Superheroes in a Time of Terror: Rushdie’s 1001 Nights
By Andrew LanhamOctober 7, 2015
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie
IN SALMAN RUSHDIE’S NEW NOVEL, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, the graphic novelist Jimmy Kapoor, a second-generation Indian-American from present-day Queens, invents a superhero named Natraj Hero, a rewriting of the Hindu god Shiva who can destroy his enemies simply by dancing. Jimmy works at his uncle’s accountancy office during the day, but he posts his “Frank Milleresque” comics of Natraj Hero online, hoping to get picked up by Marvel or DC. He has no such luck. Instead, Natraj Hero comes to life, emerging in the flesh out of a wormhole that opens up in Jimmy’s bedroom.
Unlike in Jimmy’s comics, though, this Natraj Hero is no superhero. He threatens to burn down the house where Jimmy still lives with his mother (there’s a reason Jimmy can’t get a girlfriend), and he turns out to be the Big Bad in a cosmic battle that’s just begun between our world and the faerie world of the jinn. These jinn are angry — no sign of Robin Williams’ Disney Genie here — immensely powerful, and expansively, inventively, lushly violent. They murder, rape, and pillage their way across the planet. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is an oral history, ostensibly recorded a thousand years from the present, of the magical war between humans and their brutal, chaotic, sex-addicted genie foes. (More on the sex addiction in a second.)
The novel is a retelling of the Arabian Nights — two years eight months and twenty-eight nights adds up to 1,001 nights — that turns the early 20th century into a fractured fairytale. Rushdie blends comic books, Hollywood and Bollywood film, philosophy, fantasy, science fiction, and the kind of zany postmodern collage of international characters for which he is famous in order to tackle religion, climate change, global finance, American immigration, and the so-called War on Terror. The novel goes meta a couple times, describing life and truth itself as a tangle of interconnected stories we tell ourselves to make sense of what we perceive.
Rushdie is an intellectual writer, and Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is a novel of ideas that touches on ancient Greek philosophy, medieval Islamic theology and philosophy, and the pessimism of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Camus. But it’s also an outrageous, sometimes rollicking (though sometimes sluggish) story about how strange and disorienting life can be today. Jimmy’s mother, for instance, raises a herd of emus in her back yard, while Jimmy’s cousin Nirmal works so hard to contort himself into what he imagines to be mainstream America that he changes his name to Normal.
Then there’s the magic. Humans get cursed to float above the ground, unable to land, and they have to figure out how to use toilets without causing too big of a splash. And Rushdie gleefully reports, almost every time he mentions the jinn, just how frequently and promiscuously they like to have sex. When the violent male jinn invade the earth, the good female jinn launch a sex boycott in protest, but they’re too horny to keep it going and eventually sell out their politics for sex with the male genies. Later, an evil jinn overlord gets assassinated in the middle of an orgy, as he shapeshifts so that he can make love in the body of a lion and then a whale.
In novels like The Stranger, Camus popularized the idea that life is absurd, filled with unjustifiable suffering. Rushdie takes up the banner of the absurd, too, calling our attention to the suffering, large and small, of women abused by theocratic regimes, prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, or the daily struggle to fit in faced by immigrants like Normal Nirmal. But Rushdie’s version of the absurd is infinitely more ludic than Camus ever dreamed of. Comics, in Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, aren’t just superhero stories Jimmy Kapoor draws for the internet. Comically absurd is how Rushdie wants us to see the politics and the pain of our globalized world.
The war between humans and jinn begins during a giant storm in New York City, a mirror of Hurricane Sandy. Except the lightning in this storm gives people super powers.
The novel’s conceit is that a jinni princess named Dunia mated with Ibn Rushd, the Islamic philosopher and popularizer of Aristotle known to the West as Averroes, back in 12th-century Spain. Their part-jinn, part-human descendants, the Rushdi (get it?), have since spread across the world. When the storm hits New York sometime around 2011 and weakens the barriers between earth and the jinn’s dimension, Dunia’s heirs access their jinn inheritance and activate their magical powers.
