This review contains spoilers.
Salman Rushdie’s Fury made me, appropriately, furious. It would be nice if I could think that this was a response Rushdie intended to elicit, a deliberate and knowing effect working in concert with the themes of the novel. I’m not at all confident that it is, though. And, for reasons I’ll outline below, I’m not particularly inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Our Protagonist is Malik Solanka, an academic and dollmaker born in New Delhi but lately of London. When the novel begins, he’s left his wife Eleanor and young son to flee to New York, pursued by a nameless fury that he fears will see him murder his family. But there’s fury in New York, too: a serial killer’s on the loose, whacking wealthy young women on the head with lumps of concrete. There’s also a simmering subplot about a small Caribbean nation locked in the throes of a land dispute whose roots lie ultimately in colonialism – a story which Solanka co-opts in the later half of the novel for a multi-media franchise starring his dolls (which in turn starts feeding the conflict).
There’s a lot to unpack here, and Fury would be a fascinating novel if not for its women.
Simply put: Solanka, or Rushdie, or both, see women as objects. Or, at best, as sacrificial supports for Solanka’s own self-actualisation. He becomes entangled with two different women in the course of his sojourn in New York, both of whom he turns into dolls, more or less literally. The first is Mila, a twenty-something manager of a group of Silicon Valley-type techies who are Changing the World, “a girl of exceptional beauty”. Mila reminds Solanka of Little Brain, a doll he created for a TV show exploring the great philosophers, whose character and concept quickly spun out of her creator’s control and became super-famous. He begins thinking of her as Little Brain; and, far from resisting this objectification, Mila leans into it. She dresses like Little Brain and acts like Little Brain, and the whole thing spirals very quickly into a disturbing not-quite-affair with semi-incestuous overtones. (In short, Mila has daddy issues. Oh, such original characterisation! Such nuance!)
Then there’s Neela. Neela is literally so beautiful that men – only men, apparently – routinely drop stuff, fall over and randomly beg her for dates (or, rather, appeal to Solanka for permission to date her, ugh) in the street when she passes. They are unable to control themselves in her presence, see. (This is rape culture speaking, of course.) Solanka turns Neela into a doll: not one but two of the characters in his multi-media franchise are based on her. And then she dies in the conflict that his franchise has helped to engineer. To teach him a lesson in irony, perhaps. Or something like that: I can’t be bothered to work it out when she is so obviously disposable to the narrative, sacrificed on the altar of male self-examination and male woe.
In that respect she’s like those three murdered rich girls, incidentally, who are killed just so Rushdie can prove a point. We’re invited to see the serial killer’s fury as analogous to Solanka’s; indeed, for a time we wonder if Solanka actually killed them. As it turns out, they’re murdered by their boyfriends, who are involved in a violent sex cult whose excesses Rushdie links to the ills of capitalism. There are actually interesting thoughts about ownership and male entitlement and male violence going on here; but they’re overshadowed by how the rest of Fury‘s women get treated. And, anyway, the point still stands that Rushdie’s not interested in these women and the way their lives have been taken from them in a moment of horrific violence. They’re only symbols whose meanings Solanka can fear and ponder on; they’re only objects.
One of the things that makes it difficult to tell whether this objectification is something the novel’s aware of, and working purposefully with, is Rushdie’s prose, which is a headlong rush of detail:
Professor Malik Solanka, retired historian of ideas, irascible dollmaker, and since his recent fifty-fifth birthday celibate and solitary by his own (much criticized) choice, in his silvered years found himself living in a golden age.
That’s the first sentence of the novel. And there are so many currents and undercurrents of meaning going on there: in those parentheses especially we see the traditionally omniscient third person singular clashing with free indirect discourse, with Solanka’s own narrative of himself. In short: we don’t ever quite know whether it’s Rushdie talking or Solanka; whether we’re meant to read Solanka as a misogynist, or whether Rushdie actually is one.
Of course, there are plenty of other avenues we can go down when we’re talking about this particular prose style. But, my gods, I’m so fucking sick of not seeing myself represented in literary fiction; of being relentlessly objectified in the service of endless male existential crises. I don’t want to have to wrestle constantly with male entitlement just to think productively about the latest critical darling. I am so done with excusing literary fiction. That’s not what I want to read for.