Rushdie in Wonderland: Fairytaleness in Salman Rushdie's Fiction. By Justyna Deszcz. European University Studies: Series 14: Anglo-Saxon Language and Literature, vol. 405. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2004. 199 pp.
Readers on the lookout for further evidence of academic jargon should pause before condemning Justyna Deszcz's "fairytaleness." As the author notes, "in Polish the term 'basniowosc' is widely accepted" (187n2), however awkward it may sound in translation. While it may not attain such wide acceptance in English, it is a useful means by which to approach the work of Salman Rushdie, to say nothing of several of his contemporary fabulators. The image of the fairy tale held today by many adult readers in Western Europe and North America is due in no small part to the pioneering fictions of Rushdie and his contemporaries and to the flood of versions and adaptations that have followed. These fictions sought variously to critique and to extend fairy-tale traditions; more intangibly, they were steeped in the narrative environment of the fairy tale, an environment markedly different from that of the novel or short story. As such, they are quintessential late-twentieth-century expressions of fairytaleness, a conglomerate of narrative features that the fictions themselves worked to redefine.
A respectable number of years have passed since the publication of the key texts of this extraordinarily energetic period of literary history-texts, to cite only English-language fictions, including Pricksongs and Descants (1969), Lady Oracle (1976), The Bloody Chamber and Other Stones (1979), and, of course, Midnight's Children (1981). To treat such work as a matter of literary history is necessarily to suggest a degree of unanimity on matters of interpretation and evaluation; whether or not this is the case, it is certainly true that the early work of Rushdie and his contemporaries ran alongside two other key projects of reformulation: in fairy-tale studies, where a large number of bibliographic, sociohistorical, and literary analyses established, or reestablished, a vibrant field of multidisciplinary inquiry; and, more broadly, in the critical-theoretical realm, where the nebulous project of postmodernism-a project devoted in part to the idea of nebulousness and, indeed, the idea of projects-sought nothing less than a rethinking of the conceptual groundings of humanism and the Enlightenment. Rushdie's work is in a relation of symbiosis with these critical contexts, which is one reason why the former has garnered such attention. It has even been argued that some of the key early coordinates of that third project of reformulation contemporaneous with the fictions under discussion-postcolonial studies-were influenced in no small part by the fictions themselves.
Justyna Deszcz stays resolutely within the realm of this critical context. Her study is neatly divided into two, dealing in the first half with postmodernism and in the second with postcolonialism. That said, the most impressive feature of the book is its willingness to stretch beyond the familiar fictions, to encompass more recent works such as the novels The Moor's Last Sigh, The Ground beneath Her Feet, and Fury and the story collection East, West. Several commentators in the popular press have been less than enthusiastic in their reception of these later works, suggesting a dimming of the author's talents. The singular exuberance of Rushdie's aesthetic-if we can talk of such a thing, which I think we can-was always going to run the risk, in some circles, of falling foul of its own success, and it is thus particularly useful to have a study that establishes a degree of continuity across a significant body of work.
Deszcz situates her study "in counterpoint to purely post-colonial or post-modern readings" (10), although her findings fall squarely within the accepted range of these two areas. The book begins with a discussion of postmodern conceptions of the fairy tale, in the course of which Deszcz allies herself clearly and extensively with a performative poetics of the fairy tale as elaborated in the work of Cristina Bacchilega. …