About a dozen pages into Quichotte, Salman Rushdie’s 14th novel, we read of an invention so devious, so outrageous, that it dispels any thought that the author’s imaginative powers might be waning.
Nearly 300 pages later, on the other side of the book’s metafictional veil — that is, on the realist side, rather than in the fantastic picaresque of the novel-within-the-novel that constitutes the bulk of Quichotte — there’s a hint that the medical innovation InSmile, a dose of fentanyl sprayed under the tongue that provides a couple of hours of highly addictive opioid bliss, is no joke.
Indeed a quick search reveals that “Subsys (fentanyl sublingual spray)” was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of “breakthrough pain” in terminal cancer patients in 2012. Rushdie transforms a darkly satirical element of a farcical plot about Big Pharma into a source of pathos in a cancer patient’s last hours.
It’s a masterstroke in an uneven but diverting and occasionally brilliant novel. Ismail Smile is an ageing man wandering the US, a pharmaceutical salesman recently fired from his job by his cousin, Dr RK Smile, a nefarious opioid profiteer. A television addict, Ismail, nicknamed Quichotte (pronounced KEY-shot) is hopelessly in love with Miss Salma R, a Bollywood star who first crossed over to Hollywood and then achieved mega-fame as the host of a daytime talk show out of New York.
Quichotte is joined on his quest for Salma’s heart by Sancho, the son he never had who at first appears only in black-and-white, then like Pinocchio becomes a real boy, an adolescent with ideas and desires of his own. Riding in Quichotte’s Chevy Cruze through America’s rough red midsection, they encounter nasty nativists, some of them wearing dog collars, some of them homicidal. By the time the pair reach New Jersey, these reactionaries are turning into dinosaurs, mastodons that menace motels, turnpikes and strip malls. Even New York, when Quichotte and Sancho reach it, is no safe haven for the brown-skinned or otherwise nonconforming.
Quichotte, Dr Smile and Miss Salma R are all Indian immigrants to America created by Sam Duchamp, another migrant to New York from Mumbai and all his life a pulp spy novelist. Now he is writing a final book, a personal retelling of Don Quixote that will take on his adopted country’s “junk culture” (television) and culture of junk (opioids).
Rushdie is a sentimental novelist, his books perpetual-motion machines of melodrama. His recourse to the grandiose mythic narrative gesture, a tendency that’s marked his work since his breakout second novel Midnight’s Children — winner of the Booker in 1981 and the Booker of Bookers in 2008 — can be both seductive and off-putting. His heroes can be arrogant, a quality that drew fire towards Joseph Anton, Rushdie’s third-person retelling of his years in hiding from the Ayatollah’s fatwa.
The maudlin, tragicomic cast of Quichotte, which is longlisted for this year’s Booker, works in his favour. Its themes are penitence and redemption. The authorial alter-egos in this faux-epic — Sam and Quichotte — are both sad sacks at the end of their ropes. Even the superstar Salma R, whose fame is a comic exaggeration of Rushdie’s own, is a depressive haunted by a family history of suicide and incestuous child abuse.
Stylistically, Quichotte puts both Rushdie’s vices and virtues on display, with the balance tilted toward the latter. There are majestic paragraphs composed of cascading sentences with not a beat off. Rushdie’s prose still has a flow to match his friends Martin Amis and the late Christopher Hitchens in their prime. Yet often as not, because he saturates his stories with pop culture ephemera, those sentences are full of trivia; the sort of trivia you probably already know.
Early on especially, it’s as if Rushdie could not resist applying a thin coat of Wikipedia wax to every surface. He was relying on references to pop and film stars to define his characters long before Facebook taught its users to define themselves that way. In neither case is the effect particularly charming.
Of various characters in Quichotte, we learn of their resemblances to Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Langella — to go on from there would be to indulge in the sort of list Rushdie rattles off compulsively. Perhaps he learnt the habit from Nabokov or Pynchon, but those two writers gain their effects by putting unstable compounds in close proximity. Rushdie instead insulates his novels with his own enthusiasms: cue stray allusions to the lyrics of Paul Simon, The Beatles and U2.
There’s a strange contradiction at work when a book whose declared metafictional mission is to combat “junk culture” is also overloaded with cultural detritus. But Rushdie’s boomer-generation allegiance to mid- and late-20th-century pop artefacts ensures that digressions into classic Hollywood, spy novels and science fiction outnumber those on The Bachelor and its ilk.
As the narratives of Quichotte and his creator start to merge, the novel’s focus on lost children reunited with their fathers and estranged siblings reconciling grows sharper. Its simplest elements achieve its most moving effects. Set against the backdrops of Trump’s America, Brexit Britain and Modi’s India, Quichotte is also the story of Muslim migrants passing through hostile territory, a tale of rescue and escape. In this case, Rushdie’s maximalist mode is a perfect fit for a moment of transcontinental derangement.
Quichotte, by Salman Rushdie, Vintage, RRP£20 /Random House, RRP$28, 416 pages
Get alerts on Fiction when a new story is published