Book Review: Two years, eight months, and twenty-eight nights

I have to say, I found myself chortling a bit to myself as I began reading this book. “Hoo, boy,” I thought, “Here we go again with the Birdman nonsense.”  By that, I refer to my disdain for a movie that I considered pretentious and undisciplined in its imagination and disguising its author’s lack of a consistent point of view with an emperor’s-clothes suit of avant garde arrogance. But I remained patient, and a third of the way through the book, I found myself somewhat smitten. By the end, I determined I generally enjoyed the bumpy magic-carpet ride in spite of an inability to avoid periodic snickers at descriptions or events that barely rose above the cartoonish.

The central action of the book stems from an imaginary war involving the human race and a race of comparative super-beings called jinn.  In interweaving the two sets of beings, Rushdie produces imagery that blends elements of nearly every fantasy medium you can think of. It becomes a blend of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Harry Potter, ancient Greek mythology, ancient Arab mythology, The Lord of the Rings, the Book of Revelations, 1001 Nights (from which Rushdie takes his own title for the book), Seth Rogan’s The End of the World, Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure and, well, you name a fantasy tradition and you’ll probably find elements of it in this story.  The problem I have with this format is that it gives the author free reign to let absolutely anything that washes across his mind come to pass, and an awful lot of things cross Rushdie’s mind.  Fish sing, weapons are turned into carrots, characters slow and speed time to suit the needs of the moment, creatures that are supposedly nearly impossible to kill die with stunning frequency – one of them, significantly, by succumbing to the “poison” in a box full of stories..  In such circumstances, plots don’t twist so much as flail in the wind. It is very hard for a reader to become emotionally or intellectually engaged, because there seems little reason to hope for or expect or envision any particular outcome since literally any particular outcome may come to pass at any given moment.

There is at the core of the book an apparent attempt to set up a conflict between reason and dogma. And it’s when I dwell on the elements of that theme portrayed in the book that I find myself most satisfied.  At some moments, Rushdie evokes it with particular grace, such as when he conjures a conversation between a long-dead philosopher named Ibn Rushd and a theologian named al-Ghazali and later in an epilogue when the narrator, presumably writing a thousand years from now, reflects on the comparative characteristics of the two realms of idea.

The progress of the plot is not always as satisfying. Even accounting for the willing suspension of disbelief that any fantasy requires, the occurrences in Two Years … can be alternatingly convoluted and cliche. Beginning with a detailed description of the jinn and the jinn world, Rushdie’s narrator moves into the story of a jinnia princess who falls in a sort of sex-obsessed love with Rushd around the Earth year 1000, and begins producing litters of mixed-race children who upon Rushd’s return to favor at court and his shortly subsequent death are left to spray out over the planet and surreptitiously integrate with humans. They do this so effectively that over the course of the next 1001 years, the existence of the jinn side of their nature is entirely obscured.  Mourning the loss of her lover and fearing for her children, the jinnia princess, Dunia, exploits worm holes that connect the jinn and human universes to return to Earth and attempt to round up the descendants of her brood. In the process, she seduces a “great, great, great, great, great, grandson, give or take a few greats,” a gardener who himself is suffering from a condition brought on during the “period of strangenesses” in which he is raised a few feet off the ground and generally required to float through the world.  His love affair with Dunia mysteriously cures his condition, but somehow, he has transmitted it to others and it becomes an epidemic in a chaotic time when supposed magic runs rampant and in a tenuously related sequence, a mysterious war breaks out involving four evil “dark jinn” who do battle both with each other and eventually Dunia.  Dunia is seen at the end of the book as something of a heroic figure for the human race, though it is never quite clear whether she takes up these battles out of love for her children, love for the gardener or revenge for the murder of her father.

It takes a good third of the book before one is invested in any of the characters and nearly two-thirds before he realizes the distinct role that given characters have to play in the ultimate climax of the story.  This is not necessarily a bad thing; indeed, I got very pleasurable “Oh, I get it” moments when later in the book the relevance of various individuals, even main characters, to the tapestry of the story suddenly became clear.  But the net effect by the end of the book was that I found I rather enjoyed the story, despite considering it more often silly than serious and its conclusions about human nature, terrorism, religion and science pedestrian and not very poetically evoked.  Thankfully, Two years …  ultimately lacks the pretentious ambiguity of Bird Man, and that was a saving grace that enabled me to rise above the many weak links of Rushdie’s story and appreciate its wild inventiveness as I might a macabre Disney cartoon.