Commentary by John Fraim
I N S I G H T S
Symbolic Perspectives On Popular Culture
May 12, 1999 | Number 16 | Sonoma County California
The GreatHouse Company
The meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside in the unseen, enveloping the tale which could only bring it out as a glow brings out a haze.
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
As we retreat from religion, our ancient opiate, there are bound to be withdrawal symptoms of this Apsaran variety. The habit of worship is not easily broken. In the museums, the rooms with icons are crowded."
Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet
A strobe-light procession of events and a constantly shifting narrative perspective conspire to constantly change the "ground beneath" the reader's feet in the opening chapter of Salman Rushie's new book The Ground Beneath Her Feet. The legendary musician Vina awakens from a nightmare. "On St.Valentine's Day, 1989, the last day of her life, the legendary popular singer Vina Apsara woke sobbing from a dream of human sacrifice in which she had been the intended victim." Vina has played a concert in the city of Guadalajara, Mexico and picked up a young man named Raúl Páramo for the night.
Her dream nightmare becomes a real nightmare with the dawn of the new day. She sees Raúl dying in bed next to her from a drug overdose. "She had been perspiring heavily and the sodden bed sheets stank of the meaningless misery of the nocturnal encounter. Raúl Páramo was unconscious, white-lipped, and his body was galvanized, every few moments, by spasms which Vina recognized as being identical to her own dream writhings."
Her old friend, a paparazzi photographer named Rai, finds Vina in this state and the two of them fly by helicopter to the home of the wealthy tequila baron Don Ángel Cruz who is holding a banquet in her honor. During the banquet there is a great earthquake which brings an almost apocalyptic destruction to the town and the great plantation of Don Ángel Cruz.
The events and action of the opening pages possess the surreal signature style of south American writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Yet it is the narrative context containing them that creates a true subtextual earthquake destroying the reader's footing and safe distance from the story. This strange narrative voice hovers over the story like the helicopter that takes Rai and Vina to the estate of Don Ángel Cruz. It remains a little above like the stinging insects which attack Rai, ready to swarm unexpectedly in new directions with the speed of a camera flash. The narrative voice seems a symbol for the ever present paparazzi hovering on the perimeter of celebrity just outside the flash of the camera.
It is the circumstance of most paparazzi to catch only brief glimpses of their photographic prey from great distances with telephoto lenses or through the bullet-proof window protection of celebrity. But Rai has known Vina since their childhood in Bombay, India and is much more than an ordinary member of the paparazzi press. Over the years the two have been on and off again lovers. Rai therefore possesses that unusual perspective of both creator and actor in a story, simultaneously inside and outside of it.
Is the story being told in the narrative voice of the first or third person? One is uncertain which voice is "on watch" at the helm of the book from page to page. This uncertainty, narrator as captain and crew member, shifts the water under a boat at sea in a manner similar to how an earthquake moves the ground beneath the feet of those on land. In this sense, Rai is much like Fitzgerald's Nick Carroway in The Great Gatsby. On a trip to the New York apartment of Myrtle Wilson and Tom Buchanan Nick observes:
"I wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park through the soft twilight, but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild, strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life."
Like Carroway, Rai is the "casual watcher" both "within and without, simultaneously." Part of this ability stems from Fitzgerald and Rushdie's technique but technique in great art has a strong relationship to character. Fitzgerald's Carroway tells the reader at the beginning of Gatsby that he has been privy to the secrets of many men brought about by his ability to suspend judgment. In a similar way, Rai tells the reader that he also has this ability to move with invisibility because he is able to make himself "psychically" small.
The omnipotent "all seeing eye" of the third person narrator can be sensed in the first paragraph of Rushdie's new novel. Rai knows what has happened outside his direct observation. He was not with Vina when she awoke from her horrible dream yet he somehow knows of Vina's dream and her feelings. Yes, Vina may have related some of this to Rai but there is too much editorial in the narrative to fully believe this happened. The details of Rai's description of Vina as "perspiring heavily" on "sodden" bedheets which "stank of the meaningless misery of the nocturnal encounter" is not the descriptive flourishings someone in Vina's state of mind would offer up.
With the changing narrative voice between omnipotence and impotence, Rai continues a long tradition of the shifting inside/outside narrator. As Marlowe observed in Heart of Darkness, the meaning of a story was not on the inside but on the outside. This view suggests the path to meaning is through the consideration of both the inside and outside architecture of a story.
