Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Fictions Where a Man Could Live": Worldlessness, Utopia, and the Void in Rushdie's Grimus

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Fictions Where a Man Could Live": Worldlessness, Utopia, and the Void in Rushdie's Grimus

Article excerpt

Read against the industry-inspiring success of his better-known works, Rushdie's debut novel Grimus (1975) is often regarded as the artistically tentative effort of the author who would, in his maturity, go on to write Midnight's Children (1981). The relative dearth of critical responses to Grimus in the thirty-five years since its publication seems to indicate a scholarly consensus, though one which, given the recently recognized emergence of the genre of postcolonial science fiction, invites renewed consideration. In the essay that follows, I resist this broadly dismissive critical approach by suggesting that the novel's appropriation of utopian and science fictional resources provides for both a critical/aesthetic intervention--among the very first--into the global order just making itself visible in the mid-1970s and, perhaps more important, for the utopian neutralization of that order. To reposition Grimus within the rich tradition. of utopia/SF, (1) I argue, is to overcome the ideological limits of previous scholarly appraisals, restoring a properly historical context against which the novel's deep political and pedagogical tendencies--as well as its considerable aesthetic accomplishments--may be more fully understood.

A common justification for the critical neglect of Griffins is its apparent obliviousness to the disciplinary shibboleths of what was, throughout the 1980s, the developing field of postcolonial studies. From the vantage of the early 1990s institutionalization of the discipline, Griffins is not a successful novel because it is not yet an identifiably postcolonial one. Mujeebuddin Syed writes in 1994 that "in spite of its brilliant attempt at creating an ironic meta-histoire, a sardonic philosophia perennis, Grimus falters in its failure to countenance postcolonial concerns." Rushdie's Joycean narrative experiments, Syed further argues, "prove inadequate in providing Grimus with a mooring, an anchor that can provide its high profile a well-defined identity" (148). Similarly, Catherine Cundy suggests in 1992 that the true value of Grimus is simply that it "offers an important insight into the stylistic and thematic preoccupations developed more fully in the author's later work," thus allowing us to see in embryo the "areas of debate which are handled with greater depth and maturity in Rushdie's later work" (128). At this apprentice stage, she suggests, the thematic concerns that will inform subsequent novels (hybridity, the emigre experience, the quest for postcolonial identity, and the ambivalent cultural legacies of imperialism) appear as yet frustratingly inchoate: "the diversity remains just that; the elements insufficiently blended to make the novel appear a skillfully amalgamated whole." Griffins is, Cundy contends, "clearly a novel from a period when Rushdie had not yet achieved the synthesis of diverse cultural strands and narrative forms" (137), and it takes only "tentative steps towards an examination of post-coloniality," a subject that she describes as "submerged" in the novel's mercurial structure (129). (2)

But what if such readings judge Rushdie's debut novel according to the wrong criteria, by standards derived from the disciplinary habits of thought that his later work helped to instantiate? Indeed, these critical approaches. consider Griffins in the light of both Midnights Children and a poststructuralist-inflected postcolonial hermeneutic. If, however, we disregard this interpretive consensus and its fundamental narrative of authorial entelechy, we might read the novel's unapologetic rejection of a national-cultural habitus not as a failing--as a failure to situate the book's multiple dislocations within the ambit of the postcolonial nation state--but rather as the register of an altogether different creative aim.

At least one recent critical response to Grimus has taken important steps toward such a reconsideration and provides its a useful point of departure. …

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