotte is soon accompanied by a “parthenogenetically created” son, Sancho. Their destination is New York City where the Dulcinea of Quichotte’s imagination, a bipolar Indian-American TV talk-show host with a growing substance abuse problem, warily awaits them. Quichotte — thanks to his pharmaceutical-magnate cousin Dr. R.K. Smile — may have what she’s looking for in the form of a “sublingual fentanyl spray” dubbed “InSmile™.”
As he leads us through this multi-tiered narrative, Rushdie treats us to a mini-history of racist immigration policies spanning more than 200 years, a plague of “mastodonitis” in a make-believe New Jersey town, and a plan by Indian-American scientist Evel Cent (birth name: Awwal Sant) to help humanity escape into an alternative dimension from our dissolving planet. (“Reality, that sham,” Quichotte remarks, “is already ceasing to exist.”)
Hallucinations run rampant, the rule of law seems no longer to apply, and an unnamed Donald Trump reigns over it all as America’s “fabulist president.” Family reconciliation offers some chance at personal redemption amid this flux. But even if it doesn’t, Brother muses, “[B]roken families may be our best available lenses through which to view this broken world”
There’s no such thing as overkill in a Rushdie novel, and sometimes he simply swamps readers with the contents of his pop-culture-packed mind. (Do we really need a contestant-by-contestant recap of 13 seasons of “The Bachelorette”?) The racist attacks that Quichotte and company face would feel like heavy-handed plot ploys, if they didn’t so accurately reflect the racist violence that engulfs our nation with greater intensity every week.
Amid this ugly end-of-days chaos, Quichotte persists as a voice of a love that “comes without a rational explanation and lives on when there is no reason for it to survive.” He’s also a strangely pragmatic spiritual guide. “Every quest,” he declares, “takes place in both the sphere of the actual, which is what maps reveal to us, and in the sphere of the symbolic, for which the only maps are the unseen ones in our heads. . . . We may be after a celestial goal, but we still have to travel along the interstate.”
Minor characters offer words of wisdom, too. “All of us are in two stories at the same time,” a randomly encountered bus passenger tells Sancho. “There is our own personal story, and the bigger story of what’s happening around us. When both are in trouble simultaneously, when the crisis inside you intersects with the crisis outside you, things get a little crazy.”
Rushdie doesn’t offer much hope for our dispiriting times. But in a frayed and feverish way, he captures their flavor exactly.
Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.