Anyone who’s followed the career of Salman Rushdie won’t be surprised to hear that the legendary author’s take on Don Quixote comes at Cervantes from a unique angle. In Rushdie’s new novel, Quichotte (Random House, Sept. 3), the titular character is an aging Indian American pharmaceutical salesman whose television-addled brain has convinced him that he’s destined to be with Salma R—a beautiful, much younger television personality with (unbeknownst to Quichotte) a serious substance abuse problem.
Quichotte, Rushdie’s 14th novel, follows the modern-day hidalgo as he and his imaginary son travel across the country, hoping to convince “America’s Oprah 2.0” to spend her life with the deluded businessman.
“Nuts, but also really quite sweet” is how Rushdie describes the hero of his latest novel. “I wanted him to be both this daffy old coot but also this essentially good person.”
The novel takes place in modern America—or as Rushdie has it, “the Age of Anything-Can-Happen.” “The world as we have known it…has somehow begun to crumble,” Rushdie says. “We don’t understand how things are going to go any more. It’s impossible to predict things, from the weather to presidential elections.” And in this age it seems perfectly possible that a pop-culture-poisoned salesman could win the hand of a wealthy young celebrity.
And Quichotte’s mind has been compromised by a steady diet of low-quality television in which anything really can happen. “I use television as a kind of symbol, as a representative of a broader selection of popular culture which would in reality include the internet and a good few things other than reality TV shows,” Rushdie says. “I do think that there is a kind of dumbing down and corrupting effect of all of this, which is that we live in this moment when truth and lies seem to be very hard to distinguish from each other because they look like they have the same status on television or on the web.”
The novel follows two other characters: Dr. Smile, Quichotte’s cousin and employer, who owns a pharmaceutical company that manufactures a sought-after (and frequently abused) opioid. And then there’s Sam DuChamp, a self-important but mediocre writer who happens to have invented Quichotte and his companions.
Garden-variety realism, in other words, this is not. There’s a reason for that, Rushdie says: “When the world is chaotic, when two people can’t agree on what is the case, and that’s the world we now live in, then realism becomes difficult. It becomes, in a way, an inadequate response to reality, because reality has become contested and fragmented and problematic, and you have to find other ways to write about it.”
There’s a lot of bleakness in Quichotte: The novel touches on drug addiction, racism, and the poison of American nativism. (There’s also Quichotte’s mental illness, which—helpfully for his job as a salesman—results in a “blurry uncertainty about the location of the truth-lie frontier.”) But in spite of this, it’s probably the funniest novel of Rushdie’s career.
“I do think that comedy in general is a very good way of talking about serious things,” Rushdie says. “Black comedy is one of the great inventions of literature: to use comedy, when the world is not funny, to still approach it with a comic voice.”
With its riffs on U.S. pop culture and settings in towns and cities across the nation’s heartland, Quichotte is at its core an American road novel. But does Rushdie, born in India and educated in England, consider himself an American writer? “By now, absolutely,” he says. “I’ve been here 20 years, you know. And I’ve even got the passport.”
Michael Schaub is an Austin, Texas–based journalist and regular contributor to NPR.