“The sleep of reason produces monsters.” These words can be found in an etching by Francisco Goya of a young man asleep, slumped over a table as a horde of wide-eyed and shadowy creatures bear down upon him. This nightmarish image is reproduced at the beginning of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (or 1,001 nights, that magical number). But Salman Rushdie’s 13th novel, his first for adults in seven years, is not so tidy as monster against human. This is a fairy tale for the modern era, A Thousand and One Nights for the age of reality TV, The Odyssey in the time of Disney World.
Rushdie’s jinn are mischievous, lascivious creatures, made of “smokeless fire” and generally disinterested in unfortunate human concerns about right and wrong. But the line between the human and jinn worlds is crossed when the jinnia princess Dunia presents herself at the door of the disgraced 12th-century philosopher Ibn Rushd. Dunia has fallen in love with his mind and so bears his many children, descendants now part human and part jinn, all with the distinguishable trait of lobeless ears.
Leaping centuries forward to the present day, a storm strikes New York City and leaves “strangenesses” in its wake: A gardener finds himself floating a few inches above the ground. An abandoned baby marks the corrupt with boils and rotting flesh. A wormhole opens in a failed graphic novelist’s bedroom. A war of the worlds has begun.
Rushdie spins this action-packed, illusion-filled, madcap wonder of a tale with a wicked, wise fury. It’s a riot of pop culture and humor, with bursts of insight that stop readers dead, only to zip them up again like a jinn flying across the sky. To tell a story about the jinn is to tell a story about ourselves, and this is why we love myth: The contrast of the fantastical allows us to peer at ourselves from a safe distance.
In this boisterous doomsday legend, reality is no longer a given, and what remains is a brilliant, bawdy world where stories are both the knife and the wound.