At its barest, Salman Rushdie’s newest “Quichotte” is a show of impressive needlework.
From the get-go, Rushdie’s got his thread and his needle, poised to bind: His materials are several stories, wholly different plot-scapes and universes and dimensions, all constructed and ready to be sewn together. And Rushdie does just this. In his nearly 400 page epic, he lies out vastly distinct storylines — from a pastiche of “Don Quixote” to a modern take on a brother-sister relationship — and spends time wrapping them tightly together. By the end of “Quichotte,” it’s almost difficult to tell the stories apart.
But this simplifies “Quichotte” to a degree almost disrespectful of the calculated, deeply-intentioned plot Rushdie has created. The novel principally follows a character under the homebrewed alias of Quichotte, a stable but delirious sexagenarian who, emerging from his habit of obsessive reality television binging, decides to pursue Miss Salma R, a talk show host he decides is, simply and indubitably, the one for him. He initiates a quest across the U.S. (which includes traversing the so-called “seven valleys”— think a fanatical pilgrimage) to pursue the admired. Along the way he imagines a son, Sancho, into existence. The two encounter extreme bigotry. They pass through a town where people turn into mastodons. A gun speaks. Absurdity saturates the trip.
Embroidering efficiently and at full speed, Rushdie works in two stories that progress alongside the chapters of Quichotte’s adventures. There is Miss Salma R, the host Quichotte so desires, with her devastating past and her present opioid addiction. Then there is Dr. Smile, Quichotte’s relative and the corrupt architect of InSmile, an opioid product directed at those vulnerable to addiction. These stories drift on their own alongside Quichotte’s until they merge with the main character’s in the final chapters.
Then, — yes, there is more — there is Sam DuChamp, the author penning Quichotte’s story in real time. He’s a moderately successful spy novelist leading a life moderately similar to Quichotte’s, save the delusions. As the tale of Quichotte’s universe gradually unravels, Sam’s story is told also.
“Quichotte” is — not only at its inception, but constantly — overwhelming. Rushdie fits a story with the breadth of Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” and the chaos of a Vonnegut novel in a relatively small space. Somehow, though, this insanity never quite feels like disorder. Despite the tug-of-war between plots and several frankly unbelievable scenes, there is never a sense that Rushdie has lost control of his work. The reigns are secure. Rather, as one reads on, “Quichotte” manages to make more sense as themes reappear and the storylines settle into one another. Quichotte’s relationship to his sister and his concern for his son begin to line up with the diegetic author, Sam’s, story. By the end of the work, the two stories all but become one.
This refrain of contestation (between the author’s life and his fiction; between Quichotte’s past and present) tempers “Quichotte” just enough. It also offers tastes of passages that, although bred in an environment of disarray, manage to foster intimate moments:
“As the Trampoline (Quichotte’s sister) spoke, it was almost as if there were two Quichottes in the room, a version from the past as well as the present one, and that as the past was superimposed on the present it caused a sort of blurring, because the two versions were so unlike each other that it was difficult to see the Quichotte in the room clearly, as he now was, and he himself was a victim of the same confusion, not able to with any degree of ease to free himself from the trap of what he had once been.”
In a book drowning in overarching political themes and a muddled plot, spaces like this are gasps of air above the waves. Rushdie can both continue the chaos and also make Quichotte — and his author — human and recognizable to readers.
Rushdie pulls off his broad and absurdist plot, but something about “Quichotte” undeniably still falls flat of spectacular. The writing, while piercing at moments, curls too much into Rushdie’s run-on, detail-filled style. It makes the work, especially the first quarter and even some action-packed scenes (like that with the mastodons) draining to read. Then there’s Rushdie’s jab at the extremes of racism and Islamophobia in the United States, which, although revisited by Rushdie in an OK manner in the final chapter, feels mishandled. Rushdie lines up racial incidents one after another in the course of 20 pages and then forgets about them, a feat that feels like indecision between satire and genuine commentary.
It’s the age of “anything can happen,” Rushdie so accurately declares throughout “Quichotte.” This is, after all, 2019. Anything, it seems sometimes, can happen, to both the writer and what is written. The daring literary foray into this modern wildfire of chaos has earned Rushdie a spot on the Booker Prize shortlist. If the judges have have a stomach for the absurd and extravagant, he may just win.