Thursday, May 1, 2008

Book of the Month, May 2008: Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

Now, I must say that in my prepubescent stage of literature knowledge I am certain there are thousands upon thousands of people more qualified to talk about literature in an engaging way than I could ever hope. My degree is in Literature, so I have four years of digging through weighty tomes and literary theory under my belt (postmodernism being the one I am well versed in), but I am not much of a writer, and I fear that writing about such literary giants is out of my league. I am only 26 and have evolved from The Hardy Boys to John Grisham and James Patterson to Ernest Hemingway and Elmore Leonard to Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman to Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. All are books that I look at through different lenses, and in now way am I saying that one is better than the other (although I guess I am, since this evolution of literary tastes is shown in an order that can be easily deconstructed as “what I liked when I was too young to know better” to “what I know is good right now”), but I am hoping to highlight some books each month that showcase some of my favorite authors and what it is that they do so well. I will mostly be able to convey how the novel affected me emotionally and the obvious elements of why I think it is a great book, not just based on its technical accomplishments, but also its readability. I hope that comes through as I do these but we’ll see…let’s give it a go shall we?

It is hard to fathom the genius of Salman Rushdie. I have never encountered anything like him before; and that goes for any medium, be it film, art, music, or whatever. He is the Quentin Tarantino of literature (even though some would argue that is Elmore Leonard, but bear with me here) a genius who writes grandiose novels with oddball characters and situations that deal with supernatural and irreverent to the seriously political and historic. He dabbles in postcolonialism, feminism, postmodernism, and an uncanny ability of bringing India to life. He is extremely referential, conjuring up images of pop culture and Bollywood to make a serious point by implementing elements of the artificial and absurd. He is a cinematic writer, everything you read you feel as if you could see it unfolding in front of you as if he were showing the storyboards to his latest film project. He is postmodern to the core, yet he is not, as many anti-postmodern literature lovers would say, irresponsible. His postmodern elements exist for a reason. They always add to the story and heighten the emotion, they are never the story (say like a Dave Eggers novel) and they exist only as unconventional rebuttals to an all too serious worldly debate.

That debate is usually about the calling into question of politics and love and religion and history; which in postmodern terms are what Jean-Francois Lyotard called ‘the grand narrative.’ Rushdie wrestles with ‘the grand narrative’ in a lot of his novels, mostly by using the fantastical to make his points. In Midnight’s Children, his second novel, he tackles the heavily emotional and tumultuous theme of postcolonial India in the moments before, leading up to, and during her independence. Rushdie likes to undercut a lot of the uber serious themes that plague the front pages of our daily news, but again, he is not childish or irresponsible, but rather by tackling these elements of ‘the grand narrative’, he is allowing the reader to enter a world where flying carpets are normal and invites the reader to cross that threshold which allows them to put on a different lens and see what things look like through cracked and smudged glasses.

I don’t know if I will ever read a novel as brilliant as Midnight’s Children. There is a reason is won the “booker of booker’s” (the best novel in the last 25 years, essentially) as it is a novel that revolves around the most formidable time in India’s history all told by one unreliable narrator Saleem Sinai. Saleem is like most postmodern narrators, the relayer of information for us not in the know, he is a narrator who forgets facts is unsure of exact moments in time, and as we come to see, isn’t even really who he says he is (which is a brilliant touch by Rushdie, because when this information is sprung upon the reader it forces them to re-imagine how the previous 300 or so pages went). Always morphing like the snakes that Saleem references throughout, the novel is a beautiful allegory for life with one simple truth: life has its ups and downs. Saleem plays a game called Snakes and Ladders and the metaphor is clear: for every up there is a down, and for every down there must be an up. Never before have I been touched by a novel in so many different ways.

