Chair of the 2019 Booker Prize judges, Peter Florence, said:
“The common thread is our admiration for the extraordinary ambition of each of these books. There is an abundance of humour, of political and cultural engagement, of stylistic daring and astonishing beauty of language. Like all great literature, these books teem with life, with a profound and celebratory humanity. We have a shortlist of six extraordinary books and we could make a case for each of them as winner, but I want to toast all of them as “winners”. Anyone who reads all six of these books would be enriched and delighted, would be awe-struck by the power of story, and encouraged by what literature can do to set our imaginations free.”
Chair of the 2019 Booker Prize judges, Peter Florence, said:
“If you only read one book this year, make a leap. Read all 13 of these. There are Nobel candidates and debutants on this list. There are no favourites; they are all credible winners. They imagine our world, familiar from news cycle disaster and grievance, with wild humour, deep insight and a keen humanity. These writers offer joy and hope. They celebrate the rich complexity of English as a global language. They are exacting, enlightening and entertaining. Really – read all of them.”
It’s hard to get your head around Salman Rushdie’s latest novel Quichotte, which has been shortlisted for the Booker. It’s a literary embarras de richesse, whose centre can’t really hold, yet it’s written with the brilliant bravura of a writer who can really, really write. More to the point, it’s also funny and touching and sad and oddly vulnerable, rather like its eponymous hero... Yet the real value of this novel lies less in its flamboyant fantasias and literary tricks than in its poignant, almost excruciated delineation of human inadequacy and messiness — which stretches, Rushdie hints, as far as himself. Quichotte’s previous failed relationships are listed as including four women whose national backgrounds match those of Rushdie’s own ex-wives: ‘the Antipodean adventuress, the American liar, the English rose, the ruthless Asian beauty’. Rushdie may lack Quichotte’s chivalry, but he chooses to embrace the endearing naivety of his protagonist when it comes to humiliating self-exposure.
Quichotte largely follows the romantic reading of the knight as idealist, whose madness consists of his nobility of spirit and his refusal to believe that the pragmatically possible is an acceptable limit to human behaviour. Rushdie is both mocking and celebrating this posture, and his Quichotte is genuinely ridiculous as well as heroic... There are two storylines in Quichotte, located in different layers of fictional reality, although since Rushdie is so good at what we might call the profusion effect, it feels as if there are more than two... Rushdie’s Sancho is not an example of the power of fiction to turn fantasy into reality, even within the story, although that is how we have to see him at first. He is an instance of fiction telling truths we can’t get at otherwise. Novels do this all the time, of course, and Quichotte expertly does it again. But it does it strangely, for a strange time.
This rambunctious reworking of Cervantes’s Don Quixote judders between inland America and downturn Britain, euphoria and grief, picaresque and satire, postcolonial melancholia and posthuman futurism – often on the same page. It’s a novel less to be read than to be scrolled through, a seemingly endless feed of gags, thought spasms and larger-than-life happenings... Bombastic and busy, always in control even when his story is meant to be spiralling out of control, in this novel Rushdie resembles a highbrow Robin Williams. Rarely does he give readers time to breathe. Often he spells out things that don’t need to be spelled out... This is lazy writing for lazy readers, eyeball-grabbing anti-prose for distracted device-users. It makes his attempts to craft more contemplative or lyrical passages particularly jarring.
Rushdie’s fans will find much to love in this hyperactive, technicolour satire of a cultural moment in which the permeation of junk TV, fake news, social media and Trump himself have so disrupted the borders between fiction and real life.
Many balls are juggled here, but, somehow, Rushdie keeps them all gloriously in the air.
After the ponderous satire of The Golden House (2017), Quichotte is alive with metafictional daring and Rushdie’s characteristic humour; qualities missing since the days of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. It is also teeming with ideas about the unstable reality of modern life, often presented in wildly entertaining riffs on topics from fake news to exoplanets... Now in his eighth decade, it is clear he still possesses the linguistic energy, resourcefulness and sheer amplitude of a writer half his age – buoyant and life-enhancing qualities shared by his great Spanish predecessor.
That famous style has congealed in recent years; the flamboyance that once felt so free now seems strenuous and grating. “If he had a fault, it was that of ostentation, of seeking to be not only himself but a performance of himself,” Rushdie writes of a character in his novel “The Enchantress of Florence,” which could read like stinging self-critique. The later books — “Shalimar the Clown,” “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights,” “The Golden House” — are all tics, technique and hammy narration that try to toupee over patchy stories, exhausted themes, types passing as characters.
Quichotte is at its best when it deals in matters of the human heart, in fundamentals like love and death, rather than the self-satisfied satire of societal ills. Nonetheless, as it hurtles to its conclusion, the book does gather an enormous momentum. The final portion is a wild ride: characters, narratives and worlds collide and come apart in spectacular fashion, while Rushdie maintains an exhilarating control over it all. But it’s a long journey to get there.
