One of literature’s most durable figures made his entrance about four centuries ago, and has never left the stage. In fact, a Don Quixote-like figure gets a new continent and a new mission in Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, “Quichotte.” It’s a tale of a picaresque road trip by a broken-down, out-of-work pharmaceutical salesman and his Sancho sidekick, to win the heart of one of the most glamorous women in America -- with side trips into our heart of darkness of opioids, racist rednecks and reality TV. We spoke in front of an audience at Writers Bloc in Santa Monica, where Rushdie also assessed what should and shouldn’t be in the great Los Angeles novel, and why he probably won’t be the one writing it.
Take us through the manifold layers of America today; what was it about that novel in that form that was so appealing?
I actually had this idea that I might write a nonfiction book about traveling across America where I would just rent a car and go and see what happened, which is a thing I first thought of like when I was 66; I thought I might drive down Route 66.
Then I asked my then-19-year-old, now 22-year-old younger son, I said, ‘Do you want to go with me?’ Because I thought it might be interesting to have a younger generation’s view of whatever we found.
And he said yeah, he’d go. And then after a kind of comic pause, he said, ‘Dad, are you going to drive?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, because I’d been driving since before you were born.’
He said, ‘No, I don’t think you should drive.’ So then I said essentially, ‘You’re fired.’ At that moment I thought, I’d really prefer to make it up. I’d prefer not to be confined by what really happens; I’d prefer to be able to imagine this odyssey.
It does very much fit in the American mythology – the questing American.
Yeah, and the road. The road is such a thing in not just American literature but the movies: everything from “Lolita” to “Easy Rider” via Jack Kerouac and Cormac McCarthy. The road is such an ancient metaphor for life that it’s actually older than the novel. This idea that as you go down life’s road, things happen to you and you strive to be better. And you have some kind of goal, some kind of grail in mind.
My two variations on Quixote and Sancho showed up in my head, and what interested me is they weren’t like Quixote and Sancho. My guy from the very beginning, from his name [Ismail Smile], he wanted to be cheerful. He wanted to be courtly, with old-school excellent manners with very good handwriting.
And he was hopeful and optimistic and he falls in love with this woman on television who is a superstar, and, as they say, way out of his league. But that doesn’t stop him thinking that “she will be mine,” and he embarks on this absurd fool’s quest across America to prove himself worthy of her hand.
My Sancho is this imaginary child that this Quichotte dreams into being because, being mad, he thinks that you can bring a child into being by literally wishing on a star. And the teenage child he wants manifests himself in the passenger seat of his Chevy Cruze.
The moment I thought of them I realized that, OK, now I have a story which is not just an imitation of the original but inspired by the original, yes. But it’s my road; it’s not that road.
On this quest, even though you have a cheerful Quichotte, what they encounter is grim. He’s working for his cousin who sells opioids. He encounters an awful, racist incident – and always with this dazzling sense of making it through this landscape of America, which includes even a talking handgun.
There’s a moment later on in the book when all sorts of things begin to talk to Quichotte as a kind of indication of his state of mind: He’s not all there. There’s a point where the newscaster on TV starts giving him the news personally, the news about him. And then the gun starts talking to him and urging him to use it, saying that this is your route to immortality. In a kind of Mark David Chapman kind of way.
[Then] I thought if you have two ethnically Indian American brown-skinned men traveling through the heartland of America at this moment in the history of America, it would be difficult for them to encounter no hostility at all. I didn’t want the book just to be a kind of diatribe about racism. But I also thought I can’t avoid the fact that they’re going to come across people who react poorly to them.
There’s three incidents in the book where something of that sort happens, and they’re not all threatening; one of them is just abusive, and one of them is actually quite physically threatening. But I thought, this is also a part of the America that I’m writing about. So it has to be a part of the story.
Did your sense of this country change as you wrote this book as you decided where to take him on his quest?
No, no. I’ve been living in America for 20 years but I’ve been coming here all my life. So it’s not alien ground to me. Of course it is changing; it has changed. And I wanted to acknowledge that, and just say, OK, there is this this stuff that has been let out of the bag, this stuff that has been given permission to be explicit. Instead of hiding under a rock, which it was for a while. I don’t think it ever went away but it was hiding under a rock.
The buy-in for the reader is Quichotte’s sense of reality and unreality; what’s called reality television is nothing whatsoever like reality.
It’s completely manipulated television. It’s not at all reality.
I think anybody who’s been on TV at all sometimes has the experience that people think they met you whereas actually they’ve just seen you on TV. And you say, sir, we’ve never met. That’s something I said on television. And sometimes they insist, no no, no, no, we were talking. I think it’s something to do with the TV being in your home.
