The Limits of Hyperbole
Here are a few lines from Salman Rushdie's work. "Early in the year 19-, when Srinagar was under the spell of a winter so fierce it could crack men's bones as if they were glass, a young man upon whose cold-pinked skin there lay, like a frost, the unmistakable sheen of wealth was to be seen entering the most wretched part of the city..." ('The Prophet's Hair') "Miss Rehana's eyes were large and black and bright enough not to need the help of antinomy, and when the advice expert Muhammed Ali saw them he felt himself becoming young again." ('Good Advice is Rarer than Rubies') "She turned to look at him, and at close range those eyes did bad things to his digestive tract." ('Good Advice is Rarer than Rubies') "For three years now, he had neither bathed nor washed himself after answering calls of nature. He wore the same clothes, unwashed, year in, year out; his one concession to winter was to put his Chuga-coat over his putrescent pajamas." (Midnight's Children) What they all have in common is a yen for hyperbole, and the pleasure or pain one gets from reading Rushdie will reside partly in where one stands on exaggeration. Now of course hyperbole while often a pejorative term conversationally, is a literary term officially. It is contrasted with litotes: the use of understatement. It is not that Rushdie isn't given to asides indicating the understated ("we all owe death a life" from Midnight's Children), it is that the work's general tone plays up the exaggerated.
For some this is an immense strength; for others a sign of creative weakness. His friend Martin Amis reckons this is, in life and work, Rushdie's style. "He is always daring you to decide whether or not to take him literally." (Visiting Mrs Nabokov) When Rushdie talks of a winter so fierce it could crack men's bones as if they were glass, the simile takes place within hyperbole, with the auxiliary verb 'could' offered as a real possibility. Near the beginning of Midnight's Children the narrator says: "Please believe that I am falling apart. I am not speaking metaphorically; nor is the opening gambit of some melodramatic, riddling, grubby appeal for pity. I mean quite simply that I have begun to crack all over like an old jug - that my poor body, singular unlovely, buffeted by too much history, subjected to drainage below, mutilated by doors, brained by spittoons, has started coming apart at the seams." Again simile is contained by hyperbole, and again the narrator hopes that what he says will be taken at its literal word.
If Amis argues for the defence, James Kelman in Some Recent Attacks argues for the prosecution, no matter if he accepts the mitigating circumstances of some good prose. "But anyone who relies so heavily (Rushdie would argue intentionally) on the 'technique' of stereotype is always flirting with danger, and much of the novel fails as a result. By definition this technique offers a simplistic view of people and situations that is always conventional, a recipe for lazy writing." Kelman acknowledges Rushdie would see such stereotyping as closer to caricature; and there are far too many examples in English literature of character exaggeration for it to be rejected a priori: to remove Shakespeare and Dickens from the canon would be to punch a pretty big hole into the literary sphere. Yet as Kelman says, "the work...contains a number of the stock characters and situations any politicized student of the English literary canon is well used to, and it places the novel [The Satanic Verses] in the mainstream." In Paris Review Rushdie talks about his great, early love for P. G. Wodehouse, saying, when asked why he and other Indians respond so much to the writer, that "Funny is funny. Wodehouse has something in common with the Indian sense of humor. It may just be the silliness." We don't need to be a Wodehouse expert to see the comic writer is the quintessential English caricaturist, and it seems this is the tradition writers like Amis and perhaps Rushdie see themselves working in and that Kelman wants to counter. Rushdie, according to Litro magazine, once proposed that both "Amis and Wodehouse created voices, each of which epitomise an instantly recognisable Englishness yet are never heard in the mouths of Englishmen. They are mimicries, rather, heightened into new vocabularies."
