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The week before last, Salman Rushdie visited the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue to read from and talk about his new novel Luka and the Fire of Life.  It is a sequel to the popular Haroun and the Sea of Stories, written, as its predecessor was for his first son, at the request of his second son.  Its hero is Haroun’s younger brother Luka, the second son of the famous storyteller Rashid Khalifa, who must endeavor a similar journey into the Magic World to once again help his father. These books walk and talk like children’s stories, but we should believe Rushdie when he asserts that “we are all children,” and that the appeal of these books, he hopes, is broad.

He carried himself with his usual joviality: he congratulated one overzealous fan for her question, telling her that she should publish it; on another occasion, when asked about his process, he replied, already laughing as if he couldn’t help himself, “I write left-to-right, all the way across the page, and then all the way down the page until I’m finished”; when I asked him at the signing if he could convince Thomas Pynchon to visit the Synagogue, he replied, and this was after 200-odd signatures, “You know, if I only had his phone number.” But his explanations of this book were insightful.  “It looks like it was easy,” but he assures us that “re-writing one of the oldest stories ever told–the story of man gaining fire from the gods” is arduous.

This intention is a good place to begin, analysis-wise.  Haroun appealed to young audiences because of its protagonist’s fanciful and action-packed adventure to save the Sea of Stories from pollution, in turn restoring his father’s lost yarning mojo.  It appealed to me because it was essentially a metafictionalist’s manifesto.  Nearly all the tricks were on display (to recount them would taint them; they are best encountered in their surprising and entertaining form).  Storytelling itself thus becomes the central theme of Haroun, a defense of its imaginative and restorative power.  Young audiences will similarly delight in Luka’s adventure into the Magic World to steal the Fire of Life and help the ailing Rashid.  But while the theme of Haroun was storytelling, here we deal with philosophy.  Life and death (or, as it is overtly put here, Being and un-Being) as well as issues of time (characters who literally represent the past, present and future play prominent roles in Luka’s journey) are central throughout the narrative. Again, to say more would spoil its richness.

Each book’s themes figure at times heavily and delicately, but narratively they are each driven by a paradigmatic plot structure. In each case, the young hero finds that the Magic World somehow resembles his own imagination, and the solutions to many of the problems he faces arise from his memory of these imaginings.  So, for example, Haroun becomes a character in a princess-rescue, employing tools from the stories his father had told him.   But it is the narrative paradigm that drives Luka I find extremely interesting.

We learn early on that Luka

lived in an age in which an almost infinite number of parallel realities had begun to be sold as toys. Like everyone he knew, he had grown up destroying fleets of invading rocket ships and been a little plumber on a journey through many bouncing, burning, twisted bubbling levels to rescue a prissy princess from a monster’s castle, and metamorphosed into a zooming hedgehog, and a streetfighter and a rockstar, and stood his ground undaunted in a hooded cloak while a demonic figure with stubby horns and a red-and-black face leapt around him slashing a double-ended lightsaber at his head.

Just as Haroun’s adventure is driven by his memories of Rashid’s stories, Luka’s journey resembles his beloved video games, replete with save points, bosses, accumulated lives, and increasingly vexing levels (not to mention the fantastic nature of the Magic World to begin with).  This fits the philosophical themes of time and death very nicely.  Many times Luka debates whether he actually controls the outcome of his adventure, or if it’s all been pre-programmed. Toward the end he accuses his nemesis of treating this ordeal like a game, only to be refuted with “No. It is a matter of life and death.”

Kudos to Rushdie for not shying away from video game imagery; I agree with the L.A. Times’ Jon Fasman when asserts, “Rushdie, almost alone among modern fiction writers, gives these games their narrative due.”  It’s extremely risky, but if you’re going to talk about such things as parallel universes, multiple lives, determinism and free will–in stories, let alone in life–is not the video game a reputable analog?  So, in many ways, Luka and the Fire of Life is in fact about storytelling after all.  Is it a case for the value of video games as a storytelling device for children and adolescents?  Probably not, but the video game motif–something I have not come across, at least to this extent, in fiction–nonetheless works here both as a model for plot and as a meta-commentary on the tension between determined structures and the always present freedom of an author to create the incredible.  Rushdie manages both quite nicely here.

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Brian Chappell, a DC native, is a lecturer and PhD student in English at The Catholic University of America. He focuses on postmodern and contemporary narratives, critical theory, and media studies.

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  • Anonymous December 1, 2010, 8:13 pm

    i don’t read tons of fiction–i’m surprised though that more novelists haven’t picked up on the video game trope. maybe it’s too easy to get self-referential?

  • Daniel Silliman December 2, 2010, 8:19 am

    That’s cool that Rushdie experimenting a little. Children’s story/video game/anchient story could be a good combo for him, though some of the reviews have made it sound like the book is a bit forced, a bit condescending …. I really liked Satanic Verses, read it in the parking lot of the Wal Mart during night shift lunch breaks, but haven’t been able to actually get through anything by him since then.

    In your impression, does this new book work?

  • Brian Chappell December 6, 2010, 7:36 pm

    Sorry for the tardy response, Daniel. I think it works for what he was trying to do with it, namely, write a novel for his son. I think the claim that “we are all children” isn’t really a cop-out here. Refreshing is the wrong word, but it’s in a way refreshing to step away from the micropolitics (by comparison) of postcolonialism and into the macropolitics of taking care of the environment, recognizing the importance of storytelling both within the family and within society, the role of imagination in human affairs, etc.

    By the way, loved your post on Moby-Dick. Meta-fiction, in my view, isn’t really tied to a specific time or group of writers. It’s at least as old as Tristram Shandy, and can really be traced all the way back to the Greeks and Romans, not to mention 1001 Nights and the like. In other words, its an integral aspect of fiction making, and the moral implications are important and palpable in ways beyond justifying it as a postmodern fictional practice. The move Melville makes fits the depth of Moby-Dick, and I do come away feeling bloody.

  • Brian Chappell December 6, 2010, 7:38 pm

    Perhaps – there’s always Tron: Legacy. It will be interesting, as generation Y (Z?) gets older, to see what kind of fiction they produce. We’ll see novels about (written with?) Twitter, Facebook, gaming, smart phones. William Gibson is a good place to start. Apple products and Twitter galore in his most recent novel Zero History.

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