Reviews, SFF

“Grimus” – Salman Rushdie

Rushdie, Salman. Grimus. London: Vintage, 1996.

grimusPublished in 1975, Salman Rushdie’s debut novel was written specifically for the Victor Gollancz Prize for Science Fiction, but Rushdie’s publishers later stepped back from marketing it for that genre, apparently considering it a mistake. Grimus tells the story of Flapping Eagle, a Native American outcast who becomes immortal after drinking some magical liquor. An inability to ‘fit in’ with a mortal world leads Flapping Eagle to attempt suicide, after which he falls through the Mediterranean Sea into another world. This world is inhabited by other potion-drinking immortals, and is presided over by the strange and powerful Grimus – a doppelganger of Flapping Eagle. The book draws heavily on mythological and religious sources, especially Sufi mysticism and mythology, but it is essentially a SF story of other selves in other dimensions, albeit a more literary story than that genre tends to go for.

Much of the critical failure of Grimus was blamed on Rushdie’s perceived inability to make a cohesive whole out of a mixture of genre and style (which might explain his publisher’s reticence about Grimus’ place within the SF genre). The fractured narrative, which moves between first and third person at lightning speed, is complex, and while fascinating does not have quite the same sure touch as Rushdie’s later works. The tone of Grimus can be uneven, and appears to suffer a little from a lack of authorial direction. For a first novel, however, Grimus is still a major accomplishment, and remains one of my favourite of Rushdie’s books (more so than the to-my-mind over-rated Satanic Verses but nowhere near the genius of Midnight’s Children) although Rushdie himself has no high opinion of it.

As with other genre types, trends in SF come and go but the underlying themes remain the same. Possibly the strongest theme in SF literature and film is conformity – specifically, the need to escape a society where conformity is a measure of acceptance and even utopia. From the celled, monastic individuals of E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops to the rigidly enforced positronic brain patterns of Asimov’s robots to the Storm-troopers of Star Wars and the Borg of Star Trek, the need to escape the confines of conformity is ubiquitous. So when Flapping Eagle shows no such inclination to escape conformity (he is much more inclined to embrace it where-ever he can find it) the ground beneath the reader begins to shake. Consciously or not, we understand what it is we’re supposed to see in SF novels, and it isn’t the protagonist desperate to fit in to a rigidly ordered group.

It is arguably this underlying instability that has resulted in calls of genre confusion within Grimus. Support for this confusion can be seen in the secondary theme of the book: migration. While this is a typical theme in SF literature (humanity travelling to distant suns, and making their home on other planets), it is also a major theme in Salman Rushdie literature. Much of the criticism available on Grimus looks at migration as an extension of Rushdie’s personality: the East Meets West collision of religious, social, and political beliefs and the alienation of the immigrant within the new cultural landscape. But I’m not sure that comparing Rushdie and Flapping Eagle in this way is accurate or helpful. Rushdie’s interviews appear to indicate an individual with a very different outlook on life to Flapping Eagle, despite superficial similarities. Rushdie has a strong predilection for non-conformity: the intellectual responsibility of individuals to move beyond the myths of their culture, to decisively not know their place and to rely on their own understanding over the myths of the past. Passivity to received dogma is not seen as a desirable or responsible intellectual characteristic.

So the fact that Rushdie could be writing an autobiography in metaphor is no indication that he actually did. However, the theme of migration between Islam and the East to the politically and religiously open West is so strong in the rest of his works that it is tempting – and even reasonable – to apply that intention in retrospect when reading Grimus. The problem here is that while Grimus may share theme with the rest of Rushdie’s work, it does not necessarily imply that all the works share genre – and different genres interpret themes differently.

An example of this is Flapping Eagle’s continuing social isolation. This alienation is itself a symptom of Flapping Eagle’s conformity to Grimus’ plans for him – Grimus has engineered much of Flapping Eagle’s life in order to control his destiny.

