It’s hard to take videogames seriously as stories, because they’re often repetitive in a way that isn’t designed for artistic affect. Imagine a version of The Godfather’s climactic christening sequence in which the audience was forced to watch each segment in turn an arbitrary number of times—initially brutal murders would become stale, and sharp editing would devolve into a frenzied mess. In his new children’s book, Luka And The Fire Of Life, Salman Rushdie throws artistic convention to the wind and uses videogame tropes in his tale of a young boy struggling to save his father’s life. It works better than it has any right to, but this is Rushdie, a writer who’s made a career out of mixing high and low culture with equal respect, and disrespect, for both, so that isn’t not really a surprise.
When Rushdie’s first children’s novel, Haroun And The Sea Of Stories, was published in 1990, it had the benefit of surprise; coming on the heels of the cataclysmic The Satanic Verses, Haroun was a goofy, seemingly effortless fairy tale. Rushdie has always been comfortable with the fantastical, but this book lacked the nihilism and sexual appetite that haunt his adult novels. Luka returns to the world of Haroun, this time focusing on the hero of the first book’s younger brother, who dreams of having a magical adventure all his own. He gets his wish when their father, Rashid, falls asleep and doesn’t wake up. Luka learns that the only way to save the old man is to steal the Fire Of Life itself—which, of course, no one has ever done before.
Luka has its delights; there’s the infectious wordplay, the amalgamation of hundreds of disparate myths into a single tale, and the clear sense of a writer at play. Luka makes a fine hero, and while the interjection of gaming concepts like “extra lives” and “save points” doesn’t add up to much, there’s something exciting about seeing them used at all. The novel suffers from a lack of focus; the ideas come fast, and while the rush is initially invigorating, too many clever concepts are muddled together by the end. Too often, the story feels like Rushdie is vamping for time, as Luka’s journey lacks the cumulative nature a great quest story needs. But that doesn’t make the jokes less funny, or the characters less charming.