Would we include Rushdie here but replace Indianness with Englishness? If Scottish writer Kelman searches out a literary style that wants to capture the dialect of the voice in someone's head, a certain type of verisimilitude that goes beyond realism of speech into the specifics of mental rhythms, Rushdie seems much more a social writer, someone who wants to find not the truth but expresses the desire to entertain as if his life depended on it. Indeed the first page of Midnight's Children invokes The Arabian Nights: "But I have no hope of saving my life, nor can I count on having even a thousand nights and a night. I must work fast, faster than Scheherazade..." This is often where the caricaturer meets the entertainer, with the writer determined to give the reader the best possible time over the search for the intricacy of particular truths. It is something Rushdie shares with Amis, McEwan and Barnes, all writers of course of a particular post-war generation. Amis says "The denial of the pleasure principle has a lot of followers. But I am completely committed to it, to pleasure." (Prospect) McEwan talks of his desire to "incite a naked hunger" (New Yorker) in the reader and is happy to use plot devices to provoke it. Barnes might say in Paris Review that for him literature is the "best way of telling the truth", but The Sense of an Ending feels like a book that wants to get the reader to turn the page more than find truths within it, with certain characters clearly ciphers to the suspense he wants to generate. When one character photocopies a single page of her late boyfriend's diary rather than handing the whole thing over to the central character this feels like a narrative device more than a search for truthfulness.
These are all novelists Rushdie invokes when talking about his burgeoning years as a writer. "See, I thought my career as a writer had gone nowhere at all. Meanwhile, many people in that very gifted generation I was a part of had found their ways as writers at a much younger age. It was as if they were zooming past me. Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro, Timothy Mo, Angela Carter, Bruce Chatwinto name only a few." Most (not all) of these writers are entertainers, and though the italics might indicate disdain, it is more to suggest a literary mode, one antithetical to literature as truth explored by Coetzee, Handke and Kelman for example.
If one sometimes feels tempted to offer the tone of dismissal towards the entertainers it is partly out of the need for a counter-attack. When Amis says in the Prospect interview that Coetzee has no talent, the assumption cannot always be countered merely with polite analysis. There is a sense that these contemporary English born, or English based, writers see what they are doing as what literature ought to be doing; anything else is a failure of talent rather than working within a different set of parameters, a set of parameters perhaps more demanding than the entertainers allow. Both Rushdie and Amis see the world broadly rather than specifically; while this gives energy to their prose it can also generate exhaustion in the reader and illustrate limitations in the writer. There is an astute passage from Adam Mars-Jones where he talks of Gore Vidal, saying: "After many years of cultivating a persona, Vidal now tries to articulate a self, apparently not realising that the skills required are the opposite of the ones he has practiced for so long." (Blind Bitter Happiness) In this formulation Rushdie would be persona writer rather than a novelist of the self, and we can maybe look again at some of Rushdie's sentences to understand how this persona is created.
Now of course a writer is someone who works with narrators and generates characters, and only the most literary nave insist on associating anything said within a novel to the writer who happens to have written it. Yet there is also tone and sensibility that crosses from one book to another, so that if we cannot simply say Rushdie believes, we can nevertheless propose that 'Rushdie' said it. In other words a sentence like "it turned out to be a sense so acute as to be capable of distinguishing the glutinous reek of hypocrisy behind the welcoming smile with which my spinster aunt Alia greeted us at the Karachi docks" (Midnight's Children) would be unlikely to be found in Handke or Coetzee. Rushdie's sentences are generally entertaining rather than searching. He often wants us to believe in the unbelievable, to accept the thoroughly unlikely. Here is a passage from 'At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers'. "There can be little doubt that a large majority of us oppose the free, unrestricted migration of imaginary beings into an already damaged reality, whose resources diminish by the day. After all, few of us would choose to travel in the opposite direction (though there are persuasive reports of an increase in such migrations latterly." The real and the unreal commingle. And here is one from 'The Prophet's Hair'. "For, with a parent's absolutist love, he had made sure they were all provided with a lifelong source of high income by crippling them at birth, so that, as they dragged themselves around the city, they earned excellent money in the begging business." It isn't that there is no truth in the latter example, more that one sees Rushdie using the fact in an entertainingly paradoxical manner. Utilised again in Midnight's Children, it is consistent with Rushdie's interest in making us believe in the hard to believe, but this time it is the hard to stomach, as the vivid and the exaggerated again share space.