I googled Midnight’s Children so that I could put a good plot synopsis up here, and I found a really good example from Mac Fenwick of Trent University from the Literary Encyclopedia webpage. In no way did I write any of what is below (I always have problems summarizing things which I explain in my post for “Snow Angels”):

Midnight’s Children has been compared in its scope and execution to works such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Like them, Rushdie’s novel presents an encyclopaedic exploration of an entire society through the story of a single person. It is able to do this, in part, by merging with the novel form a number of non-Western texts such as the Sanskrit epics, The Ramayana, The Mahabharata and, most consciously (and not unproblematically) The 1,001 Nights. The narrative takes the form of fictional autobiography as Saleem Sinai, born at the precise moment of Indian Independence at midnight on 15th August 1947, reflects upon his life and the history of his “twin”, the newly formed nation of India. In order to do this he constructs a narrative that is a heterogeneous mixture of the different traditions from which it takes its inspiration. Throughout the story, Saleem seeks to uncover or discover the connections between the personal and the national, the individual and the societal, as he strives to “give meaning” to his life and, somewhat more problematically, to the history of India from the period between World War I and the Indian Emergency (1975-1977) when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended the Constitution and democracy all but collapsed in the country. This connection between Saleem and his national “twin” is a difficult one, and from the outset of the narrative Saleem feels that he has been “handcuffed to history” rather than liberated.

(Me again) This theme of being ‘handcuffed to history’ is throughout Midnight’s Children, and even though it may sound like it is too daunting of a task to read this book, I implore you to not be turned off by the historical data. In no way is Rushdie’s account of India’s history banal, but rather (surprisingly for me since I am not a history buff) by placing this unreliable narrator smack in the middle of India’s most crucial moments, Rushdie actually heightens the interest one might not normally have in such historical information. The reader becomes somewhat of a detective themselves, trying to piece together the truths and non-truths of Saleem’s story, as he mentions that he is ‘literally’ falling apart. He has cracks all over his body and his limbs are close to falling off. This coincides with another major postmodern theme: fragmentation. All through the novel there are characters seeing things through slits or holes or just certain body parts, and of course, the obvious example just mentioned, Saleem’s cracks on his skin. This all leads to the one moment where Saleem, handcuffed to history and cracking and breaking apart will be trampled to dust…he will become one with history and embedded into the dirt of Bombay. Like Whitman who told the reader to look under their boot to find him because he was in the ground and all around (that’s a paraphrase, hehe) so too does Rushdie invoke this kind of imagery, because since Saleem is the child of India, then it is only appropriate that he literally become a part of India.

Midnight’s Children is a book that is all at once spiritual, philosophical, absurd, grotesque, vulgar, metaphysical, magical, and just plain perfect. Rushdie slides these themes in place like he’s Tom Cruise solving a case in "Minority Report." At any given moment the novel can make you laugh out loud with its absurdest postmodern elements, or make you cringe with its graphic details of a society brutalized by colonialism. It also has wonderfully comic and sweet moments between the women and the men which shed humorous light upon its more serious postmodern feminist theories. Midnight’s Children is a book that is 100% satisfying to the intellect and is also 100% emotionally satisfying. The novel is heavy in theme (and weight, the book is 560 pages) and 75 pages should be your daily limit, but that is not to say that the novel is not a great entertainment. There are many moments where you will want to keep reading, no matter what time of night it is, and there are others where you will feel so weighed down by the sheer force of Rushdie’s brilliance (not to mention all of the information about India he throws at you) that you must simply take a break from the memorization of dates, figureheads, and character names.

You don’t have to be as enamored with the literary theory as I am to enjoy this book. It works on both levels and there is a reason why it is my inaugural Book of the Month selection. The novel is insanely popular with both casual readers and literary nerds such as me, and I really hope you run out and give it a shot. I am reading it for the second time right now, and am enjoying it even more the second time around. It has taken me awhile to revisit the novel because of how emotional the ending of the book is. It’s a novel that contains magic carpets and stark realism, children born at midnight with extraordinary powers like telepathy and mind reading to documentary like dealings of a postcolonial India. For all of the great literary devices Rushdie uses and for all of the postmodern, postcolonial, and feminist theories one can excavate from the novel, the only thing I can think of to describe this book to new readers is something so cliché that it works because this novel puts me at a loss for words: it’s a page turner.