Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie
At a cursory glance, it has always seemed like there were multiple Salman Rushdies. First and foremost, there’s the genius behind novels like The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children, the historically-minded magical realist capable of effortlessly synthesizing fact with fable. In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie for the ‘sacrilegious’ Satanic Verses, which resulted in the author being placed under police protection for nearly a decade. During this time, Rushdie made his first attempts at writing lighter fare and published the wonderful Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which introduced the world to a playful, children’s-lit Rushdie, to a father ready to run with any embarrassing pun or goofy bit of banter if it might by chance delight his audience. Then, there’s Rushdie the mortal: ex-husband of a Bravo host, film-cameo Rushdie, the man who, with a mischievous smile, will deadpan a pornographic non sequitor to introduce his friend Martin Amis at a book reading (as this reviewer had the pleasure to once witness).
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is, finally, a book that represents all of Salman Rushdie. At once highbrow as it is lowbrow, it is an inspiring and unapologetic blitz through The Arabian Nights by way of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Rushdie introduces the novel with a quote from Italo Calvino that brazenly shows his hand: “Instead of making myself write the book I ought to write, the novel that was expected of me, I conjured up the book I myself would have liked to read…” Perhaps after Joseph Anton, the fatwa-focused memoir we’d all been expecting, it’s time for Rushdie to have fun and be himself.
Executed in long, meandering sentences with ancient-sounding syntax, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights tells the story of a mortal scholar named Ibn Rushd who procreates with Dunia, a jinni princess. The novel episodically follows Dunia and Ibn Rushd’s present-day descendants in New York City, during a period of strange happenings and unsolved mysteries surrounding lightning strikes, electrical storms and other seemingly magical occurrences.
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights reads as if Borges penned an episode of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time: the book teems with moments of brilliance and radiant erudition and is full of metaphorical digressions about fate, creativity, language and life, but for every genius conversation across the ether, such as those that take place (literally) between the tombs of two dead philosophers, something incongruously childish will develop, seemingly in an effort to counterbalance the novel with levity. A discussion on the competitiveness of the ancient, ageless dark jinn will end with an Ifrit bellowing “I am Awesome. I am Zabardast,” or, in another scene, “Ba-boom ka-boom…prepare to meet thy doom doo-doom!” But elsewhere in the novel, Rushdie dissects, with stunning clarity, the very core of storytelling and how we live through our narratives:
“We were all trapped in stories… each of us the prisoner of our own solipsistic narrative, each family the captive of the family story, each community locked within its own tale of itself, each people the victims of their own versions of history, and there were parts of the world where the narratives collided and went to war, where there were two or more incompatible stories fighting for space on, so to speak, the same page.”
It’s confounding to think such a staggeringly beautiful idea shares a book with that idea come to life: Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Days devolves, as the Grand Ifrits destroy Manhattan, into a literal War of the Worlds between our realm and Fairyland, the land of Dunia the Lightning Princess.
The book is an exhilarating, complicated mess. In one digression about a shape-shifting dark jinni, Rushdie effortlessly traces its mythic roots across a wingspan of histories and geographies, circling around the morphic Greek sorcerer Proteus. Learning of Proteus towards the end of a constantly shifting novel should delight readers with a new word to describe what it is they’ve been experiencing; the novel is positively protean, but are we supposed to look at the book anew, as if the text itself is some kind of dark sorcery? And maybe consider that Ibn Rushd, the mortal father of Dunia the Lightning Princess’s highly conductive tribe of offspring, may hold the capacity for some kind of cosmic, genie-like magic? And seeing the typographic link between Ibn Rushd and our very same author, should we consider writing, story-telling, soothsaying, whatever you wish to call it, as a sort uncontrollable wizardry?
Yes, perhaps, but not so fast. Rushdie fills his novel with these kinds of ideas — ones to race towards with an open, expanding mind — but diffuses them as fast as they are introduced. He consistently chooses not to land his backflips, but to keep spinning; Rushdie certainly could, he’s clearly a capable writer, but he’s much more interested in barreling on to the next idea than fully realizing what’s in front of him. As engaging as it is exhausting, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Days feels like Rushdie’s been awake for a thousand and one nights straight, and, with a final, manic bolt, is attempting to share with you every idea he’s ever had.