Quichotte by Salman Rushdie
Published by Random House
Publication date: September 3, 2019
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction, Literary, Social Issues
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Sam DuChamp is a so-so spy novelist when he gets the idea to write a novel based on Don Quixote. Quichotte is born. He’s a 70-year-old former pharmaceutical sales rep whose life has been reduced to watching lots of television. In doing so he has fallen in love with the beautiful young star, Miss Salma R. He decides to drive across the country to be with her, guided along the way by his version of spirituality.
Such was his tenuous grasp on sanity that he had become a student of the arts of wishing; as well as wishing wells, he pursued wishing trees, wishing stones, and with more and more seriousness, wishing stars.
His journey plays out against Sam’s life in Salman Rushdie’s new novel, Quichotte. Both are steeped in drama, larger-than-life characters, and a narrative that covers as much terrain as Quichotte’s cross-country drive.
For many readers Quichotte is going to be more of a challenge than they want in their reading. The novel has two plots running concurrently—one is the story of Quichotte that Sam is writing and the other is Sam’s life itself. It’s not a spoiler to say that it becomes clear that Quichotte is a fictionalized version of Sam’s life. Both have sons –one real, one brought to life ala Pinocchio by Quichotte’s lonely heart. Their lives are fantastical even as Rushdie grounds them firmly in the real world problems that are becoming more pronounced in today’s America: virulent racism, opioid abuse, and the growing loneliness and despair of so many. All are equally depressing. It feels precious to say this, but given the constant toxic chaos caused by this president, reading it in my fiction is getting to be more than I want to deal with.
As if this wasn’t intense enough, Rushdie goes a step further. Sancho realizes that not only is he made up, but his father is as well. A character feeling the strings of the writer. The fourth wall crumbles and Quichotte, with Rushdie at the helm, goes meta. A fictional character pondering a fictional character pondering a fictional character. He uses this device throughout the novel, like a mad wizard, forcing contemplation on ideas that are challenging. For some, it’s not a positive trait, but he stretches my mind in ways other writers do not.
Rushdie is a maximalist writer. If three words are adequate to convey a thought he will use twelve to flay it open. It’s marvelous, but there’s no escaping once in. Parts of Quichotte are impenetrable, a densely packed forest of pop culture, mythology, economics, and science. There were points when I wanted to lay down my machete and give up on the book. Mastodons, talking guns, a new plague, and overgrown side stories that obscured rather than revealed. I stuck with it and as Rushdie began to tighten the net around his characters there was light amongst the trees. Once it appeared the novel moved rapidly towards an unexpected, but cohesive conclusion.
You have to be ready to fall down a rabbit hole when reading Rushdie. And to keep falling because there is no going back. But when you arrive at his destination there is always the recognition of a profound imagination at work. Within that dexterous mind, a mind that can’t be edited, is a gifted man writing about the human condition in all its humor and pathos.