In Paris Review, Rushdie says sometimes people pick out a sentence in his work and use it as an example of wonderful prose while somebody else takes the exact same sentence to indicate the awfulness of Rushdie's writing. But if we keep in mind Mars-Jones' distinction between a self and a persona, perhaps those happy with the writer as persona over self will find that the overstated prose chimes with their perception of the world; those more interested in the self will find the hyperbole self-servingly irritating. In the example of children crippled by their parents, Rushdie offers it as unbelievable not because it can't be believed, but that it is hard to fathom. Yet where writers like Handke and Coetzee are given to understating the horrific to indicate the unremitting, Rushdie magnifies the terrible to play up the unbelievable. Handke will talk of his mother's suicide in the memoir A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, saying, "as usual when engaged in literary work, I am alienated from myself and transformed into an object, a remembering and formulating machine. I am writing the story of my mother, first of all because I think I know more about her and how she came to her death than any outside investigator who might, with the help of a religious, psychological or sociological guide to the interpretation of dreams, arrive at a facile explanation of this interesting case of suicide..." Coetzee in Boyhood says, "His father was a gunner in the war: he manned a Bofors aircraft gun shooting at Germans and Italian planes. He wonders whether he ever shot a plane down: he certainly never boasts of it." Both want to understate the case partly because they want to understand the nature of the person they are describing. One of the problems with an entertaining approach to character and situation is that the truth often gets sacrificed to the pleasure principle: that to say your father was very involved in the war is a lot more narratively exciting than to assume he didn't do much at all. Yet while the exaggerated stories might lead to page- turning pleasure, the quiet look at small details can lead instead to a more cumulative illumination. The self can be explored rather than the persona constantly offered.
In Paris Review, Rushdie says "If you're reading for the love of reading, you look for what it gives you, not for what it doesn't give you. If there's enough there, a misstep is easy to forgive. That also happens in literary criticism. There are critics who approach work on the basis of what they can get from it, and others who approach in terms of what they can find wrong with it." Yet a work of fiction is also an act of sensibility, and part of a critic's purpose is to examine that sensibility and acknowledge what they feel to be a weakness might be seen by others as a strength. One doesn't question the work chiefly on the basis of whether it is good or bad as an object, but good or bad as affective, aesthetic experience. If one prefers writing that explores a self over the expression of a persona, then Rushdie's work can seem clumsy and obvious, but this is his way of writing, and any dismissal should contain within it an acknowledgement of its qualities far removed though they may be from one's own perspective. If Rushdie seems a far less important writer than the winner of the Booker of Bookers suggests, this would probably be best explored by utilizing writers ostensibly similar to Rushdie whom one feels are much more successful at generating a hyperbolized world - like Garcia Marquez, Cortazar or Calvino - rather than Handke, Coetzee and Kelman. Yet if we want to understand something of this difference between a writerly self and an insistent persona, then our comparisons are not invalid. They can also tell us something about what we want and expect from literature.
For our purposes let us look at two stories in the collection East, West: 'The Prophet's Hair', and 'The Harmony of the Spheres', and see how the former captures well Rushdie's capacity for amplification; the latter the limitations of the hyperbolic. In the first, a daughter, Huma tells the story of her family's blessed and cursed existence when a hair of Muhammad comes into their possession. The presence of the hair has destroyed the equilibrium in the family, with the father Hashim becoming hopelessly bloated in appearance, violent with visitors, and abusive with his family. How can his two kids, Atta and Huma, find a way of returning the hair to the mosque from which someone had stolen it? After Atta fails, the daughter hires a thief and we watch as the situation goes wrong as Hashim accidentally kills Huma, and the mother goes mad. However, though the thief's killed, and the hair returned, the thief's family appears to benefit hugely from its brief period in the thief's possession. His blind wife regains her sight; the four sons whom he'd maimed as children to improve their begging opportunities, became once again able-bodied, no matter if "they were, all four of them, properly furious, because the miracle had reduced their earning powers by 75 per cent at the most conservative estimate".
The strength of the story rests on the quality of its mythological absorption. This is the sort of hyperbolized tale many a writer will offer in an attempt to plug not into the nature of the human being as modern man, but the figure from the past traced in a hint of the present. Though Rushdie sets the story at some indefinite point in the 20th century, it feels like it could have taken place much farther back, and one of the qualities of the mythological is that it often offers hyperbole as history. While a story set in the present frequently demands the minutiae evident in Kelman and Handke, as if a dimension of the work is documenting in the late 20th century what it is like to be a man of the moment, in a certain type of historical fiction at its best, perhaps we expect not the small details hinting at authenticity, but the broadest of descriptions that can generate archetypes. If some might find Kelman too harsh on Rushdie when he accuses him of generating stereotypes, it might rest in seeing Rushdie instead digging deeper and trying to find archetypal figures he can work with.
