Madness at the turn of the millennium: Salman Rushdie’s ‘Fury’ chronicles a disaffected writer’s experiences in New York and abroad

February 6, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 6, 2017

New York City at the turn of the millennium, writer Salman Rushdie not unreasonably posited in his 2001 novel Fury, was full of motion and spectacle. The opening paragraph gets right to business:

Professor Malik Solanka, retired historian of ideas, irascible dollmaker, and since his recent fifty-fifth birthday celibate and solitary by his own (much criticized) choice, in his silvered years found himself living in a gold age. Outside his window a long, humid summer, the first hot season of the third millennium, baked and perspired. The city boiled with money. Rents and property values had never been higher, and in the garment industry it was widely held that fashion had never been so fashionable. New restaurants opened every hour. Stores, dealerships, galleries struggled to satisfy the skyrocketing demand for ever more recherché produce: limited-edition olive oils, three-hundred-dollar corkscrews, customized Humvees, the latest anti-virus software, escort services featuring contortionists and twins, video installations, outsider art, featherlight shawls made from the chin-fluff of extinct mountain goats. So many people were doing up their apartments that supplies of high-grade fixtures and fittings were at a premium. There were waiting lists for baths, doorknobs, imported hardwoods, antiqued fireplaces, bidets, marble slabs. In spite of the recent falls in the value of the Nasdaq index and the value of Amazon stock, the new technology had the city by the ears: the talk was still of start-ups, IPOs, interactivity, the unimaginable future that had just begun to begin. The future was a casino, and everyone was gambling, and everyone expected to win.

The opening is somewhat misleading, however. Although Fury immediately and vividly captures the frenzy that was New York circa 1998–2001, the novel is quite coy about revealing many of the details of the life of its protagonist. This is, of course, an intentional choice by Rushdie: Solanka has deliberately suppressed major episodes from his childhood, to the point where repressed trauma threatens to destroy his entire life. Moreover, the character suffers repeated blackouts, prompting him to wonder whether he may have committed a series of vicious fatal assaults on wealthy young women that command the full attention of the tabloids.

The first paragraph is misleading in another way. Yes, Fury captures the zeitgeist turn-of-the-century New York City. But even though the commodification of the Internet plays a key role in the plot, the novel turns out to revolve more around the peculiar arc traced by Solanka and his family and lovers than it does the city and its cultural, financial and political turmoil.

The story is rather shapeless for quite a while: We find Solanka, who has recently and wordlessly left his wife and young child behind in England, wandering around Manhattan, arguing with some of his neighbors and with the housekeeper and plumber who attend to his Upper West Side sublet. In between episodes, the narrative skips back in time to retrace various parts of Solanka’s history. We learn about the protagonist’s late friend Dub-Dub, Solanka’s disastrous first marriage; Solanka’s current best friend Jack Rhinehart, a journalist now chronicling the lives of the wealthy and famous; the sordid details of the Concrete Killer murders, and of his victims’ gilded lives; and Solanka’s outrageously successful commercial venture as creator of “Little Brain: first a doll, later a puppet, then an animated cartoon, and afterward an actress, or, at various other times, a talk-show host, gymnast, ballerina, or supermodel, in a Little Brain outfit.”

Eventually Rushdie loops most of these elements into the emerging plot. One of Solanka’s neighbors, Mila Milo, views Little Brain as a role model and intellectual idol. (Solanka’s creation, in some of her various television incarnations, had explored realms of philosophy and academia.) Rhinehart’s new girlfriend, the stunningly beautiful documentarian Neela, confesses concern about Jack’s potentially unseemly involvement with some of his subjects. Solanka becomes romantically involved with the two women, both of whom are very beautiful and decades younger.

Solanka also launches a successful new website with Mila and her band of innovative young programmers that chronicles a war between robots and humans on the far-flung planet Galileo-1. This business and creative initiative bleeds over into Solanka’s relationships with Mila and Neela in unanticipated ways.

Since many of the characters and details of Galileo-1 are inspired by details from Solanka’s personal history, or by stories he’s absorbed from his forays around Manhattan, the novel takes on something of a recursive flavor. Galileo-1’s sudden global popularity prompts revolutionaries in Neela’s beloved home of Lilliput-Blefuscu to conceal their identities behind masks of its characters. (The island-nation’s name comes from Jonathan Swift; its political turmoil, I presume, is modeled at least in part after that of East Timor.) When, late in the book, Solanka travels to Lilliput-Blefuscu on a mission of mercy, he finds Neela wearing a false visage that is an imitation of her own face.

The bleedover is entirely apt, for a number of the details of Fury mimic those of its author’s life. Born in India, Rushdie was educated in England and married multiple times. Like Solanka, he was in his 50s when he abruptly left England for New York, leaving behind his book-editor wife and their young son, and like Solanka, he became involved with a series of younger women in America, including Padma Lakshmi, an Indian-born model who (this last part does not parallel the novel) later achieved fame through Top Chef.

After Solanka’s misadventures in Lilliput-Blefuscu, which show in part how the enlightenment promised by expanding democracy and capitalism never quite comes to fruition in colonial realms, Fury ends on an intimate note. By the novel’s conclusion, Solanka has helped changed the world, but not by design, nor in ways that he would have wanted. He has survived but not entirely emerged from a bout with madness. In this way, this enjoyable and occasionally rather fantastical work of fiction seems rather realistic.

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