Rushdie’s Booker-longlisted 14th novel is certainly the work of a frisky imagination. We end up in a literary hall of mirrors, as he flirts with every genre he’s ever clapped eyes on, paying dues to Alice in Wonderland, Moby-Dick, Pinocchio, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and Nabokov’s Lolita. The prose is dense with cultural allusions, too: Candy Crush Saga, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, the model Heidi Klum, Men in Black, etc. The novelist’s natural bent has always been towards the encyclopedic, but now he has graduated from encyclopedia to Google. Quichotte ends up suffering from a kind of internetitis, Rushdie swollen with the junk culture he intended to critique...While Quichotte is funny, it’s rarely as funny as Rushdie thinks it is. Sometimes, it reads like the work of a man trying to have the final word on everything before the world ends. Or at least before he ends. Still, even if you feel overwhelmed, you can’t help being charmed by Rushdie’s largesse.
[Quichotte] has, admittedly, some of the characteristic faults that have marred other novels, notably the self-indulgence of extravagant language and the dissociation of his fiction from any experienced reality. Here, however, perhaps by siting everything in this book in his Age of Anything-Can-Happen, what does happen, paradoxically, comes closer to probability than has often been the case. One has the impression that Quichotte is less a work of extravagant fancy, as so many of his novels have been, than a truly imaginative response to his own experience of exile and dislocation... There are plenty of fine things here, even if you may find your eye scanning many passages quickly rather than reading them word for word: there are, as in almost all of Rushdie’s novels, many lists in which the first sentence does enough work but the work is repeated again and again. Those readers who have stuck with Rushdie will surely be delighted. Others who, weary of his extravagance and verbosity, have abandoned him, might be advised to return.
Rushdie transforms a darkly satirical element of a farcical plot about Big Pharma into a source of pathos in a cancer patient’s last hours. It’s a masterstroke in an uneven but diverting and occasionally brilliant novel... Stylistically, Quichotte puts both Rushdie’s vices and virtues on display, with the balance tilted toward the latter. There are majestic paragraphs composed of cascading sentences with not a beat off. Rushdie’s prose still has a flow to match his friends Martin Amis and the late Christopher Hitchens in their prime. Yet often as not, because he saturates his stories with pop culture ephemera, those sentences are full of trivia; the sort of trivia you probably already know... There’s a strange contradiction at work when a book whose declared metafictional mission is to combat “junk culture” is also overloaded with cultural detritus.
The novel, longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, crackles with wickedly effective pastiche and pages of broad satire. Both Left and Right are ribbed by Rushdie for their harping on identity politics. (“Isn’t everyone a person of colour?” protests an Indian human rights lawyer. “What am I? Colourless?”) Strange things start to happen on the way to Salma R in New York. A waitress transforms into a fairy; Jiminy Cricket pops up from Pinocchio, speaking Italian. Quichotte, it turns out, is the invention of an Indian immigrant author called Sam Duchamp, or Brother, who writes indifferent spy thrillers and is himself apparently half cuckoo.
We are a long way from the fertile lyricism of Midnight’s Children, and there is nothing here approaching the death of Changez Chamchawala in The Satanic Verses. But we are still watching a master at work. I thought of Scrapheap Challenge, the television show where contestants have to build a working machine from junk. Rushdie has taken bits of our shared lives, scraps of our language, and constructed a vehicle as wondrous as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This novel can fly, it can float, it’s anecdotal, effervescent, charming, and a jolly good story to boot.
Quichotte is the third in a loose trilogy — so far — of novels in which Rushdie has explored the situation of immigrants in modern America. Yet whereas his previous novel, The Golden House, was a satire that was about as subtle as a whoopee cushion, Quichotte marks a welcome return to form. More than just another postmodern box of tricks, this is a novel that feeds the heart while it fills the mind. It has already been longlisted for this year’s Booker prize; anyone who enjoys a literary flutter could do worse than place a bet on it to win.
The best, most piercing moments in the novel occur when dreams recede, and analysis is risked. Sancho, demanding his independence, tells his father that that means a bank account, for “A debit card is important. An overdraft is important. If you’re not buying stuff, if you’re not making repayments, the system doesn’t recognise that you exist.” Magical realism aside, there are other ways in the US to become an invisible ghost – to have people look right through you.
‘You need your wits about you if you want to ride the road,’ says Rushdie’s blue fairy. ‘It’ll twist and turn on you. It’ll duck and swerve and land you where you don’t expect and you got no business being.’ Reading this novel is a similarly disorientating experience; not every reader will complete the journey. Those who do will be driven to their wits’ end and back again. But those who are prepared to sit back and enjoy the ride will encounter scenery like none they have ever seen.