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Salman Rushdie's Baffling Arabian Nights

Rushdie’s new novel aims to skewer superstition and belief—but gets lost in its own games

Lluis Gene / AFP

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Salman Rushdie’s first adult novel in seven years, is so baffling that you have to wonder whether it’s some kind of a prank. Loosely recreating the Arabian Nights in contemporary New York, Rushdie’s novel describes a city descended into otherworldly mayhem. The author’s familiar goulash of stagey philosophizing and postmodernist goof is, here, largely a vehicle to demonstrate the dangers of abandoning reason for superstition. Yet the novel is so noisy with story and reference, so cavalier in its plotting and tone, so cartoonish in its characterizations, and so (seemingly) self-ironizing in its prose that it vaporizes these intellectual genies, leaving little more than a whiff of lamp-smoke behind. The time-span in the title may add up to the 1,001 nights of myth, but the novel makes no more substantial calculation than that.

The first chapter begins, somewhat limply, by introducing the jinn, “creatures made of smokeless fire” who live in a world called Fairyland, before offering a breathless summation of the subsequent plot:

This is the story of a jinnia, a great princess of the jinn…who loved a man long ago, in the world, after a long absence, to fall in love again, at least for a moment, and then go to war.

The jinnia’s twelfth-century lover is real-life philosopher Ibn Rushd (also called Averroes), a man of reason known for his “commentaries on Aristotle.” She appears to him in the guise of a very skinny 16-year-old girl named Dunia—a reference to the Arabic term for the temporal world—and over the next two years she bears him dozens of children (the jinn, as Rushdie repeats to no end, really like having sex). 

It’s clear that Rushdie is thinking along autobiographical lines when he writes that Rushd, exiled because of his ideas, is “a sort of anti-Scheherazde” whose stories have “put his life in danger.” (The analogy is of course to the 1989 fatwa against Rushdie sparked by his novel The Satanic Verses, which some devout Muslims interpreted as insulting their faith.) Rushd’s “stories” concern his attempts to reconcile the rational and the sacred but, like Rushdie, he is persecuted as an unbeliever instead. It’s possible that Rushdie is attempting to correct the record: While The Satanic Verses was read (or misread) as suggesting a correlation between religious fanaticism (or just plain religion) and fantasy—thereby giving the impression that it maligned the faithful—here there seems to be an argument suggesting that the fantastic can be productively yoked to reason instead. But it’s also possible that the comparison is a self-reflexive joke—Rushd’s book is called The Incoherence of the Incoherence, which might apply to this novel too.


The bulk of Two Years takes place “eight hundred and more” years after Rushd and Dunia’s idyll in Moorish Spain. A great storm has hit New York City, somehow reopening the “slits” that separated the jinn and human worlds, and beginning a period—1,001 nights, of course—of supernatural events referred to by the somewhat deflating term “the strangenesses.” A down-to-earth 60s-ish gardener by the name of Mr. Geronimo discovers that he is levitating several inches off the ground; aspiring graphic novelist Jimmy Kapoor wakes up to find his superhero creation brought to life; Theresa Saca, a spurned femme fatale and gold digger, murders her lover by shooting lightning from her fingertips. As it happens, these characters all lack earlobes, which marks them as “Duniazat,” descendants of the philosopher and the jinnia princess. In this “new age of the irrational,” their newly unlocked powers, along with those of their ancestor Dunia (a.k.a Princess Skyfairy, a.k.a. the Lightning Princess, a.k.a. Aasmaan Peri), will be set against evil jinn and armies of religious zealots, whose fear has driven them to superstition.

The whole story is, we come eventually to learn, narrated by an undifferentiated “we” standing in for the third-millennium, rationalist society made possible by the novel’s events. Yet the narrator’s position in this sci-fi future has negligible effect on the novel’s fascination with contemporary pop culture. In fact, Rushdie’s parable of realism in crisis reveals as little of our real as it does of the narrator’s. Between easy pastiche and postmodernist wink, his satirical gestures are knowing, but flat: People grow disappointed in a “jug-eared” president; a “babyfaced tyrant” orders his subjects to cut their hair like his; the land of “A.” comes under the sway of the “Swots,” extremists who “had studied very deeply the art of forbidding things.” It’s great fun and games, for those who enjoy such things, but simply chalking contemporary events up to the meddling of jinn offers little insight into those events or into Rushdie’s plot, much as describing a character looking as though “Rene Magritte had painted Stan Laurel in shades of light brown” gives little insight into character.