First developed by Conrad, extended and explored by Conrad disciple Fitzgerald, it eventually became part of a new tradition of modern writing and a core component in the literary arsenal of famous writers like Virginia Woolf (To The Lighthouse), Thomas Wolfe (Face of a Nation) and James Joyce (Ulysses). This narrative style has gone under various labels, stream-of-consciousness being one of the more popular designations. But now, at the end of the 20th century, it seems to transgress literature to infiltrate other realms of culture like psychoanalysis where patient merges with therapist. In fact it seems to be a background cultural muzak mirroring a hypertext world where internet surfers are simultaneously narrator and subject of narrative.
The earthquake of the first chapter carries on the symbolic narrative trend of leading 20th century fiction which constantly shifts our point of reference in relation to the story being told. It also works as extended symbol for modern life reminding us we all dwell close to fault lines subject to the constantly shifting ground beneath our feet.
Great journeys often begin with subtle changes and tiny Burma-Shave type signs which come and go with the swiftness of a tropical breeze. Unlike the Titanic leaving port to whistles blowing and champagne spewing, journeys often start with a slow, fearful type of walk into a wilderness frontier. A toe is quietly dipped into the water rather than a John Wayne type of hero charging full-speed ahead to confront the Indians.
And so Marlowe's journey in Conrad's Heart of Darkness starts with the subtleness of a meeting on a quiet, deserted street. The guardians of the Marlowe's "gate" to his journey are not large, beer-hall bouncers but rather two old ladies who silently knit.
"Two women, one fat and the other slim, sat on straw-bottomed chairs, knitting black wool. The slim one got up and walked straight at me -still knitting with down-cast eyes - and only just as I begin to think of getting out of her way, as you would for a somnambulist, stood still, and looked up. Her dress was as plain as an umbrella-cover, and she turned around without a word and preceded me into a waiting room. I gave my name, and looked about."
In the opening chapter of Rushdie's new book, there is also the subtle signs that a great journey is about to begin. It seems paradoxical that the journey starts on the final day of Vina's life, the day she awakes from the terrible dream. A beginning of one journey starts at an end of another. Yet paradox has been the road to truth in Rushdie's eastern culture and the start of a new journey at the end of another one suggests the eastern cyclic perspective of life. As Rai observes, "Aristaeus, who brought death, also brought life, a little like Lord Shiva back home. Not just a dancer, but Creator and Destroyer, both."
Another paradox (at least for western readers) is that the journey is not one forward into the future but rather back into the past. Like starting one journey at the end of another, this also counters the direction of western journeys which so often possess a jet-boat type of rush towards the future rather than a cruise-ship examination of the islands of past memory. With this retrospective approach, Rushdie seems to suggest that exploration of past memory as a basis for creating a new future has value in a post-modern world.
But there is a fear in Rai of embarking on his voyage of remembrance. And indeed a questioning of language as fuel for the journey. Rai ponders the dilemma before setting out on his voyage into memory. "So I stand at the gate of the inferno of language, there's a barking dog and a ferryman waiting and a coin under my tongue for the fare." What boat is the "ferryman" about to take him on? The "death boat" traveling west or a boat to a new meaning of life for Rai? It is difficult to know in the opening chapter. But it is not difficult to feel a great journey about to begin.
Rai is not only outside the story he relates but also outside western culture which contains this story. Rai the photographer is Rushdie the writer, a person in perpetual exile from his eastern homeland of India. Rai looks in at modern western culture from the outside, inventing a story he has never lived, speculating on its core events like rock-n-roll or its key cultural icons like celebrities. In effect, Rai symbolizes a type of photographic "eye" of our tabloid culture, pressed against the thick, protective glass of the celebrity limousine, trying to get a brief glimpse of the occupant inside.
We are all like Rai and Rushie in some ways - perpetual exiles from a homeland of past memory brought about by a growing collective amnesia and a full speed race into the future. This is what gives Rai and Vina's story such power. It is one man's story yet it is also the story of many. Rushdie seems to be saying that the overall road to a new type of understanding is by seeing the context rather than the content of life. It is waking to an awareness that we are looking in and through when we should be looking out and above. It is the content, held up as a god of the western world for so long, which has ultimately let us down. It's substance of information has created confusion more than understanding. The result has been an increasingly thick "data smog" of increased content which hangs over life like real smog hangs over Los Angeles on hot, windless summer days.
