In "Midnight's Children," the novel that made him famous before "The Satanic Verses" made him infamous, Salman Rushdie fixed upon an apt metaphor for his way of writing. The novel's narrator and author's alter ego, at 9, becomes a "radio," picking up the thoughts and voices of all the world around him; later, an old man, he becomes a transmitter, the storyteller broadcasting all those voices he has channeled throughout his life.
Rushdie is channeling them still — and a remarkable instrument he has proven to be, reproducing from his profound repository of history and culture and politics a polyphonic voice unlike anyone else's, although it contains multitudes. Here, those multitudes become literal, almost (it's a story — how literal could it be?), as the narrative voice framing the novel is that of an all-encompassing "we" speaking from a time a thousand years hence — give or take the two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights of "strangenesses," during which most of the action takes place.
And holy cow, what action! But wait! Two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights — which translate into 1,001 nights — are also the duration of the exile of Ibn Rushd (pronounce that), a medieval Andalusian defender of Aristotelian philosophy known to the Western world as Averroës. It is also the period of fecundity of the Lightning Queen of Peristan, or Fairyland, most powerful jinnia, who, going by the name Dunia (meaning "the world"), produces with her earthly love Ibn Rushd a "multiplicity of children" whose great-great-great-etc.-descendants figure in the War of the Worlds that the time of strangenesses precedes.
And if that makes your head spin, just wait until you meet Ibn Rushd's nemesis, the dead theologian Ghazali of Tus, whose the Incoherence of the Philosophers Ibn Rushd answers with a vain defense of reason, the Incoherence of the Incoherence, and whose own offspring "multiplied and inherited the kingdom." Thus the earthly descendants and later incarnations (Ghazali, though mere dust by now, still has a voice) of the forces of reason and unreason, with their jinn allies, fearsome creatures of darkness and light, come together in a war for what's left of a very troubled world — just about now.
Throw into the mix a gardener and sad widower called Geronimo (named Hieronymus by his prescient Indian father) who is somehow a reincarnation of Ibn Rushd, a descendant of Dunia (who assumes his dead wife's form to get at her old earthly love in his new skin) and an all-American hero when things heat up. The Bliss Estate where he gardens is called, by the lady philosopher who owns it, La Incoerenza — and whether any sort of coherence can be found in this infernal garden of earthly delights (see: Geronimo's painterly namesake) is one very big question at the whirling center of the War of the Worlds.
There are monsters who slip through wormholes, or slits between worlds; there are battles and set pieces, in Fairyland and on Earth; there are sometimes ridiculous, sometimes hilarious comic turns; stories within stories; riddles within tales within legends. And there is Salman Rushdie, manic Scheherazade, assuming all the voices, playing all the parts, making a mad kind of sense of it all. "We are still listening, after a thousand years."
Novelist Ellen Akins teaches in the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University and lives in Wisconsin.