Postmodern Style and Language in Rushdie's Shame

Noah M. Landow

In Postmodernist Fiction (New York: Methuen, 1987), p. 151, Brian McHale lists four characteristics of literary postmodernism: (1) self-conscious narration, (2) conspicuously arcane or technical language (3) second, long lists of objects used to create either a cramped and busy world or a barren and empty one; and (4) grammatically incorrect, or "back-broke" sentences. All four appear in Salman Rushdie's Shame.

As the following passage shows, Rushdie uses self-conscious authorial intrusions to blur the distinction between story and reality:

Once upon a time there were two families, their destinies inseparable even by death. I had thought, before I began, that what I had on my hands was an almost excessively masculine tale, a saga of sexual rivalry, ambition, power, patronage, betrayal, death, revenge. But the women seemed to have taken over; they marched in from the peripheries of the story to demand the inclusion of their own tragedies, histories, and comedies, obliging me to couch my narrative in manner of sinuous complexities, to see my "male" plot refracted, so to speak, through the prisms of its reverse and "female" side. (p. 189)

Rushdie's self-conscious intrusion into the story is conspicuously accentuated by very personal, informal language, such as, "I had thought" and "on my hands." The narrator, a fictionalized version of Rushdie himself, appears a character within the story as much as Omar Khayyam Shakil or Sufiya Zinobia. By bringing himself directly into the story, he blurs the distinctions usually found between the real world and the fictional world. In addition, he also blurs the edges of the story by describing chasracters who "marched in from the peripheries of the story to demand the inclusion of their own tragedies," thus giving characters power over reality we usually think of as under our control, or at least under a real writer's control. Like other postmodern novelists, he creates a world trapped between reality and fictionality, one surreal and unsteady.

Later in Shame, Rushdie adds to these same techniques bizarre, even surrealistic imagery:

She, foolish Sufiya Zinobia, would lie in bed squeezing her eyes shut between her thumbs and forefingers, as if she could extrude consciousness through her eyelashes, like motes of dust, or tears. And she burned, she fried, in that very room of her husband's birth and his grandfather's death beside that bed of snakes and Paradise. . . . a plague on this disobedient Time! I command this death scene back into the wings at once: Shazam! (p. 16)

By using strong words like "I command," theatrical words like "the wings," and comical words like "Shazam," Rushdie creates a feeling of the absurd. He also employs, as he so often does in Shame, a metaphor such as, in this case, "she burned, she fried," and a simile like, "as if she could extrude consciousness through her eyelashes," to maintain the rapid transitions and breakneck trains of thought which characterize his and other postmodernist writers' work. The choice of words, as well as the arrangement of them, is crucial to Rushdie's style.

Cataloguing, another charactertistically postmodern technique also emphasizes fictionality by jarring the reader: "When Raza Hyder accepted Isky's invitation to Mohenjo, the two of them drove up together, followed by five other vehicles containing an ample supply of whiskey, film starlets, sons of textile magnates, European diplomats, soda siphons, and wives."(p. 115). Cataloguing, which lists objects and people such as "whisky, film starlets" often creates intriguing associations, as with "soda siphons and wives," and quickly molds a situation with a bare minimum of words, into a rich, full environment or a barren, bleak one. This technique's rapidity and associations encourage the surrealistic mood of Shame.

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