Well, David Frost said television is a means of allowing into your bedroom people you would never let in your home.
In the larger message here, you write about technology being so fearsome -- “the monster the Internet came to be,” “the smartphone that rules the mob,” “TV ruined America’s thinking processes.”
The book has sort of comic fun with reality television, and bachelors and bachelorettes and all that, which I had to watch a lot of.
You’ll never get that time back, you know.
I could see as I was doing it that I was right about the character, that you do that for long enough, and you lose your mind. But what I thought is a serious thing underneath the fun is not only about television. It’s also about its ugly sister, the internet, and also about the world we live in. If you live in a world in which everybody is blurring the distinction between truth and lies, whether it’s politicians or people with websites or television programs or whatever it might be.…
So Quichotte is like an exaggeration of what might be all of us. He has that little bit of an everyman quality, but pushed. When I had the great fun of spending two days with Larry David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” he said about his character, it’s like me but it’s pushed way out there.
That’s sort of where my Quichotte operates. He’s like all of us but pushed to a point of comedy but it’s also tragedy.
The structure of this book turns out to be a kind of a Russian doll: There are shells and frames within frames.
And it was completely an accident. I had not planned it. The second story line just literally just showed up one day. I found myself writing about the writer who, I discovered, is the author of the other story line.
This writer is like a second-rate spy novelist, never been very successful, who decides to try his hand at something different. So he starts writing this Quichotte story.
But he becomes aware that in a way, he is writing the most personal thing he’s ever written, and that this story that he’s making up actually deals with all the problems of his own life.
I’ve always disapproved of stories, of fiction writers who write books about writers who are writing books about writers. I just started exploring it, going down that path. And then I found that these two stories were not just mirroring each other but in a way kind of illuminating each other, that something happening in one story made you understand better something happening in the other story line. And gradually they come closer and closer together.
On page 381, the story takes a turn to California. We know L.A. is the new center of the United States and it’s the capital of the Pacific Rim. Apart from Hollywood, what are the quintessential L.A. stories? We’ve read your New York stories, we’ve read your Mumbai stories. Where would you put the Los Angeles novel?
Well, this might not be my novel to write, you know.
The bit of California that’s in the novel is not Los Angeles. It’s farther north.
But anyway, no. The trouble with L.A. is that there’s a banality about the movies. I don’t want to write about the movies. Everybody writes about movies, and everybody writes the same book about the movies.
Years ago, there was a period I spent quite a lot of time here, and what I thought was that if you forget about Hollywood, this is a really interesting city.
I’m interested for obvious reasons in immigrant communities. And this is also a great immigrant city, but it’s a completely different group of immigrants than the ones in New York. So I got very interested in that, in discovering that Los Angeles.
I knew a woman who was working on the first election campaign of Mayor [Antonio] Villaraigosa. And I followed them around for a while. That was really, really interesting, because that took me into an L.A. which had nothing to do with the Hollywood side.
I thought, OK, if I were ever to write about it, I would write about this, in which no movie star would ever appear, nor would Beverly Hills.
I’ve had three cities in my life that have really engaged me and that I’ve spent my life thinking about and writing about, which are Bombay, London and New York. That may be enough cities.
The last time we talked, you spoke of becoming a U.S. citizen just before the 2016 election. Are you sorry?
I voted. That went well.
About two days after the election, when there were protests and things outside the building which most people called Trump Tower and which I called Mordor, I went into the protest and they had posters and fists and things that people at demonstrations have.
At a certain point I said, ‘I’m presuming you all voted.’ And at that point there was a shifting of feet, the sort of embarrassed body language, and it turned out that of the 12 or so people that I’d been talking to, only two had voted, and one of them had voted for Jill Stein.
And I got cross. I said to them, ‘Look, what are you doing here?’ I said, ‘If you chose not to be a part of this decision how can you be upset about the decision that was made? You have no right to be upset.’ I said, ‘The protest happened last Tuesday [election day]. And you didn’t show up that day.’ Then they didn’t want to talk to me any more.
But it made me think that the non-voting percentages in this country are higher than in any other Western democracy. And that’s why things like this become possible. If that happens, then Trump can happen.
We have another shot next year, and it’s actually possible that it’s possible to reverse it. I hear myself saying this and there’s a voice in my head saying, stupid optimist. I think there’s something of me in Quichotte, this kind of refusal to abandon hope, a refusal to give up on optimism, in the way that Larry David was saying about his character. I think he’s like an enormously exaggerated version of me in that optimism.