Meanwhile, Rushdie’s much-remarked too-muchness is alive and well. Rarely is there not another character he can add (Why not an Italian playboy, whose penchant for “bored wives” is rewarded by a curse that makes him fall in love with all women, including—imagine!—the unattractive ones? Why, in the end he opens a restaurant!), one more location, one more spike of plot.  No character is allowed a single name—they must be given at least two or three.  The great jinn Zummurrud cannot be merely a formless malevolent force; he must also be a fan of classic science fiction. Nor can Mr. Geronimo be just a gardener-cum-rationalist-messiah.  He must also be the Bombay-born illegitimate son of a fiery Catholic priest, the nephew of a gay architect with a troupe of cartoonishly-drawn Cuban houseboys called “the Rauls,” and the son-in-law of an “intellectually flamboyant” real-estate developer named Bento V. Elfenbein. His primary client is Alexandra Bliss Farina, a.k.a. the Lady Philosopher, daughter of a pet-food tycoon and his unaccountably “much more youthful, Siberian” wife, who is the mistress of an estate on the Hudson called La Incoerenza (“incoherence,” again). Mr. Geronimo not only lives in Kips Bay (which, as Rushdie seems to pride himself on knowing, is “the last forgotten neighborhood in Manhattan”), but he also has a landscaping office in Greenwich Village and mows lawns in the Hamptons too.

There’s a feeling of contingency to the story, no turn of plot seeming so necessary that it can’t be easily revised after the fact. Mr. Geronimo visits Fairyland, but his presence there, like his love affair with the jinnia, is as quickly explained away and undone as though it meant nothing at all: “Lost in fantasy, it is hard for us to see him clearly there amidst the cloud-cap’d towers, the gorgeous palaces. We too need him back on earth.” (If you fail to catch the Shakespeare reference, fear not—the same phrase will return, more explicitly, later on.)  This happens so frequently that any sense of pleasure one might derive from Rushdie's indisputably freewheeling imagination is sabotaged by how little he appears to care for its fruits.

Where Rushdie’s stories are allowed to be just stories they are lovely, and the novel includes several little fables that remind one passingly of (and no doubt owe something to) Italo Calvino. But for the most part, beauty—of language as of plot—is traded for the kind of accumulation that seems to think itself an appropriate stand-in. Rushdie’s teeming prose is often dragged down by cliché, and ranges from the hard-to-parse intellectual posturing (“Reason may catnap for a time, but the irrational is more often comatose.”) to the oddly off-key description (“he had always exuded powerfully heterosexual pheromones”) and the inexplicably clunky aside (“If the dead could giggle with delight then the dead philosopher would have chortled with glee”). Rushdie’s use of the fantastic is broad rather than deep—collected like so many facts or so much information—all effect and no affect. No sooner does a jinn devour someone than he himself is zapped by an indistinct curse. Because what appears to matter to the novel is not characters, words, or images, but their profusion, moments like this—supposedly pivotal—are just part of the broader dog and pony show. 

The novel reflects a kind of narrative agnosticism, an uneasy relationship to belief that doesn’t enable us to value any one strand of plot or any one character over the next. In the end, the narrator must even remind us that the novel’s characters are likely not even this story’s real heroes, just those who’ve been “randomly selected by the broken record” of history, and who (quite irrationally!) have been chosen as heroes for now. 

Here crouches something that’s evaded Rushdie before: the fact that fiction depends on credulity and belief, on a reader’s agreeing to operate as though something were real.  Which is a kind of irrationality, too—the beautiful incoherence of giving a value to what isn’t tangibly there. Rushdie knows this as well as anyone, and he eventually goes so far as to admit as much here.  But he wants us to believe without giving anything in particular the real weight of belief, without offering anything but a flashy song and dance routine.  In the end, it feels like a strange and cynical performance, as though reason were in conflict with meaning itself, and seeking value the irrational thing.