In Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel, a student tells the knight-errant Don Quixote, “The greater the fame of the writer, the more closely his books are scrutinized.”
Such is the mixed blessing of fame for Salman Rushdie, whose new novel, “Quichotte,” is a modern-day reimagining of “Don Quixote.”
Rushdie was an advertising copywriter when he wrote a novel called “Midnight’s Children,” which won the 1981 Booker Prize and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. His fourth novel, “The Satanic Verses,” inspired the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran to issue a fatwa in 1989 calling for his assassination. In a matter of days, this writer of brilliant, magical fiction was forced into hiding and became the most famous novelist in the world — a villainous apostate to conservative Muslims, a cause célèbre to defenders of free speech and a figure of intense curiosity for millions.
In short, Rushdie’s books are now more closely scrutinized.
That’s a painful process for “Quichotte,” an alternately cerebral and goofy novel that has just been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. An homage to the wide-ranging wit and vision of Cervantes’ early 17th-century tale, “Quichotte” attempts to bring a similarly wry eye to the culture and politics of the early 21st century. So long as you can hum “The Impossible Dream,” you’ll catch the broad parallels between these two stories. Cervantes immortalized an old Spanish nobleman who goes mad from reading chivalric romances; Rushdie presents a worn-out pharmaceutical salesman from India who goes mad from watching TV.
An inability to distinguish truth from fiction is not usually a handicap for a drug company rep, but as the novel begins, Rushdie’s quixotic hero is forced into retirement. No matter. He nurses one great passion: He’s insanely obsessed with an Oprah-like talk-show star named Salma R. “He had eschewed all thoughts of love for what seemed like an eternity,” Rushdie writes, “until Miss Salma R reawakened feelings and desires in his breast which he had thought he had suppressed or even destroyed.” Freed from the encumbrances of his job, he adopts the name Quichotte, starts mailing Salma R beautifully handwritten love letters and begins driving across America in his old gunmetal gray Chevy Cruze to find her.
Adventures ensue ad absurdum.
Quichotte is “a student of the arts of wishing,” and early on his trip he imagines a longed-for son into uncertain existence. “My silly little Sancho,” he cries, “my son, my sidekick, my squire! Hutch to my Starsky, Spock to my Kirk, Scully to my Mulder, BJ to my Hawkeye, Robin to my Batman! Peele to my Key, Stimpy to my Ren, Niles to my Frasier, Arya to my Hound! Peggy to my Don, Jesse to my Walter, Tubbs to my Crockett, I love you!”
“Cut it out, ‘Dad,’ ” the imaginary young man replies. “What’s in all this for me?”
Readers will soon be asking themselves the same question. That long list of TV partners is an indication of the novel’s chronic lack of restraint. Rushdie’s style once unfurled with hypnotic elegance, but here it’s become a fire hose of brainy gags and literary allusions — tremendously clever but frequently tedious.
The animus of this chaotic novel would seem to be Rushdie’s abiding horror at the political ascension of a dissembling reality TV star. Donald Trump’s name doesn’t appear in these pages, but he’s clearly the “wholly imaginary chief executive who was obsessed by cable news, who pandered to a white supremacist base.” Trump is the subterranean crisis of “Quichotte,” the bloated embodiment of America’s conflation of fact and fantasy.
As Quichotte and Sancho drive toward New York, they offer a picaresque vision of a nation intoxicated on apocalyptic dread. Across the United States, they’re confronted by violent and racist yahoos. “You got a bad foreign look to you,” one woman seethes.
Sancho becomes the innocent conscience of the story, appraising a country boiling with suspicion and hatred. Zapping through TV channels in a cheap hotel, he hears white Americans screaming: “We are Beavis and Butt-Head on ’roids. We drink Roundup from the can. Our president looks like a Christmas ham and talks like Chucky. We’re America. … Immigrants raping our women every day. We need Space Force because Space ISIS.”
Unfortunately, “Quichotte” is such a brittle pinwheel of parody that its sharp edges never cut very deep. Much of the novel is a satire of TV stars and, by extension, the easily manipulated country that adores them. Meanwhile, racism, the opioid crisis, Brexit, gun control, immigration, assisted suicide, corporate fraud, the existence of God, sexual abuse, cyber terrorism — these issues rumble by just as fast as that old Chevy Cruze can drive. Then Jiminy Cricket pops up — yep — and another town is overrun with mastodons. A statue of Hans Christian Andersen talks. Whatever.
“It may be argued,” Rushdie interjects, “that stories should not sprawl in this way … yet so many of today’s stories are and must be of this plural, sprawling kind.” There’s some truth to this gesture toward the great novels of Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Richard Powers and, yes, Salman Rushdie, but passing off that claim here in this winking, ironic way only draws more attention to the ramshackle structure of “Quichotte.”
I barely have the heart to tell you that this modern-day take on Don Quixote is merely a story within another story. Early on, Rushdie reveals that we’re reading a manuscript being written by a middling spy novelist who wants to write “a book radically unlike any other he had ever attempted … picaresque and crazy and dangerous.” Naturally, there are parallels between Quichotte’s quest and the spy novelist’s travails, including his own lost son and his own descent into fantasy. “Perhaps,” Rushdie writes in his loudest stage whisper, “this bizarre story was a metamorphosed version of his own.”
By this point, I was hoping a windmill would fall on me.
Even as its various subplots shamble on, the novel keeps reminding us about the rising conflation of reality and fiction. Several of these characters fret about who really made them, which makes the book feel like a three-week road trip with Pirandello nattering on in the back seat with a bag of Cheetos. “The boundary between art and life became blurred and permeable,” Rushdie writes. All this is in service to the deadeningly commonplace observation that “there’s no true anymore that anyone can agree on.”
It would be easier to step over these thematic bricks thrown in our path if the novel’s characters offered any emotional substance, but by design they’re just constructs in this literary game. And so we die-hard fans of Salman Rushdie keep turning the pages, hoping for a reward commensurate to the journey.
Ron Charles is a book critic at the Washington Post.