Do you deny that by selecting you as a Recipient I shaped your life thenceforth? Do you deny that by taking your sister from the Axona I forced your expulsion? Do you deny that by expelling Nicholas Deggle into your continuum I guided you towards Calf Island? Do you deny that allowing you to wander the world for centuries instead of bringing you here I made you the man that you are, chameleon, adaptable, confused? Do you deny that by choosing a man similar in appearance to myself I estimated exactly the effect of such a man on Virgil and on the town K? Do you deny that I lured you here with the Spectre of Bird-Dog? Do you deny that I have steered a course between the infinite potential presents and futures in order to make this meeting possible? (And then, dropping his voice:) Which of your Lord’s blessings would you deny? (Rushdie 233)

Thus, Flapping Eagle’s conformity is hidden under a surface of non-conformity as he travels the course that Grimus has set for him, the course of a continually alienated outsider who is always trying to fit in to whatever society he happens to be in at the time. This is a major inversion of the usual SF treatment of this theme – a twist that might not be so unsettling in a non-SF genre.

It seems to me to be plausible that Rushdie, the non-conformist, has unsuccessfully tried to produce his own antithesis in Flapping Eagle, and fails for want of empathy. Flapping Eagle, it must be admitted, is a curiously flat character dumped into a community of the fascinatingly warped and grotesque. The fat, pedantic, and stubbornly reclusive Virgil is an infinitely more attractive and seductive character. That the guide so outshines the guided is an odd narrative choice, but is it deliberate? Or did Rushdie’s sympathy for Virgil, the active individualist, drag the author off the genre track? Is this why Grimus’ seems so muddled at times?

It’s certainly understandable that Rushdie’s sympathy for the more interesting, and more non-conformist – character led him to make the hero’s SF journey from conformity to non-conformity so unbalanced.

It is inescapably true that Flapping Eagle is mostly led around by the nose, and it’s hard to have much liking for him. Left to shift for himself, he tends to wallow and drift and take the path of least resistance until forced to do otherwise. In conformity-themed SF, this is where the protagonist normally starts his journey before he or she learns how to escape the stifling nature of their community-based conformity. In essence, this type of SF novel shows the journey of a person learning the value of non-conformity. But Flapping Eagle never achieves the growth suggested by his quest or its underlying theme. Towards the end of Grimus, when he confronts his doppelganger at Grimushome, he appears to show a smidgeon of initiative. Success!But it turns out, however, that his entire journey has been orchestrated by Grimus – Flapping Eagle has had no choices in the matter, and even his victory over Grimus is at the latter’s behest. When, only one page from the end of the novel, Flapping Eagle finally does something Grimus does not want, it is almost too unexpected to the reader as well. It is unexpected because the change is too sudden for the character. There has been little gradual awakening to his own deliberate intellectual and moral non-conformity; it simply comes regardless. The one individual in the novel who has the intellectual and moral understanding of his own relationship with conformity and lack thereof is Virgil – but Grimus merely tells the end of Virgil’s story, not the whole of it.

I’d rather have read a history of Virgil, with Flapping Eagle on the periphery – perhaps coming in at the end, where Virgil could help him perform his function of getting rid of the Stone Rose. It is Virgil who should have been the centre of a SF novel, not Flapping Eagle. It is Virgil who would have had the more convincing hero’s journey. It is Virgil who engages Rushdie’s sympathies so much that the author, probably unconsciously, pushes to one side the thematic development of Flapping Eagle in favour of the character who most suits the SF genre.

Flapping Eagle spends most of his time wishing unashamedly for conformity, and I end up wanting him to go away as much as any of the communities that exclude him. As a protagonist in a novel themed around a more realistic experience of social migration and integration, as many of Rushdie’s protagonists are, he would likely be a more successful character. However, as a SF lead his level of conformity, and his too-quick solution of it, makes him a failure – and the success of Grimus hangs on the journey of Flapping Eagle. That journey has all the hallmarks and obstacles of the SF journey towards non-conformity. Yet in its solution to the problem of conformity, and in its protagonist, Grimus does not conform to the expectations of readers well-versed in SF perceptions. That is what makes the novel so muddled within genre, and is arguably the root cause of its critical failure. Even those who are not dedicated SF readers cannot help but come to the conclusion that there is something “off” about its treatment of conformity.

There’s some irony in that.

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