A storyteller’s dream, perhaps literally.
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
New York: Random House, 2015
I’m a Rushdie fan, and there’s no denying it.
Well, maybe there’s a little bit of denying it.
Midnight’s Children (1981) is still my favorite novel of all time next to Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), and I’ve taught various sections of his nonfiction (Step Across This Line  and Imaginary Homelands ) and his short story collection East, West (1994). The problem is, the Rushdie I’m a fan of tends to be the younger Rushdie rather than the older. I think his last few novels have been pretty lackluster, and while his name has stayed in the headlines, even after the lifting of the fatwa, his writing has never quite returned to that state of near perfection it had achieved in the ’80s (albeit, before I was born).
I give this background to show that I know what I’m talking about when I say Rushdie’s latest book is…alright. When I saw that a new Rushdie was coming out in September, I just assumed it would be at least a part of the conversation for several of the major book awards of 2015. I mean, this is Salman Rushdie, you know? But, I see now why discussion about the book faded so quickly, even though Two Years is, all things considered, a good novel.
One of the reasons Two Years has been broadly ignored is that it lacks the cultural and intellectual weight of Midnight’s Children, The Satanic Verses (1988), or even The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999). Rushdie’s previous success hamstrings his work of today. ‘But Clerk,’ I hear you saying to your computer monitors, ‘is it fair to call a book mediocre just because it doesn’t live up to an author’s previous work?’ No, it’s not. I’ll agree with that. But, I think it is fair to place a novel in the context of what that author has shown he is capable of, and in that measurement, Rushdie’s new novel is unfortunately wanting in some ways.
What this novel does well is what Rushdie has always done well: storytelling. No one can weave a tale quite like Salman Rushdie, and he shows with this novel that he has not lost his touch. Not by a long shot. Rushdie has often said that 1,001 Arabian Nights is the book that had the greatest influence upon him as a young reader, and Two Years is clearly his homage to that influence, both in the novel’s form and content. The title itself is a reflection of that influence (do the math to figure out why). And “reflection” is the word to know for this book. Mirror images are everywhere, and each exists only to blur the lines between binary oppositions—past vs. present, fantasy vs. reality, life vs. death, etc. Again, returning to the title, the ancient, unbroken cyclical nature of 1,001 nights is juxtaposed against our modern, segmented years/months/days concept of time, right on the cover. In this novel, literature isn’t merely a mirror that reflects the world. Instead, Rushdie steps through the mirror, to see what lives inside.
The plot of Two Years is complex and the narrative fragmented, at least at the beginning. And within that fragmentary nature, it is clear Rushdie has not yet abandoned his Magical Realism roots, though, in this case, we often get more magic than realism. Slits have opened between our world and the world of the jinn, and in a jealous rage, the dark jinn have poured into our reality in hopes of colonizing our world as their own. It turns out, however, that there are those among us who have jinn powers, passed down through many generations from a single female jinn named Dunia, who once fell in love with a philosopher, Ibn Rushd (don’t miss the pun in the last name). Rushdie creates a slew of characters who have fascinating, and sometimes tragic stories of their own— Geronimo Menezes, the humble gardener who floats just slightly off the ground; Jimmy Kapoor, the struggling graphic novel artist whose superhero comes to life; little Storm, the abandoned baby who cleans corruption from City Hall. These are but a few of the characters whose magical stories make up the rich, storytelling mosaic Rushdie has crafted with this novel.
In the midst of the magic, Two Years is by far Rushdie’s most modern and his most American work to date. And, when I say modern, I mean modern. It has quite a few up to the minute references, including nods to comic books, reality television, and even Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Thanks Salman. We really wanted that part of the American experience preserved for posterity.
In style, the book is a whirling dervish of storytelling, jumping from one character to another, whose stories always contain stories within stories within stories. Despite this fragmentation of the narrative, Two Years is very tightly plotted, and all of these stories come back to touch one another in interesting and unexpected ways. The interconnectedness of the different stories is a beautiful fictional strategy, and it gives the storytelling form a feeling of sympathetic resonance. The music of one story brings out similar tones in the others, even when you aren’t reading them, and as the stories begin playing their music together, the novel itself becomes this wonderful and mystifying piece of fictional narrative that really should not be missed.
In general, however, Two Years has pacing issues that aren’t helped by Rushdie’s extremely verbose narrator. Rushdie can convey every element of human experience except silence; and, as usual, his novels tend to suffer when his narrators aren’t reigned in. In this case, the third person narrator is a person from a distant future who is recounting this historical moment long after the jinn wars have ended. It provides an interesting framework for the novel, but unfortunately, Rushdie doesn’t capitalize on the narrative possibilities provided by such a frame. His narrator is also a bit too intrusive for my tastes, going so far as to explain certain allusions and metaphors that would have been better left for readers to discover on their own, or taking entire paragraphs to preach what appear as Rushdie’s own thinly veiled thoughts on popular culture. All of this adds up to slow the novel down, and since this framework is used in only the shallowest of ways, it gives little depth to the novel’s overall impact.
Additionally, because the resonances of certain stories don’t become clear until much later in the novel, the earlier parts of the narrative, especially those concerning Geronimo Menezes’s backstory, tend to drag on without end. In fact, I’d say the first quarter of the novel unfortunately tends to feel like a slog, even as the art of a master storyteller is clearly on display.
Compounding this issue is the fact that even though the fragmented narrative is eventually brought together in fun and interesting ways, even though the stories within the stories are fascinating and entertaining, the novel tends to lose narrative momentum because it lacks a clear protagonist. Now, now, put the pitchforks down and let me explain. Novels don’t need to a have a singular protagonist to be good, not by any means. I love it when novels experiment with form and character development. The problem with Two Years is that it doesn’t know exactly what it wants to be. At times, Rushdie doesn’t seem to care whether he has a protagonist or not, and the narrative floats along of its accord, going wherever Rushdie’s whimsy takes it. The rest of the time, he doesn’t appear to know if either Dunia or Geronimo is the main character, and he just can’t decide which one he likes better. Again, it’s not that Rushdie alternates between these two figures—it’s that he doesn’t seem comfortable with how exactly he wanted to portray them. This problem is exacerbated in the latter half of the novel, when the plot abandons its careful balance between reality and fantasy to dive head first into fantasy. Magic realism becomes simply magic, and it detracts from the carefully constructed narrative in the first half.
Overall though, I would still recommend this book, despite the reservations I have about it. In many ways, this is a return to form for Rushdie, whose last few fictional books have been somewhat bland. If you enjoy Magic Realism as a genre, and if you like early Rushdie, this is a good book for you. If not, well, maybe give this one a pass.