Booker 2019: Salman Rushdie embarks on a quixotic road-trip novel

Quichotte, Salman Rushdie's entertaining metafictional novel, muddies the waters between fiction and reality.
Quichotte, Salman Rushdie's entertaining metafictional novel, muddies the waters between fiction and reality.PHOTOS: BEOWULF SHEEHAN, JONATHAN CAPE

FICTION

QUICHOTTE

By Salman Rushdie

Jonathan Cape/Paperback/390 pages/$30.98/Books Kinokuniya

3.5 stars


Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Quichotte, Rushdie's entertaining metafictional novel, muddies the waters between fiction and reality.

The story's eponymous hero is an elderly, television-addled pharmaceutical salesman who falls for a celebrity and goes on a picaresque quest across America to seek her hand.

British-Indian Rushdie, 72, weaves plenty of colour and humour into this novel, his 14th.

But other hallmarks of Rushdie-ism loom large, such as a proclivity for overwrought writing.

The protagonist, 70-year-old Quichotte, decides he must pass a series of trials before he can be deemed worthy of her love. Wishing upon a star, he manages to magic a teenage son into being. Or so he thinks - like so much else in the story, the boy is merely a figment of his imagination.

Sancho, the Pinocchio to Quichotte's Geppetto, joins the hero on his quest. The chapters on their exploits are interspersed with ones concerning "Sam DuChamp", the ostensible author of the story who is estranged from his sister and son.

The novel is a kaleidoscopic jumble of pop culture references from reality TV show Project Runway (2004 to present) to science-fiction film Gattaca (1997).

The plot sometimes feels like a sliced-and-diced mishmash of news you might find on your social media feed - mass shootings, ethics of big pharma and apocalyptic fantasies.

The idea is to hold up a mirror to the fragmented world of fake news, "alternative facts" and nightmarish politics, which can sometimes seem too awful to be true.

 
 
 
 

Eventually, life and art turn into each other and the lines between DuChamp and the duo are increasingly blurred. So are the lines between Rushdie and his characters. The real-life author is around Quichotte's age and has a name similar to that of his hero's love interest, Salma R. But to what direction do these metafictional conceits tend?

Rushdie's novel can feel frustratingly involuted. The idea may be to evoke the sense of an echo chamber or a wilderness of mirrors - exemplifying, perhaps, the insularity and narcissism of people in society. Unfortunately, this is not enough to stop the reader from wishing that the author had a few better tricks up his sleeve.

If you like this, read: Midnight's Children (Vintage, $20.95, Books Kinokuniya), Rushdie's magical- realist novel about a man born at the precise moment of India's independence. It was twice recognised as the best Booker winner on the prize's 25th and 40th anniversaries.

• A version of this review was first published on Sept 3.