There is a certain irony here, because the writer who searches into the vertical depths of myth will sacrifice to it the subtle texture of character. There aren't really characters in 'The Prophet's Hair' and this would only pass for a criticism if the story could benefit from their exploration. But as Calvino proposes in his essay 'Quickness' and the stories in the collection Numbers in the Dark, a certain literary form doesn't benefit from the dawdle of characterization and 'The Prophet's Hair' is part of this tradition. "The very first characteristic of a folktale is economy of expression," Calvino says in 'Quickness'. "The most outlandish adventures are recounted with an eye on the bare essentials." In 'The Prophet's Hair', the previously happy family becomes miserable after the father's discovery, where he then turns into a tyrant. The entire family is woken at five in the morning to pray, the servants compelled to set fire to heaps of books after breakfast, cinema is forbidden and a couple of hours each day must be devoted to reading the Qur'an. The details offered are briskly frequentative. But the story offers modern touches too, a bureaucratic stalling when Huma tries to persuade the thief to steal the hair. "He demanded comprehensive details of the crime to be committed, including a precise inventory of items to be acquired, also a clear statement of all financial inducements being offered with no gratuities excluded, plus, for filing purposes only a summary of the motives for the application." This isn't to give authenticity to the story; more a hint of the anachronistic and the incongruous as the thief functions like an insurance clerk. The story easily absorbs the facetious, with Rushdie signaling to the reader that this is a fable with a modern tense running through it. The story can slow down for the light touch rather than the serious probe. 'The Prophet's Hair' is the sort of thing Rushdie does very well. The story concludes with the balance carefully caught: there is a serious point to make about the horrors of religious extremism, but any statement contained is modestly countered by the story relying on superstition to function. After all, the thief's family benefit as Hashim does not - no matter if the thief's four sons are annoyed at their loss of earnings.
The tone and approach doesn't work so well when applied to a contemporary story, 'The Harmony of the Spheres', about the narrator's friend, Eliot Crane. Near the beginning of the tale we're informed that Eliot "sucked on his shotgun and pulled the trigger. The weapon had belonged to his father, who had put it to the same use. The only suicide note Eliot left perpetrating this final act of macabre symmetry was meticulous account of how to clean and care for the gun." Here again we have the facetious tone, but perhaps the wry notion of keeping the gun clean for the next suicide leaves the story's tone outside of the possible enquiry it seeks. Narrated by Eliot's Indian friend, Eliot is presented in broad terms: he "had wild red hair and a laugh like an owl's hoot and was thin as a witch's stick. In the firelight's bright shadow-theatre we all looked insane, so it was easier to discount his hollowed-out cheeks, the pantomime cocking of his eyebrows, the mad-sailor glitter in his eyes." Perhaps the story's descriptive detail and exuberant language would have worked better for an accident over a suicide, as though certain acts require either levels of literary sobriety or can absorb linguistic drunkenness. These are rollicking passages that might have been effective if the story was about a man whose house collapses upon him, or a man caught in an avalanche. Now obviously these would be horrific incidents, but this is different from an horrific existence that the suicide happens to be. Clearly there are funny suicide attempts where the beam breaks, the gun misses its target blowing the head clean off uncle's stuffed tiger, or where the desire to drown proves futile since the water is only a foot deep. But this is partly because the accidental intrudes on the suicidal: the miserable life turns into the fortunate accident and the person survives.
