In his recent This Is Not Propaganda, Peter Pomerantsev asks what may be the killer question of our time: “if the need for facts is predicated on a vision of a concrete future that you’re trying to achieve, then when that future disappears, what is the point of facts?” [p. 166] Pomerantsev’s book is a sort of sequel to his Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, in which he expands that first book’s focus on the former Soviet Union to the worldwide breakdown in consensus reality. “The futureless present arrived first in Russia,” he argues. “We are just catching up” [p. 255]. What he means is simple: the confusion of the modern media space, the lack of cohesion, the impossibility of divining a single narrative or crafting a unity position, is a function of our broken societies, our struggling systems: we’ve lost faith in the futures they once promised us, and so we’ve lost faith in fact.
Salman Rushdie tackles this curious cultural moment in his Booker-shortlisted Quichotte. With his typical intertextuality, Rushdie does so by going backwards, to the birth of his chosen form. He revives Cervantes’ romantic prose narrative, Don Quixote, transplanting its eponymous and absurd idealist to modern America. Quichotte is a sobriquet for a down-at-heel Indian immigrant, who, having lost his job as a salesperson for a pharmaceutical conglomerate, fixes the purpose of his existence on the presenter of an Oprah-ish chat show, the former Bollywood star Salma R. Quichotte is, however, himself a fiction: he is the character in a novel written by a character in Quichotte, Sam DuChamp – himself an Indian immigrant who has for some years made a living by writing workaday spy thrillers, but who in this new novel is being somehow drawn towards a stranger form of fiction.
Already there is a cuteness to all this fragmentation, and this is indeed an often gratingly arch novel. Here’s an interjection from Sam:
An interjection, kind reader, if you’ll allow one: It may be argued that stories should not sprawl in this way, that they should be grounded in one place or the other, put down roots in the other of the one and flower in that singular soil; yet so many of today’s stories are and must be of this plural, sprawling kind, because a kind of nuclear fission has taken place in human lives and relations, families have been divided, millions upon millions of us have travelled to the four corners of the (admittedly spherical, and therefore cornerless) globe, whether by necessity or choice. Such broken families may be our best available lenses through which to view this broken world. [p. 54]
It’s hard to argue with all this, but also difficult not to recall that a previous Booker shortlistee – Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West – very recently made the same argument with greater concision. How much you enjoy Quichotte, then, will depend very much on your patience for its loquacity, the way DuChamp and then Quichotte alternate chapters, the way that Quichotte in turn conjures into being an imaginary son, Sancho, who reflects on what reality might mean if one is fictitious; on how far you’ll allow a real-life spy to enter the life of the writer of spy fiction, or how keen you are to read the stories of Sam’s sister, a famed human rights lawyer in England who has no connection at all to the Trampoline, the estranged sister of Quichotte who is ultimately robbed and assaulted by Sancho, himself an echo of Sam’s estranged hacker son. There comes a point where this game of echoes and parallels begins to obliterate itself, especially when the prose in which it is contained can prove so baggy:
Brother, the Author, had lost touch with his only son several years ago. The young man, tall, skinny, nerdy, bespectacled, had never seemed like a potential runaway, but after he dropped out of college, which he described as “worse than useless”, adding “nobody will ever need me to write an essay in the whole rest of my life”, he began to act strangely, to lock the door of his room and spend all day and all night lost somewhere inside his laptop, listening to music videos, playing online chess, watching pornography, who knew what. [p. 213]
Exhaustion, though, the breaking-down of borders of taste and form, is part of Rushdie’s purpose. Much is made of muddle throughout: for Quichotte, New York City “had always struck him as being chaotic, formless, overcrowded, harsh, and possessed of no dominant narrative hue” [pp. 202-3]; wider still, we read that the “universe has no interest in right and wrong” [p. 103]. As Quichotte and Sancho proceed through their quest towards Salma R – herself revealed to be addicted to the high-grade fentanyl manufactured as an illegal side-project by the uncle who owns Quichotte’s former employer – they go through a series of increasingly surreal vignettes: at one point, they do battle with a village of mastodons, at another Quichotte spends days in conversation with his television. These episodes form the “seven valleys” that Quichotte declares must be passed through to reach his goal; but by the end of the novel he has abandoned all illusion of programmatic progress, and the novel in which he stars veers towards wild science fiction as an Elon Musk stand-in invents a machine capable of punching through the membranes between alternative worlds.
Inevitably, one of these worlds is DuChamp’s own, in which he has become embroiled in an international incident linked to his hacker son. When Quichotte and Salma R finally break through into this universe, however, they do so as tiny versions of themselves, unable to breathe the too-large molecules in the air that DuChamp breathes by default, “unassimilable, helpless, puny, gasping for air, not finding it” [p. 390]. In other words, the fictional is insufficient for survival in the “real” world. Now this, coming at the very end of a discursive and sometimes shapeless novel, is properly interesting: in its final pages, Quichotte suggests that the very activity in which its author and its reader have been engaged for nearly four hundred pages is … pointless. It is “puny” in the face of the size and scope of the world beyond the pages of the fiction. Faced with the sheer proportions of the world of the creator, fiction shrivels and dies.
The world ends for Quichotte; so what? Well, we have come to know him and many other inhabitants of his world enough to find it sufficiently real to care, to see ourselves in it. The levels of creation that overlay each other in the novel admittedly encourage the reader to look upwards: if our world ended, would anyone notice or care? But, more incisively, the novel acknowledges and approves of what we may learn from fiction – while explicitly emphasising its subordinate status to our own reality. It rejects – like Don Quixote before it – the idea that the real and the fictive are equal (there’s no point in tilting at those windmills). Both are important in their own ways, both matter; but it’s crucial to recognise and acknowledge their division:
Cyberwar was the attack on truth by lies. It was the pollution of the real by the unreal, of fact by fiction. It was the erosion and devaluation of the empirical intellect and its replacement by confirmations of previously held prejudices. How was that any different from what he himself was doing, Brother asked himself, how was it different from the fictions he was making and which were now ensnaring him? Except that he was not trying to bring down Western civilisation, excuse me. That was a small difference. And he was tying nobody up in knots except himself. [p. 231]
The reader may find this to be an obvious distinction for so chaotic a novel to be making: “all the boxes got pushed up against all the other boxes and opened up” [p. 195], is how one character explains the sudden mess of the world’s previously compartmentalised stories, and Quichotte represents this process in often noisy polyphony. You have to get through a lot to reach the meat here. And in a curious way, none of it ever seems quite so dense as (for example) Midnight’s Children, almost as if the archness of its prose style can’t quite commit to the project, or as if all of the pop cultural references – Game of Thrones, Anonymous, reality TV are all here – act as placeholders for a proper centre of gravity (“we are being crippled by the culture we have made,” Rushdie writes [p. 362]).
But this is easily Rushdie’s best novel for some time, and it at least attempts to grapple with this world in which “yesterday meant nothing and could not help you build tomorrow” [p. 236]. Underneath all the often lame joshing – the novel begins with the first of many apparently irresistible Dad jokes, a “Quixotic Note on Pronunciation” – Rushdie has seen something true, and makes an argument for the enhancement of apprehension, not the remaking of reality, being the proper purpose of fiction in a factless age.