Should you read Salman Rushdie’s new book?

Salman Rushdie mentions in a recent interview that science-fiction, that oft (unfairly) maligned and (overly) defended genre (most recently by the great Ursula K. LeGuin, whom Rushdie names as his most “generous” critic), was one of his “earliest interests” as a writer. It’s clear that Rushdie’s always had a taste for pulp. If his most acclaimed novel, Midnight’s Children, seemed inspired both by Marquez and the super-powered social allegory of the X-Men mythos, his latest, Two Years Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights is a full-blown embrace of the now mainstreamed allure of geek culture. But call it magic realist, literary, fantasy, it is what it is – a story, same as we’ve been telling for thousands of years. It’s a celebratory yarn that celebrates storytelling itself, aware that mythology and pop culture aren’t so far apart because they’re both about making things up to make sense of a universe that does not.

Two Years opens with Dunia – a jinnia, a female member of the famously amoral race of magical beings made of “smokeless fire,” the jinn – falling in love with the human philosopher Ibn Rushd (also known as Averroes) in 12th century Spain. The result of their union is a race of jinn-human hybrids blessed with lobeless ears, among other gifts. Once the gates between the world of humans and Peristan, the world of the jinn, close, these ‘Duniazat’ scatter across history, blending into humanity. But latent powers awaken in their present-day descendants when a breach occurs between the two worlds in a cataclysmic storm that returns magic to our reality, altering it forever.

The eye of the storm happens to be, of course, New York, because NYC is nothing if not the psychic focal point of pop culture’s greatest cosmic battles (Rushdie makes time for a Ghostbusters reference amidst the veritable Wikipedia wormhole of references to pop culture and art, and indeed, the “strangenesses” that are set loose upon reality after the storm reminds of the invasion of freed ghosts across Manhattan in that film). In New York we find our modern-day Duniazat – including Mumbai-born gardener Mr Geronimo, who becomes cursed with chronic levitation, and Jimmy Kapoor the accountant and would-be graphic novelist, who is confronted with a wormhole to Peristan in his bedroom. Together, these hapless and lobeless superheroes must unite under Dunia’s guidance to protect the human world from an invasion of the dark jinn.

If all of that sounds complicated, it’s not. The tales that make up the whole unspool like candyfloss off a spindle. Despite filling the book with ambitious deconstructions of centuries-old philosophical debates and musings on real-world evils (the dark jinn are basically portrayed as humanity’s id, fuelling violence that’s torn from all-too-familiar modern headlines), Rushdie keeps it all light — this is his Avengers, his Disney spectacle. It’s comfort food for eternal dark times. His characters suffer from this playfulness, feeling too light and under-sketched, defined only by their powers and archetypal roles. But the stories that weave in and around them are unfailingly entertaining, delivered in beautiful prose that’s buffed by Rushdie’s delightfully-aged wit.

Two Years Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights (Random House) is out now


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