As in Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Midnight’s Children, these powers are far from the standard superhero kit. A baby girl infects everyone who tells lies in her vicinity with a flesh-eating disease that rots their still-living skin. An aging gardener on Long Island can bring back to life the Bombay neighborhood he left as a young man to come to America, but it’s too melancholy for him to enjoy. Jimmy Kapoor learns how to turn park benches into farts.
On the other hand, the part-jinn humans can also shoot lightning out of their fingertips. They use their electro-powers to blast the invading forces of the evil jinn. The tabloids tell the story of one lightning-wielding woman as “The Empress Strikes Back.” Rushdie writes that “things had reached a point at which only science fiction gave people a way of getting a handle on what the formerly real world’s non-CGI mundanity seemed incapable of making comprehensible.”
Rushdie indeed consistently puts an SF spin on the slipperiest contemporary problems, as if only outrageously unrealistic fiction can compete with and make sense of the nonfictional universe. New Yorkers wonder if the magical baby who detects lies poses a serious danger, “because it was important not to shy away from unpleasant possibilities in the time of the war on terror.” The jinn build their home base for conquering the earth in a repressive caliphate they establish in a nation called A., which sounds a lot like Taliban-era Afghanistan and the Islamic State today. Xenophobic Americans worry that immigrants from South Asia brought the disease of levitating into the country. (Please don’t tell Donald Trump.) And crazy weather patterns we might associate with global warming, like blizzards in Georgia, turn out to be the work of jinn. (Again, please don’t mention this theory to any Republican presidential candidates.)
Rushdie is often associated with magical realism, a type of fiction, mostly from Latin America, that depicts the fantastic, like flying carpets, as mundane, and the mundane, like brutal dictators, as magical. Channeling the Hollywood zeitgeist, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is more like comics realism, using the science fiction of graphic novels like Watchmen to comprehend what should be the fantastical, impossible situation in which we, today, are literally changing the weather itself.
The way Rushdie explains the real world through SF and fantasy will be familiar to anyone who’s read Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, another story about a nerd obsessed with genre fiction who can’t get a girlfriend or convince anyone to publish his fantasy novel. Jimmy Kapoor is Oscar Wao with super powers.
In Oscar Wao, Yunior, the novel’s playboy-slash-sci-fi-nerd narrator, describes Rafael Trujillo, the rapacious dictator of the Dominican Republic, as “our Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator, a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up.” Díaz uses Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Fantastic Four, Watchmen, and Akira throughout the novel to portray how devastatingly violent Trujillo’s domination of the DR was.
But Díaz also depicts the Dominican Republic through 9/11 and the American-led War on Terror. (Both Oscar Wao and Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights came out right before the anniversary of September 11.) On the first page of Oscar Wao, Yunior calls the Dominican Republic “Ground Zero,” and he mocks Americans who don’t know that the U.S. invaded the DR twice, in 1916 and 1965. “Santo Domingo was Iraq before Iraq was Iraq,” Yunior says. “Don’t worry, when you have kids they won’t know the U.S. occupied Iraq either.”
Oscar Wao is part of a larger trend of post-9/11 novels like Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. But even as Díaz subtly depicts the traumas of the 9/11 attacks in New York, he also directs our attention to Latin America, and he has said that he wants to remind readers about the U.S.-backed coup against the democratically elected president of Chile on September 11, 1973. Like the multiverses that Marvel, DC, and Lucasfilm have invented so that they can reboot their bestselling storylines in a parallel universe, Díaz mobilizes the fictional techniques of comic books, but he does so to draw powerful political parallels between American invasions of the Middle East and Latin America.
Rushdie and Díaz, of course, aren’t the only ones to depict the War on Terror through comics and SF. Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, and just about every installment in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe delight in having aliens — or, in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, a vaguely Middle-Eastern terrorist — blow up big buildings. Stark Tower in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is the most obvious of many filmic stand-ins for the World Trade Center, while the covert and covertly villainous spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, with its digital eavesdropping and drone warships, screams out its relevance to NSA surveillance.
