Alas “the domes,” as one account puts it, “were never lifted heavenward.” The Brooklyn Central Library project, stymied by lack of funds and public support, remained mired for decades in purgatory, its foundation laid on the pointy triangular end of the “hitherto inviolate precincts of Prospect Park,” its Flatbush-avenue wing built up and the rest left for later through the Great War and far beyond.
The incomplete structure became shrouded in legend. Some said dark gloomy waters flooded the basement, obscuring the ghoulish secrets it was rumored to contain. Others speculated that construction had stalled because the library’s foundations were built upon quicksand.
Everybody loves a ghost story. Really, everybody. All cultures have some variety of ghost story, by that name or another. But some are more pervasive and deeply ingrained than others. It isn’t really possible to identify the most ghost-heavy culture on the planet—there’s no clear metric for how one would judge such a thing. But few ghost cultures are as powerful and varied as the ones found in Malaysia. The modern English and North American conceptions of ghosts—from the ones under bed sheets to Victorian-garbed, translucent shades to the poltergeist that makes things go bump in the night—feel downright embarrassing in their limits when compared to the great world of Malay hantu.
Suppose that error could be abolished. What would someone who never makes a mistake be like? There are two very different responses to this question. One is to think of a superhuman, god-like being. The poet Alexander Pope’s line – ‘To err is human; to forgive, divine’ – is based on that thought. God might pardon but He cannot Himself make mistakes. Infallibility would seem to go hand in hand with omniscience and infinite wisdom.
The other possibility is an entity that, far from superhuman, is largely unthinking. In the 1990s, the comedian Bill Hicks would accuse particularly slow-witted audience members of staring at him like ‘a dog that’s been shown a card trick’. At one level, this lovely image calls to mind a hapless showman wasting his craft on an uncomprehending creature. Hicks was, in part, being self-deprecating. Only a sucker would get drawn into such a futile task. But the implied criticism of his audience is more devastating. For it invokes a whole domain of stupidity beyond that of being a sucker.
I wanted to weep. My mother and I primarily communicate in Korean, and we rarely talk about literature. We have a complicated relationship, but in that moment, I felt a new closeness—rooted not in the inextricable tie of family, but in choice. I have an immediate affinity for others who have committed to the impossible act of writing.
But Rushdie’s novel is much more than a parodic modern recasting of Cervantes’s famous novel. Rushdie has listed some of the genres he has used: “[T]he picaresque, the absurd, the spy novel, the science-fiction novel, the realistic, emotional drama.” He says that he wants to “capture a panorama of our own surreal, metamorphic time.” The novel’s time is virtually the present, post-2016, and who better than Rushdie with his well-known exuberance and inventiveness to attempt to give fictional life to this crazy, scary era in which we all find ourselves. As one character puts it, “It is the Age of Anything-Can-Happen.” And just about anything you can imagine does, including the imagined end of the world.