Andrew Lanham on Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
There’s a lot of talk about religion in Salman Rushdie’s new novel Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. It loudly announces itself as a novel of ideas, and its underlying idea appears to be theological. One of the central chapters consists entirely of a debate on reason and revelation between the long-dead ghosts of Ibn Rushd, the twelfth-century Islamic philosopher and commentator on Aristotle, and al-Ghazali, the eleventh-century Persian theologian who attacked Aristotelianism and argued that what we think is cause and effect is really God’s miraculous intervention on earth. When you light something on fire, al-Ghazali claims in Rushdie’s novel, God, not the match in your hand, does the lighting. Ibn Rushd disagrees, and the novel’s zany plot clearly sides with him: around the year 2011, an army of evil genies builds an Islamic theocracy at the wish of al-Ghazali’s ghost, but a group of human superheroes straight out of an X-Men comic spectacularly defeats them.
There’s also a lot of complex thinking in Rushdie’s new novel. One character is obsessed with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and the narrator waxes poetic and philosophical about the fractured, kaleidoscopic condition of modern culture – pop- and otherwise – and the displacements and disorientations of global capitalism and human migration today. Rushdie deconstructs anti-Islamic xenophobia in the United States and criticizes the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects at Guantánamo Bay. He blasts the misogyny and repression of theocratic regimes like ISIS and the Taliban. And Rushdie repeatedly ridicules the foolhardiness of ignoring global warming.
Unfortunately, though, there isn’t a lot of careful thinking about religion in Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. The novel catalogues the variety of religious confessions and fuzzy quasi-faiths alive in the contemporary world, naming them in their diversity, but it doesn’t have much more to say about them. Despite the many pages he devotes to mentioning the postmodern polyphony of religions today, Rushdie doesn’t dig into the psychological or moral experience of secularism or theism. If you’re looking for a story to tell you something about the meaning of belief or unbelief in the second decade of the twenty-first century, you’re rubbing the wrong magic lamp.
Of course, that just might be the point. Rushdie’s flat picture of religion captures something essential about a moment when one of the biggest public debates in America about the importance of faith occurs on iMax screens, as Captain America and his merry band of Marvel comic-book heroes battle the super-villain stand-ins for ISIS and al Qaeda. Rushdie’s self-conscious use of X-Men-style superheroes to fight off the evil genies in Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights isn’t so much a clever pop-culture mash-up as a rather familiar move in the way the quote-unquote clash of civilizations has been artistically depicted for over a decade.
Rushdie does, at a handful moments, write movingly about religion in the abstract. One character, for example, tracks what he calls the earth’s “index of incoherence,” the number of “warring versions” of truth “trying to dominate or even eradicate their rivals.” That index, we are told, “continued inexorably to rise,” as the plurality of truths multiply and vie against one another in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries. When magical genies start skewing cause and effect, too, the incoherence of belief and truth skyrockets even further. “Human sanity was a poor, fragile thing at best,” Rushdie writes, as Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists – people of “every religion and no religion” – fail to make sense of the increasingly strange world they occupy, a world filled with insidious terrorism that might as well be paranormal and battered by the kind of droughts and super-storms we might associate with climate change. The center cannot hold, things fall apart, and all that jazz.
But the big-picture breakdown of coherent communities of faith that Rushdie describes so forcefully in the abstract fails meaningfully to touch the lived experience of any of his characters. Religion remains two-dimensional, told not shown. Individual human beings in Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights seem anesthetized to both belief and its absence. We have lost something, Rushdie implies, but no one feels particularly melancholy or mournful. It’s as if faith, doctrine, and denomination were big impersonal forces moving human beings around like numbers in a database, rather than emotional and intellectual bonds, practices, and ideas embodied in the thoughts, feelings, and actions of real people.
Rushdie’s plot can feel similarly abstract, mechanical, and two-dimensional. It’s a diorama arranged by a distant narrator playing with cardboard cutouts that wish they were characters. A series of minor figures, from the ponzi schemer to the faux nun to the playboy who loses his mojo, briefly pop into the narrative to have their caricatures painted. But none of them adds anything in particular, except the mere fact of addition itself. They make the fictional world feel bulging and buzzing, if not exactly richly-layered and alive. To create greater emotional depth, there’s ostensibly a love triangle, what the novel’s inside front cover calls “a timeless love story,” but this soap-opera romance lacks even melodramatic tension. When the jilted lover confronts his rival, we know that magic’s just going to intervene. The index of incoherence rises.
Fiction itself, of course, is also a form of belief. Treating characters as if they were real people is as much a superstition as any of the irrationalities that Rushdie gleefully deflates. In the best few pages of the novel, in as sparkling a passage as Rushdie’s written, we hear the fable of the Unyaza, a mountain people who become addicted to stories. They come to see their addiction as a disease, and they plug up their ears with mud “to prevent the story parasite from entering” in. They begin to live in only the real world, and it eventually drives them mad. Paradoxically, we hear, the “story parasite” itself may have been merely another fiction the Unyaza made up. Stories have serious material effects, Rushdie says, even the story that stories are just stories, and we need our fictions to survive. William James, in his optimism, called such faith in fiction the “will to believe.” Nietzsche’s pessimism called it “the will to untruth.”
Rushdie and his narrator seem to want to embrace such a will to believe, but they can’t quite convince themselves to take the leap. The narrator lives a thousand years after the war between humans and genies, in a pacifist society utterly devoted to scientific empiricism. The narrator bruits the lack of violence that accompanies this society’s coldly rational disillusion. But the narrator also secretly hopes for something more. “Sometimes we wish for the dreams to return,” the narrator says. “Sometimes, for we have not wholly rid ourselves of perversity, we long for nightmares.” Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights longs to adopt the perversity needed to recover the dreams along with the nightmares. But this longing for recovery is just a pipe dream. The story disintegrates, dissipating like smoke from an all too ordinary lamp.