These movies all pretty much slap a comic book parallel onto contemporary events and say, there, see, it makes sense now. Nolan, Snyder, and the upcoming Batman v. Superman movie draw their plots and tone directly from Cold War-era comics and 1980s graphic novels like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, in which Superman stops a Soviet nuclear attack. If only the Middle East were as ideologically and politically coherent as the USSR or General Zod, these DC movies seem to opine. The moral universe of Marvel’s sprawling film franchise similarly revolves around Captain America and his 1940s values, trying to import Cap’s anti-Nazi heroism wholesale — he punched Hitler in the jaw in his first issue in 1941 — in order to figure out how to out-America the terrorists today.
When Tony Stark makes fun of Captain America’s old-fashioned prudishness in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Marvel at least gestures at the difficulty of applying 1940s mindsets to the modern digital age. So they’re doing better than the all-too-easy equation of the War on Terror with a World War II–style “Axis of Evil,” an equation in which Iraq was the reincarnation of the Third Reich. It’s as if pop culture and the politicians both are stuck fighting a redundant war — a war we already won decades ago, under fundamentally different conditions — as though they can only ever see terrorists as Nazis or Soviets, as though we get to beat up Rommel and out-maneuver Kruschev all over again.
What sets Rushdie and Díaz apart is their ability to say something new and different through their references to comic books. Instead of facilely pasting World War II or the Cold War onto the War on Terror, Rushdie and Díaz trace complicated lines of influence and affiliation between history, fact, and fiction.
Díaz retrofits the World War allegory of The Lord of the Rings to show how dictatorships, with their secret police and torture chambers, feel like the work of malevolent magic. He explains one form of brutality by alluding to another. Díaz’s protest against the invasion of Iraq isn’t so much a piece of anti-war writing as other-war writing: he points us to other acts of violence in order to criticize the twice-doubled invasions of Iraq and the Dominican Republic. Díaz weaves together a massive historical web of fictional and nonfictional events so that he can give voice to the myriad victims of American adventurism abroad.
In Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Rushdie, similarly, says that repressive, murderous, misogynistic theocracies like ISIS couldn’t be any more evil if they were the work of chaotic genies invading from another dimension. He gives climate change a spectacular supernatural origin so that he can depict Americans choosing to ignore it anyway. If Oscar Wao is an other-war novel, Rushdie’s is an other-world one. He establishes something like retroactive continuity — retcon, for the comics fans — between the real and the fantastic in order to reflect on the comic, if often also tragic absurdity of the things we do.
Midway through Rushdie’s new novel, the evil jinn conquer and curse most of the planet. Millions die, and millions more can’t reach the toilet. Then Dunia returns to earth from her jinn dimension and leads her lightning-wielding great-great-great-etc.-grandchildren into battle. Jimmy Kapoor gets in touch with his inner half-jinn superhero, hulks out, and becomes Natraj Hero. I won’t tell you how the war turns out, though suffice to say it’s as whacky as the novel’s premise (and the orgy-assassination scene), and there’s a lot of violence.
But Rushdie refuses to linger on the gory details of death. “There is no need to make a comprehensive catalogue of horrors,” the narrator, who lives in a pacifist society 1,000 years after the war, declares. Rushdie wants to remind us how much suffering surrounds us, how much suffering we cause, intentionally or not. But unlike Michael Bay, Rushdie doesn’t think our primary aesthetic pleasure lies in watching the destruction unfold again and again and again. He thinks we take delight in the nuances and surprises of storytelling itself.
Rushdie also avoids any simple answers to the challenges we face. Or rather, he gives such an impossibly simple answer, magic, that other simple answers pulled from comic books (or Jack Bauer on 24) look as empty and misfit for the modern world as they are. Rushdie’s fantasia in Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights might lack the full power, coherence, and sheer entertainment value of Midnight’s Children or his other mock-Arabian Nights novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. But as in those novels, Rushdie asks us not to trust easy solutions, because no story is as straightforward as it appears, and he shows how central fables are to the way we pragmatically muddle through a world that’s always bigger than we can know.
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