“Don Quixote” gets an update in Salman Rushdie’s “Quichotte.”
But instead of chivalric romances that obsess the protagonist, it’s mindless television. Instead of the heroic exploits of Amadis of Gaul taken as the hero’s guide, Rushdie’s modern-day Quixote, Quichotte, recites various seasons of “The Bachelor.”
Quichotte is a 70-year-old traveling salesman for a fentanyl spray company who, due to the lonely and transient nature of his job, consumes way too much television in motels. As a result, he can’t tell the difference between reality and entertainment. His Dolcinea, the woman he must win over, is the most popular daytime talk show host in the country, Salma.
Adding another layer to the story is the fact that Quichotte is acknowledged to be a fictional creation of a writer who is hammering out the story as we’re reading it, a man who pens spy thrillers and is known to us readers by his pen name, Sam DuChamp.
The lives of the author and his creation closely align, thus further blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. DuChamp and Quichotte are aged, childless and have estranged relationships with their younger sisters — separations that were brought about by the brothers’ past cruelty for which they now try to atone.
But there can be no Don Quixote without a Sancho Panza, and we get one when Quichotte, like Geppetto, makes up his own son who slowly becomes his own being. The two travel across America to reach Salma, encountering a country just as fantastical and cruel as the shows Quichotte watches on TV. A town in New Jersey, for instance, sees some of its residents turn into marauding mastodons.
“Quichotte” has many of the hallmarks of Rushdie’s oeuvre: references to pop culture and fairy tales; fantastical and surreal elements mixed with everyday modern life; the mixtures of eastern and western culture; plots that point directly to our current political moment. “Quichotte” presents a great quest of a book. A novel that shows that “everything is connected, is channel to that channel, this button to that button, this choice to that choice.”