Late in Salman Rushdie's new novel and deep into an account of a literal war between the worlds of reason and irrationalism in which one fantastic and unfamiliar thing after another transpires on Earth, the author calls upon a stranger-than-fiction South Florida incident to illustrate just how horrific this war has become. Right there on page 240 of Rushdie's relatively slim "Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights" is a reference to the 2012 attack in which a man chewed off the face of another on the MacArthur Causeway. The allusion, one part of a long, disturbing sentence stocked with a series of nightmares, reimagines the attacker as a group of parasitic, cannibal genies who have taken to "eating people's faces in Miami, Florida."
"I do think Miami has its share of national craziness," Rushdie says with a laugh when asked about the reference on a recent Monday morning. "Eating people's faces was a striking moment. I guess I have a sort of magpie mind, like many novelists. All kinds of bits and pieces of information lodge in there and then some of them come out. Yes, I think he made his impression on me."
No doubt, the book has its own share of craziness. Rushdie's 12th novel and 17th book, "Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights" is narrated by an unnamed "we" some thousand years in the future, long after the end of a war between humans and jinn, supernatural beings who inhabit an unseen "upper world" known alternately as Peristan and Fairyland. As manifold wonders and atrocities play out across the globe and between the two worlds for 1,001 nights (yes, allusions in this book are also many), the remains of two real-life, 12th century thinkers — the Spanish-Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd and the Persian mystic Ghazali of Tus — debate from their graves reason and faith, science versus superstition and the existence of God.
Anyone even remotely familiar with Rushdie and his work knows on which side of this debate the author falls, and readers of the new novel will find him having great fun with the subject matter. But this being a Rushdie novel, "Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights" is far from a simplistic, anti-religion polemic. Rushdie, 68, is concerned not with rehashing a debate that's nearly as old as humanity itself, but with what a world free of irrational belief — free of storytelling — would look like, and whether or not we should desire to live in it. He'll read from and sign the book Sept. 18 on the Wolfson Campus of Miami Dade College.
"I wanted to make it clear that the opposition between the rational and the irrational was not just a simple good-bad thing," he says, "that the irrational contains many elements, such as imagination, make-believe, fancy, dreams, nightmares, which are actually very valuable to human beings. So you can't simply say that a world of pure reason would be a better world. … I didn't want it to be a simply dualistic opposition. I wanted to suggest that it's messier than that.
"[A] world of pure reason would be the Planet Vulcan, wouldn't it?" he adds. "You would be stuck with a bunch of people like Spock's family, and that would not be exactly perfect."
Published on Sept. 8, "Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights" arrives three years after "Joseph Anton," a 600-plus page memoir about the near decade Rushdie spent fighting a death sentence issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Iranian leader claimed Rushdie's 1988 novel, "The Satanic Verses," blasphemed Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and the Koran. He reportedly never even saw a copy of the book.
Rushdie, who has lived in New York for 16 years, says publishing "Joseph Anton" relieved him of a great pressure and left him with an urgent need to return to the world of fiction. "It did feel like putting down a large weight that I'd been carrying around," he recalls. "I thought, 'Oh, good, that's done at last. Thank goodness I don't have to think about that anymore.' So there's that. And then, I had a real emotional reaction in wanting to do the very opposite to that. I spent three years or so trying as hard as I could to tell the truth. And I just got to the point where I thought, 'You know, to hell with the truth,' and it made me swing emotionally to the other end of the literary spectrum. I think the very highly fabulated nature of this book in some degree is a reaction to having written that very long piece of nonfiction."
The mischievous, fablelike approach of "Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights" was also inspired by two of Rushdie's shorter works, "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" and "Luka and the Fire of Life," which he wrote for his sons Zafar and Milan, respectively. "I had so much fun writing those two books," he says. "They had been so enjoyable to do. Many people — many people — over the years have said to me about 'Haroun' that it was their favorite of my books. And truthfully, because those two books were written for my children, I have a very soft spot for them. They're books that are very close to me. But also I felt that these kind of Eastern wonder tales out of which those two books [derived], they weren't originally written as children's stories. They were written as grown-up stories. Those classical stories, the traditional stories — they're not children's stories. They're grown-up stories. So I thought it made sense to try and use that language of fable to tell an adult story."
One result of having spent the majority of his life concocting such stories, of spending the daylight hours ripping holes in the fabric that separates the world we know exists from the one many of us hope exists is that Rushdie — whose imagination has produced telepathic children, a man who transforms into a goat-devil and a gardener whose feet can't touch the ground — is a lousy dreamer.
"Something has happened to me since I became a writer, which is that my dreams have become incredibly tedious," Rushdie admits. "I think what happens is I use up all my imaginary material sitting at my desk during the day. And when I go to sleep, my dreams are, you know, I go to the corner store and buy a newspaper. I go for a walk. My dreams are banal and everyday. And I think it's because my waking life is not. I have the world's most boring dreams. It's really true."
Salman Rushdie will appear 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 18, at Miami Dade College's Wolfson Campus Auditorium, 300 NE Second Ave., in Miami. Admission requires the purchase of "Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights" at Books and Books stores. Every purchase will include a voucher good for two entries to the reading and book signing. Call 305-442-4408 or go to BooksAndBooks.com.