Salman Rushdie talks truth and lies in American culture

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Salman Rushdie’s new novel Quichotte (Knopf, $34.95, 416 pages), his exhilarating, very contemporary take on Don Quixote, has landed on the Booker Prize short list. That’s not surprising, as Booker juries tend to love takedowns of American culture – and Rushdie is devastating on that front – while appreciating formal experiments. Though Quichotte remains a wholly accessible, funny page-turner, it is a novel within a novel, as a spy writer attempts to change his literary ways, himself rewriting Don Quixote. Quichotte conjures his son Sancho out of his own imagination, while pursuing the heart of a famous talk-show host.

Along the way Rushdie takes on, to name just a few themes, junk TV, the opioid crisis, racism, the end of the world as we know it and the very human fear of impending death.

While he was in Toronto, we caught up with Rushdie to get his perspective on some of those things and why he’s through with caring what critics think.

Your last book took place in Manhattan, but here you’ve hit the road.

When I finished The Golden House, I started this one almost immediately, and I said to myself, “We have to leave town now.” I had to write something with a broader screen, something that offered a wider panorama of what was going on, not only in America but in London and Bombay.

You still call it Bombay.

A lot of people still do and not only those who are my age. Calling Bombay Mumbai is like calling Saigon Ho Chi Minh City.

Quichotte is a satire of America that is being released in the age of Trump. Yet you don’t mention the president’s name once. Has going after Trump become too easy?

It’s partly that but mostly because Trump’s name sucks all the air out of the room. Suddenly all you can talk about is him and enough of our view is deformed in these ways already. I wanted this book to be about America, not about Trump, to be about all those things coming out of the closet, racism, drug addiction and corruption, but also the essential hopefulness of America. I wanted Quichotte to embody that hopefulness and then project him against a country that’s in various kinds of trouble. That was more interesting to me than anything anybody in the White House might be doing.

Some of us believe that Americans are delusional about their exceptionalism and that they can barely see the country for what it really is.

Americans always got told that they were the city on the hill, as if it were the new Jerusalem and clearly that’s a kind of delusion. It’s a country that believes in the idea of “the good” in spite of the fact that its original sins are not examined, the first being the extinction of the country’s original population and the second is slavery. It’s imperfect but where is not?

One of the things I like is the sense of possibility. There’s a problem in some parts of Britain where you often get the feeling that things are impossible or you can’t do that. Quichotte is a crackpot, he’s not all there, but he does believe that he can win the heart of this lady.

Quichotte wanders the country, staying in cut-rate hotels where the only television fare is reality TV. Inevitably, he becomes wholly addicted to junk TV.

I use reality television as a signifier of the problem of truth and lies in American culture. Television is not reality. Its timelines are switched and reality is, to say the least, massaged, even manipulated. It’s a lie that tells you it’s the truth. And we’re completely surrounded by that dynamic now. I tried to have fun with it – dating games, etc. – but if this is the TV you’re consuming all the time, it damages you.

The book begins with Quichotte working for a pharmaceutical company that’s making a killing – literally – off a highly addictive opioid, a sublingual (under the tongue) fentanyl. Given the timelines for writing this book, it seems to me that you were aware of the opioid crisis long before it landed on the public agenda.

I’ve been digging into this for a long time. Twelve years ago my youngest sister died of an opioid overdose. None of us had any idea how dependent she had become. Her medicine cabinet was like a pharmacy. I was shocked I hadn’t known, even ashamed, and I had to find out about this stuff and I found out, to my horror, the extent of it.

It’s biggest in small communities. The problem in cities are Class A drugs: cocaine, heroin, ecstasy. But when you get to West Virginia and middle America, it’s everywhere. So there’s this colossal thing happening and nobody’s talking about it. One person dies of Ebola, and the whole country goes mad. Fifty thousand are dying of opioid overdose and, until recently, it was quite invisible.

My character Dr. Smile is based on somebody real, a man who set up a pharmaceutical business in Chicago where his company developed a sublingual fentanyl spray for cancer patients. Because he wanted to make more money, he found ways of getting it into the hands of people who didn’t need it.

In this book, you detail the process of how that’s done.

Step one: there’s the bent entrepreneur. Step two: it’s easy to bend the medical profession so they participate. Step three has to do with why people are so drawn to this thing. A lot of characters in this books are quite lonely, quite isolated. They reach out to see if they can heal breaches in their family. Even as we’ve invented technologies that in theory connect us in a zillion different ways and we have “friends,” we’re more isolated that we’ve ever been before.

Where did the novel-within-the-novel idea come from?

I’ve always slightly disapproved of meta-fiction, a novelist writing about a novelist writing about a novelist writing a novel. Then I found the storylines growing into each other. The storylines are informative about each other. I had to make them merge all along and that’s what made it work for me.

Why is your novelist character a thriller writer?

I think I always wanted to be a spy novelist. It might be as simple as that.

But your characters and their desires aren’t modelled after you and yours.

I’m not necessarily like my characters. But Quichotte is an exaggeration of me. I have that absurd optimism I don’t have that despairing world view. The writer character’s concern with mortality is probably mine. Both he and Quichotte come from the same place in India as I did so I feel a kinship with them. Though [smiling] I think I’m a better writer.

And the end-of-the-world theme?

It can be three things. It can be a science-fiction dramatization of the characters’ concern for their mortality. Secondly, it can be a metaphor about the end of a certain kind of world, the kind we’ve lived in all our lives, which seems to be crumbling. I’m referring to the structure of society. Or in this world of climate change, and Greta Thunberg, we are talking about the actual end of the world.

Reviews of Quichotte have been mixed. Do literary critics matter?

You get to the point of your life as a writer where you have a clear sense of the road you want to go down and you hope people will come along with you. But if they don’t, it doesn’t actually change your desire to go down that road. The worst-reviewed book I’ve ever written was my [2001]novel Fury. It had a very bumpy ride critically and I said to myself, “I really believe in this book, I believe it’s a really good book and if people don’t get it, fuck them.” After that I didn’t care about critical response. It set me free.

@susangcole