In speculating on a new context of understanding, using narrative voice in an attempt to "practice what he preaches," Rushdie opens his story up to the consideration of larger symbolic issues. They are issues that go beyond the literary narrative of the 20th century, cultural trends of the digital era or even narrative perspective in the western world. These larger issues of symbolism concern the change of astrological signs from Pisces to Aquarius, a change we are currently moving through. Pisces is symbolized by the fish and Aquarius by the water carrier. The symbolism is one between inside and outside, contained and container, context and content. The Pisces fish is contained within water while the water carrier Aquarius is outside this water and not contained within it. The eon cycle therefore represents a change from being controlled by the container to being outside the container. Carl Jung addressed these concerns in Aion - one of his last and strangest books. The Pisces fish symbolizes the psyche and Jung suggests in Aion that the two eons will have a different relationship to the psyche. The emerging symbolic struggle is to move out of the surrounding context so that it becomes content to carry. To move from a fish to a water carrier.
Does the narrative shenanigans of Rushdie symbolize this astrological change? Is it an attempt to move from context to a carrier of a former context? Is the unique narrative voice Rushdie uses, as well as that used by other famous writers of the 20th century, themselves symbols of the larger astrological fireworks? These are larger questions posed at the beginning Rai's journey.
The unusual narrative technique providing the rocking boat context of the story may have larger symbolic implications found in hypertext culture or even the change of distant star patterns. Yet it is the story of the legendary Vina Apsara around which the narrative hovers, like a moth around a yellow porch light, like bees around honey. (Interestingly, the first chapter is titled "The Keeper of Bees") Is she a goddess or a type of she-devil, an ancient siren whose hypnotic persona has led to the destruction of men and empires? The question is important because Vina is a symbol for our celebrity-obsessed modern world which is still in the process of working out the answer to this question.
In the opening of the book, it is important to see that Vina has not just stumbled on to some "groupie" from her concert like Cher picking up a new "Boy Toy." Vina seems more like Anne Rice's vampire Lestat choosing a victim. Vina in fact seems a type of supernatural creature whose terrible beauty has killed Raúl Páramo. It is as if Raúl has looked into the face of the ancient Medusa and it is this fateful look, not the drug overdose, which has killed him.
Yes, Vina had "surrendered" herself to Raúl. But she also "selected him more or less at random from the backstage throng" waiting to be selected by her. As Rai says, "She had picked him like a flower and now she wanted him between her teeth, she had ordered him like a take-home meal and now she alarmed him by the ferocity of her appetites."
And it is Rai who seems caught in the storm of Vina's duality. Yes, there is a narrative duality between inside and outside, first and third person. But there is also a duality in Vina and Rai's feelings about Vina. Like Fitzgerald's Nick Carroway, Rai seems both "simultaneously enchanted and repelled" by Vina's life pondering "How was it that so explosive, even amoral, a woman came to be seen as an emblem, an ideal, by more than half the population of the world? Because she was no angel, let me tell you that..." Yet the fact that Vina was no angel is a great part of her power. As Rai notes, "We always did prefer our iconic figures injured, stuck full of arrows or crucified upside down." Like those who gaze at the tabloid paparazzi photos of celebrities and read National Enquirer stories, Rai observes we need our heroes "flayed and naked" and "want to watch their beauty crumble slowly and to observe their narcissistic grief."
Within the raging winds of the great storm which was Vina's life, an earthquake and death on the same day, Rai sets out on his voyage of discovery. In many ways it is a voyage to the peaceful "eye" at the center of the great storm of Vina's life. As Rai says, "maybe she can find a sort of peace here, on the page, in this underworld of ink and lies, that respite which was denied her by life." Within the first chapter, Rai presents a convincing case for embarking on this journey and for the reader coming along to learn something perhaps very different and new about life.
But like any great journey with lofty goals, there is a tentativeness and doubt in Rai's mind about his journey. Is that old narrative device of just words and language still adequate in a new hypertext age? Only a story of magnificent proportions might again breathe life into this dying art form. It is by facing this question and standing "at the gate of the inferno of language" that Rai sets out to tell us about Vina. It may be a magnificent story but at its heart it is a love story Rai begins to tell us.
© 1999 - John Fraim
Note: Thanks to the Vancouver, B.C. based January Magazine and Editor Linda Richards for putting the first chapter of The Ground Beneath Her Feet on the web.
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