“Luka and the Fire of Life”: A Review

I’ve just finished reading Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, “Luka and the Fire of Life.” The novel is a sequel of sorts to his earlier “young adult” book, “Haroun and the Sea of Stories.” I was very much looking forward to this book, especially after hearing Rushdie in person at Harvard last month. Well, I’m sad to say that I absolutely HATED the book. But let’s start with the positive.

Aesthetically, the book is quite beautiful. It has a gorgeous cover illustration by Niroot Puttapipat. The typeset is equally pleasing and easy on the eyes. The physical book is bound in blue cloth and has that wonderful scent of glue and ink I’ve come to love. Sadly, the positive ends here.

The main theme to “Luka and the Fire of Life” is an argument for the importance of stories in our lives. Like “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” this novel depicts a young adult who must go out on a quest to save his father, a famous storyteller nick-named the Shah of Blah when he mysteriously falls into a type of coma. All resemblances to the magnificent “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” end there, however. One gets the sense that Rushdie’s heart is no longer in his writing, but more attuned to the game of celebrity. Rushdie has become the equivalent of a celebrity chef peddling his books on the market like some second rate Wolfgang Puck on the Home Shopping Network.

I have always admired Rushdie’s writing and for a time he was one of my favorite authors. But lately he has been off his game. Perhaps it’s his breakup with the goddess Padma Lakshmi? Perhaps it’s his spending too much time on the Bill Maher show? Who knows? What’s important is that the book is dreadful. Its writing is sophomoric and, worst of all, boring. The video game analogies feel forced and out of place in a work by a writer of such previously high standards. The thing that clinched the sheer awfulness of the book for me was the fact that there is no “fire” in the “Luka and the Fire of Life.” In the book the fire of life is what Luka must steal for his father. Briefly, the fire is what brings stories to life. It’s ironic that a book about the fire of life in stories would itself contain no such fire. I didn’t care about the characters and I felt that the words on the page were just that, words on a page.

I really wanted to like this book. In the end I found myself struggling to get through it. I’ll continue to read Rushdie because his earlier books have meant so much to me. But after his last three or four novels I will do so with extreme skepticism. I am looking forward to the memoir he is now writing about the years under the fatwa. Perhaps Rushdie should turn his attention to non-fiction. His essays are, and continue to be, excellent observations and exquisitely written gems. Too bad one cannot say the same for his recent fiction.

“Luka and the Fire of Life” gets my vote for the most disappointing novel of 2010.

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One thought on ““Luka and the Fire of Life”: A Review

  1. As you know, I enjoyed Luka. There are some elements of the story I did not like, though, so I’ll start with those. The video game analogies do feel forced. I’d even call them hackneyed. In an interview on NPR, Rushdie admitted to briefly having an addiction to Super Mario Brothers, and I’d wager he hasn’t had much to do with video games since then. I don’t like or play video games, but from advertisements alone, I gather that they’ve become a shitload more sophisticated and imaginative than the video-game elements Rushdie incorporates into his novel. Honestly, I feel similarly about some of the “edgier” Rock and Roll scenes in The Ground Beneath Her Feet (which I really, really like). I mean, I know Rushdie’s hung out with Bono and is generally cooler than I am, but still…some of those scenes just make me squirm. It feels like watching my dad try to be cool to impress my friends. Anyway, my point is that I found the video game stuff corny and thought it detracted from the story.
    My second major complaint is that the story feels rushed. I remember Rushdie saying he wanted the novel to be fast-paced, but to me, there are many places where it feels less like he was intentionally replicating that accelerated pace of contemporary life/media/etc and more like he was bored and wanted to hurry the thing along.
    I agree that Luka is not comparable to Haroun. It doesn’t have the same urgency, but then I didn’t expect it to. I mean, the circumstances in which Rushdie wrote Haroun and my knowledge of those circumstances as I read the novel lend it a poignancy that I really didn’t think Rushdie could recreate in the sequel. The acrostic poem at the beginning of Haroun is enough to reduce me to tears. I didn’t find anything in Luka as moving.
    But anyway, I liked the novel. I was drawn into the story. I did care about some of the characters, though not all. I liked Luka. He’s a complex little guy – uncertain about his own nature, uncomfortable outside the world of his video games, but loving and determined. The interaction between Luka and Rashid struck me as authentic, particularly the stuff about the ticklers “Nobody” and “Nonsense.” I liked Nobodaddy best of all. I thought Rushdie’s treatment of death as something intimately familiar and even more terrifying for its familiarity both thoughtful and thought-provoking.
    Aside from the video-game nonsense, I liked the premise of the novel – that stories are what make us human and that stories are real as long as we believe in them. Of course, this is nothing new. Rushdie’s made this argument again and again. But it still works for me.

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