Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
By Salman Rushdie
Random House. 304 pp. $28 nolead ends nolead begins
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nolead ends Like a big-budget summer blockbuster, Salman Rushdie's latest novel threatens civilization with a heavy hand and an impish shrug. In Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, jinn, a.k.a genies, sneak into the mortal realm to troll humanity with horrific but meaningless pranks: an undermining of physics here, an unraveling of politics there. Humans are left scratching their heads and/or running for their lives.
We've seen such things - the bombastic bad guys, the ironic death scenes, the CGI disintegrations of famous landmarks - enough to want something more, a sense of what's at stake. Destroying the world is easy. Making it worth saving, that's the hard part.
Two Years is by no means inelegant; Rushdie's absurdist humor and inventive machinations are in full bloom. Take, for instance, Geronimo Manezes, the sad-sack gardener who, thanks to a little jinn mischief, finds himself hopelessly hovering a few inches off the ground. "Mr. Geronimo was a down-to-earth man, and so it did not occur to him that a new age of the irrational had begun." Rushdie gets decent comic mileage out of Geronimo's airborne struggles with sleep, sex, and using the toilet.
The jinn cook up further "strangenesses" worldwide, each an opportunity for Mel Brooksish jokes (flying carpets have lousy GPS!), if not Daliesque absurdism: a woman laying eggs, a man with ants pouring from the palm of his hand, et al. Most fascinating is Baby Storm, an orphan in whose presence dishonest people start to rot like corpses. Corrupt politicians run for the exits when she's carried into a city council meeting.
All is preamble to the supposed main event: the showdown between good jinn and bad, a so-called War of the Worlds with human civilization caught in the middle.
And it's all pretty underwhelming. In the midst of all the stomping monsters and science-defying feats of magic, Two Years Eight Months starts to feel like a slog.
Maybe we're numb after a couple hundred pages of whimsical violence untethered by rules or motivation. Maybe the high stakes are undercut by the lack of a single compelling human hero or villain. Exactly whose world hangs in the balance? In the end, Two Years is as absurd and heartless as the jinn - wreaking havoc out of boredom and sport, passionate only in defense of its anarchy. It should be wild and entertaining; instead, it's overlong and plagued by sensory overload, a string of flashing lights illuminating little.