The suicide throws up however an existential question, and thus it makes sense Albert Camus made it the central tenet of The Myth of Sisyphus. It wasn't so much the suicide that was absurd but that life was, and where one needed to address the absurdity of life to escape from the suicidal: "It was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear on the contrary that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning." If Eliot had been a character given to numerous, hopeless suicide attempts, or someone who died in a hopeless misadventure, then the tone might have held, but in this entertaining story there is a feeling of existential inconclusiveness. The deliberate and necessary eschewal of depth in 'The Prophet's Hair', becomes the troublesomely flippant here. This is evident when the narrator and Eliot's wife take a trip along the Shropshire Union Canal "Lucy as skipper was intensely desirable, revealing great physical strength and a kind of boaty bossiness that I found very arousing." This is fine comedic writing, extended more obviously a few lines later after Eliot leaves the two of them alone on the boat for a couple of days while he goes off to Cambridge to listen to a lecture "by 'a top man from Austria' on the subject of the Nazis and the Occult." "Lucy insisted on ordering a bottle of rose wine. The waitress stiffened contemptuously. 'The French for red, madam,' she bellowed, 'is rouge'." At Eliot's funeral "among the mourners was a Conservative Member of Parliament who had been at school with Eliot. 'Poor Elly', this man said in a loud voice. 'We used to ask ourselves, "Whatever will become of Elly Crane?" And I'd say, "He'll probably make something half-way decent of his life, if he doesn't kill himself first."'" This is a play on the stiff-upper lip even if Eliot's has been blown off with a shotgun. Rushdie's serious tale congeals into the frivolous, as if his style can't quite countenance the magnitude of his subject.
Of course many a dark subject matter has found its feet in the humorous, and this might be close to a definition of black comedy. But Rushdie's story concludes on the fragility of the narrator's own world when his wife Mala acknowledges that Eliot's mad scribblings, found after his death, and with Mala and Eliot presented in them as lovers, are true. Here is a narrator already made fragile by an earlier love affair with Laura who at a wedding "snatched the glasses off my face and snapped them in two, grabbed the wedding-cake to the consternation of the bride and groom, and told me that if I ever came near her again she'd slice me up and pass me round at parties." What he then finds in Mala is the "serious and the serene: non-smoking, nondrinking, vegetarian and drug free." By the end of the story which he is of course narrating to us, he will have a half-mad ex, a best friend dead and a wife who has cheated on him. This is a world of horrible collapse presented almost as a comedy of errors, and if we refer to it as existentially inconclusive we do so aware that this isn't due to a failure of narrative technique; more that of narrative voice. As the story concludes on the revelation that Mala betrayed him at the moment he thought he might betray Eliot, so we may read the story again and see that there were hints available to us earlier. After all it was Eliot who propelled Mala in his direction, and Mala is described as the medical student with a Giaconda smile. As well as a bit of clever foreshadowing, Rushdie also gives us several set-piece scenes of amusing extremity, from Laura at the wedding, to Eliot one night in his house. Nakedly investigating what he sees as absolute evil downstairs at three a.m., he goes into the kitchen where it was "arctically cold and found he had acquired an erection. Then all the lights went crazy, switching themselves on and off, and he made the sign of the cross with his arms and screamed. 'Apage me, Satanas.' Get thee behind me Satan." This is technically well-accomplished, an amusingly vivid account of a man with some misplaced marbles.
Bu the failure lies elsewhere: in that voice - with the tone robbing the story of a wider existential mystery as it determines to entertain with larger than life scenes and characters. Perhaps suicide is a smaller than life affair, requiring more litotes than hyperbole. When Kelman once proposed to fellow Scottish writer Agnes Owens that her work for him contained too many adverbs, perhaps he was speaking as much about his own aesthetic choices as analyzing Owens' work, and maybe the same sense of reservation is useful when thinking of his remarks on Rushdie too. But if a story like 'The Prophet's Hair' benefits greatly from the exaggerated tone, 'The Harmony of the Spheres' would be one feels a far more intriguing and mysterious story if it were toned down rather than played up. Rushdie's adverbs in the story include arctically, indelibly, guiltily, prosaically and myopically. In 'The Prophet's Hair': earsplittingly, blindly, seemingly, carefully, piercingly, angrily. Both thus contain numerous adverbs; the latter probably more than the former. Yet where 'The Prophet's Hair' is a mythic, archetypal story that benefits from the adverb as short-hand, 'The Harmony of the Spheres' creates a gap between the crisis of character and the need to entertain and get on with it. While the former can absorb the helter-skelter rush of event; the latter seems a bit existentially cack-handed as Rushdie wants more to give the reader a good time no matter the bad time he happens to be exploring. 'The Prophet's Hair' plays into his strengths; the latter reveals his weaknesses. Both are perfectly acceptable stories, but one indicates why some see Rushdie as a writer of immense importance; the other why his broad sweep misses out on nuance. One achieves archetype; the other leans towards stereotype. One allows for the hyperbole of brilliant exaggeration; the other the overstatement of missing the finer points.
© Tony McKibbin