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Rushdie Makes the Earth Move in Rock 'n' Roll Fairy Tale

July 21, 1999|ROCHELLE O'GORMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

East meets West once again in the mystical world of Salman Rushdie. In a style best described as magical realism, Rushdie paints a huge picture encompassing elements of true love, adulterous love, desire, music, mythology, political satire, historical drama, life, death, sense and nonsense.

"The Ground Beneath Her Feet" is ultimately fueled by love but empowered by Rushdie's word play and a cynical wisdom. (NewStar Media; abridged fiction; eight cassettes; 12 hours; $36; read by Christopher Cazenove.)

The story begins in 1989, the same year the Islamic ruler Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (death threat) against the author. Vina Aspara, pop diva and wife of revered musician Ormus Cama, has been swallowed up whole in a Mexican earthquake, never to be seen again. And thus we are introduced to Rushdie's main theme, that of Orpheus and Eurydice. (In the Greek myth, Orpheus was a poet who descended into Hades in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue his wife, Eurydice.)

The story moves back to the early days of Vina and Ormus and is told by Ormus' childhood friend and Vina's illicit lover, the renowned photographer Rai. A chronicler of events literally and figuratively, Rai knows the facts. He is also the only member of this rock 'n' roll triangle sane enough to sift through the fiction that always arises in the cult of personality.

As the plot moves from back story to the days after Vina's disappearance, Rushdie shifts the ground beneath our feet by playing fast and loose with reality. The Kennedy assassination was foiled by an amateur filmmaker named Zapruder, he writes. It was the Brits, not the Americans, mired in a war in Indochina, and the early days of Vina and Ormus sound like those of Elvis and Priscilla.

The three main characters share tragic, eccentric, dysfunctional families. As Rushdie reveals their lives, he paints into his vast canvas an army of minor players and globe-trotting characters who carry us from India to London to America. Occasionally he overreaches, and the sly references and historical revisionism can be a bit too cute. However, his humorous, irreverent, thought-provoking fiction falls together in the end, resulting in the ultimate millennium love story.

Narrator Cazenove does a stupendous job of capturing the wry humor, joyful optimism and despairing anguish of Rushdie's evocative characters.

He speaks with a refined English accent for most of the audio but perceptively alters his tone and accent for various characters. He coarsens his voice, thickens and Americanizes it, raises the pitch. Instead of adopting a grating falsetto or softening his delivery, the actor simply changes accent and pace for females. Cazenove is a smooth and polished narrator who speaks with perfect diction and understands the emotional content of the novel, expressing it without overwhelming it.

Music is used to underscore an occasional passage, and it brings energy to the production. It is, however, used too sparingly. After all, this is a novel about rock 'n' roll. One never wants to hear an audio overpowered with effects, but this is a case in which less was not necessarily best.

*

Rushdie excited and enthralled me with his audio, but old favorite Leon Uris sadly disappoints with latest recorded book. Though his past novels are remembered with great affection, I was immensely bored by "A God In Ruins." (Harper Audio; abridged fiction; four cassettes; six hours; $25; read by Stephen Lang).

As always, Uris folds a human drama into a political tale. The setting is America; Quinn Patrick O'Connell is a presidential front-runner on the eve of the 2008 election. The governor of Colorado, he has just learned that his birth parents were Jewish, though he was raised by a Catholic adoptive family. What does he do with this information? How will it affect the unstable race relations in America? Do we care?

The author reveals O'Connell's educational, political and romantic past. Along the way Uris preaches left-wing politics and throws in some military action and political upheaval but generally fails to light any fires. His characters never spring to life, and his writing is more bombastic and less intellectually challenging than in the past.

A huge part of the problem is the extremely choppy abridgment. Large segments of the novel are reduced to a few expository statements. We are never able to conjure up much concern for these people as they leap from one scene into the next.

Odd choices were made as to what was cut for the abridged version. For instance, a large section is devoted to a military raid in Iran conducted by O'Connell when he was a Marine. Its only purpose is to pump up the listener's adrenaline, and it is out of context with the rest of the story. It could have easily been replaced with more pertinent segments.

The story is read well by Stephen Lang, an audio veteran who can conjure up a host of accents. He is too studied sometimes, trying a bit too hard to alter his voice. Still, this is a minor complaint, especially when considering the material with which he worked.

Rochelle O'Gorman reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Dick Lochte on mystery books.

For more reviews, read Book Review

* This Sunday: Tom Miller looks at the literature of Cuba, Anita Brookner reconsiders "Madame Bovary," Edmund White reviews a new translation of "The Charterhouse of Parma" and Czeslaw Milosz reflects on writing at the end of the century.

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