TWO YEARS EIGHT MONTHS AND TWENTY-EIGHT NIGHTS, by Salman Rushdie. Random House, 290 pp., $28.
When you walk down a street, your gaze takes in a mother pushing a stroller, a handsome Tudor home, a fleet of passing cars. When novelist Salman Rushdie takes his eyes out for a walk, he opens wide the gates of perception. Thus the characters he creates have the power to read minds, fly, levitate, or zoom back and forth through time. Gleeful, ebullient magic realism propels nearly all his fiction.
If this rejection of conventional realism forged his masterpiece, "Midnight's Children," and successors like "The Satanic Verses" and "The Moor's Last Sigh" into supercharged storytelling machines, it has faltered badly in more recent disappointments such as "Fury" and "The Enchantress of Florence." Once the forceful disintegrated into formula, it's been harder for readers to suspend disbelief.
Born in Bombay, once a London resident and now living in New York, Rushdie has always threaded his fiction with themes of rootlessness and metamorphosis. They resonate mightily within with our global village of unceasing movement and migration. And as Islamic terrorism pummeled its way onto the international stage, so, too, has its attack on reason and tolerance prompted his outrage.
If you add up all the days in the title of Rushdie's new novel, "Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights," you get nearly 1,001, as in the ancient saga of Scheherazade's 1,001 nights of storytelling. So we are in for stories within stories, a whirlwind of tale. And while drawing on his thematic perennials, he amps up the magical-realist special effects. Get ready for the ride.
The novel's heroine, Dunia, is a princess of the jinn -- we know them as "genies" -- those creatures made of "smokeless fire" who live in the fairy realm of Peristan. Eight hundred years ago, Dunia crossed over to the human world and fell in love with Ibn Rushd, a philosopher in Muslim-ruled Spain. This thinker, in real-life also known as Averroes, is an advocate of reason, logic and science. His debates with Ghazali, a traditionalist Persian, mirror today's culture wars, and make an adventure story also a novel of ideas.
Rushd: "The battle between reason and superstition may be seen as mankind's long adolescence, and the triumph of reason will be its coming of age."
Ghazali: "Faith is our gift from God and reason our adolescent rebellion against it."
Yet Rushdie never allows disputation to slow down his narrative. Jump-cut from medieval Spain to present-day New York City in "the time of the strangenesses," when levitation and other oddities become the norm. Then comes devastation. Mountains crumble, and oceans rise ominously.
During this era, Dunia falls for an Indian immigrant in New York City known as Mr. Geronimo (talk about cultural mashup). A humble gardener, he is recruited into her plan to save humanity from the evil jinn, surrogates for Ghazali's worldview, who are hellbent on destroying civilization. Geronimo and others are instructed in the use of superhuman powers to crush the baddies Zummurud the Great and his allies Zabardast the Sorcerer, Ra'im the Blood-Drinker and Shining Ruby the Possessor of Souls.
If all this sounds like a Marvel comic, that's not far off the mark. These scoundrels might as well be Dr. Doom, Magneto or Thanos, and they are equally ludicrous.
This time out, Rushdie's storytelling virtuosity, though captivating in the book's opening pages, runs amok. He's like the poor soul on the next bar stool who can't stop blathering. Worse, even his main characters never rise above cartoons. However admirable it is to attack barbarism masquerading as religion, the message requires fiction that takes place outside Marvel Land.