It's The Age of Anything-Can-Happen. Or so we're told early on in Salman Rushdie's Booker-nominated novel, Quichotte.
'A woman might fall in love with a piglet, or a man might start living with an owl.' And thus, the tone is set for a surreal road trip in the manner of Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote where anything and everything does, in fact, happen.
Most of those anythings happen to Ismail Smile, a delusional, recently unemployed pharmaceutical salesman and Sancho, the teenage son he conjures from thin air.
After assuming the name Quichotte, the novel's Indian-American protagonist embarks on a quest across America's cultural wasteland to win the affections of his Beloved, the Indian-American talk show host Salma R.
Along the way, Quichotte and Sancho encounter racists decked out in dog collars, marauding mastodons and a talking cricket. And, being America, there's even a talking gun. But this phantasmagoria (Quichotte's word, not mine) is simply the hyperreal backdrop to a story-stories, really-about love and forgiveness.
It soon becomes clear that Quichotte isn't one story, but two. We have Quichotte's narrative, headlined by the aforementioned dapper old duffer suffering from both the after effects of a stroke and the consumption of far too much TV.
And then we have the meta narrative concerning Sam DuChamp, or Brother, the New York spy novelist of Indian origin who dreams up Quichotte while simultaneously working through his own fractured relationships with his estranged Son and Sister. If this sounds like the perfect construct for a confusing novel, it is. Yet Rushdie somehow manages to make it all work, albeit in a longwinded, self-indulgent sort of a fashion.
While the two narratives chug along happily enough under their own steam through middle America and bourgeois Britain, one can't help but notice that Rushdie's lengthy descriptions and ceaseless comparisons place an unnecessary burden on them.
Let's start with the lists. The book boasts more of them than Buzzfeed's homepage. After conjuring Sancho by snapping seven wishbones under a starry sky at 11:11pm one night, Quichotte compares himself and his new sidekick to no less than 12 dynamic duos, from Niles and Frasier to Scully and Mulder.
There are lists of insults, newspaper names, Gods of Health and the detritus of a world on the cusp of collapse. There's even a list cataloguing 42 different types of snoring, from 'the dog bark' to 'the Schoenberg.'
And on top of all that, there's Rushdie's tendency toward the encyclopaedic, which manifests here in a distracting array of references, both high and low, from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceros, to Men in Black and U2.
In other words, it's classic "more is more" writing from the man who has made the discipline his own. But despite its undeniable verbosity, there's enough here to keep the sentence skippers engaged before things really get going.
Rushdie has always been deeply embedded in contemporary culture, a novelist whose non-fiction is characterised by a serious handle on what's happening in the here and now.
And in Quichotte both Rushdies show up for work-the author of fantastical metafiction and the accomplished essayist, whose commentary on race relations, the Indian diaspora and the prevailing political culture make for welcome accompaniments to the novel's intertwined narratives.
But of all the book's subjects, it's perhaps America's opioid crisis where the line between fact and fiction, already hazy, ceases to exist.
The author couldn't have known that, on the eve of his book's release, an Oklahoma court would order Johnson & Johnson to pay a US$572.1 million fine for its role in accelerating opioid addiction in that state.
Yet towards the end of the book we discover that the fictive Dr RK Smile, Quichotte's cousin and corrupt benefactor, is under investigation for the very same crimes that the very real Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma and others stand accused of, which is to say for knowingly marketing highly addictive opioids to the masses of middle America.
Or, to put it in the terms of the Bombay street urchin that inspired Smile's business model, for creating a liquor home delivery service for alcoholics.
Of course, this is a consequence of coincidence. The coming together of the novel's two narratives on the other hand, each of which inhabits its own layer of fictional reality, is the feat of a highly accomplished author.
As the book approaches its chaotic conclusion, the stories of Quichotte and Brother begin to rapidly converge. Before Quichotte can complete his quest he must first make amends with his sister, known to us as The Human Trampoline for reasons other than you might assume.
Meanwhile in London, Brother negotiates a long overdue rapprochement with his own Sister, the terminally ill lawyer, Jack.
Things only get weirder from there before each story is resolved on its own terms. What we're left with is, in some ways, surprising.
Rushdie's book traverses some pretty ugly terrain in its consideration of broken families, unrequited love, regret and death, but it doesn't leave you longing for one of Evel Cent's (Elon Musk's?) portals to a parallel Earth in the way that, say, reading Twitter does.
On the contrary, it rekindled, in me anyway, a desire to connect with this Earth, and its inhabitants, more fully.
So, while I don't regret saddling up for Rushdie's wild ride through the Age of Anything-Can Happen, I do wish it hadn't taken so long.
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