Short Take: A 600-page love song to the beauty of impermanence.
If my usual choice of literature is candy, The Ground Beneath Her Feet is a 12-course meal, and I consumed it gluttonously, shamelessly, simultaneously wanting to rush to the next bite, and to savor the current taste. The interweavings of myth and music are magic, and every sentence is a poem.
The Ground Beneath Her Feet is a disorienting mix of a huge conglomeration of stories, and a very small, personal memoir. Rai is a child in Bombay, when he meets Vina Apsara and immediately falls in love with her. Unfortunately, Ormus Cama also meets and falls in love with Vina at around the same time, and it’s Ormus that she chooses. Mostly.
Ormus Cama, born with a dead twin, and later injured terribly in one eye, has glimpses of another world, where he hears the music that will eventually become hit records. And it’s then that we realize that this book doesn’t take place in our world, because the first singer to perform “Heartbreak Hotel” on Ormus’s radio is Jesse Aron Parker.
From there, the story follows Vina and Ormus in their larger-than-life, obsessive, ultimately doomed love affair (which is so entangled with their rock stardom, that it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins) and Rai as the man outside of the frame, who sees the entire picture.
There’s so much story here, folks: a huge cast of characters, a narrative that travels from Bombay to London to Manhattan to Mexico, and an awe-inspiring mix of the myths that shape all of our lives and fantasies.
Seriously, I could write a book about this book.
Rushdie lingers with a loving touch on the temporary, from the city of Bombay under English rule, to that brief moment when Vina met Rai, before she fell for Ormus. Everything is temporary, everything goes away, except for Rai’s photographs, and the truths that they tell are usually the ones that nobody really wants to face.
After Vina’s death, Ormus asks about the site of the earthquake, and Rai replies “It was a wreck, if that’s what you mean… as if you took a picture of beauty and then systematically broke everything in the picture.” Rai also says “Power, like love, most fully reveals its dimensions only when it is irrevocably lost.” And that, I think, is the heart of The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Loss of beauty, love, home, family, sight, freedom, even sanity, all of these things play a part.
There’s a recurring theme of deliberate narrowness of vision: Vina only sees what she wants at any given moment, Ormus is obsessed with his visions of another world (ours), and Rai only sees Vina and his photos.
But most of all, this is a story about stories. Rushdie references so many myths, some by name, others indirectly. Orpheus and Eurydice are the most obvious, but there was also Cassandra, and Tiresias the blind prophet, and Cain and Abel, and Odysseus, and so many others.
Ground is not without its flaws. For one, although most of the prose is really gorgeous (I mean REALLY gorgeous), there can be too much of a good thing. Rushdie has a way with words, no question, but sometimes he seems to over-indulge in his own wit, and a clever play on words turns into a multi-page list of them.
The song lyrics in the book mostly just seem silly. I think that fewer quoted lyrics might have made VTO’s (Ormus & Vina’s group) mega-stardom more understandable. For example “It’s not supposed to be this way/but you’re not here to put it right/And you’re not here to hold me tight/It shouldn’t be this way” to me sounds like something an unenthusiastic high schooler would write for a school assignment.
Also, Ormus and Vina are not really fleshed out in any way, despite being two of the main characters. Vina’s only real human quirk is an annoying habit? Of talking with an uptick? Even when she’s trying to say something important? (See? Annoying.) But then I wonder: if the music of our world could cross the barrier to Ormus and Vina’s world, is it possible that the stories of their world crossed the barriers into ours? Is it possible that the reason these characters seem unreal is that they are not “real” people, but rather, the heroes and lovers that we now refer to as myths?
If that’s the case – if they are not to be a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice, but rather, the source of the story that’s been handed down for generations, then it makes perfect sense. Even their romance rings false in a number of ways for “real life” but makes perfect sense as a larger than life fiction.
Perhaps I’m giving the author too much credit. Maybe it’s because there’s such a profound level of beauty and obvious skill that I’m willing to overlook and make wild excuses for the missing pieces. I can live with that.
But it isn’t just me. U2 loved this one as well:
The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a sequined bustier. Appropriate for any occasion!)