Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Salman Rushdie's Dog Years

I am into the second half of Salman Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children and I confess that I am feeling a growing sense of disappointment. All of Rushdie's hyperkinetic prose, his magical realism, his nonstop foreshadowing and foregrounding of metaphor are not adding up to anything particularly interesting beyond each moment. This is a novel of anecdotes and episodes that isn't going anywhere that I can see. Rushdie explains constantly as he goes along that the "midnight's children" are allegories of India, that India today plays out her historical myths unconsciously but not quite unwillingly, and the reader is battered over the head by the author's themes from the first page and this battering never lets up. So it wearies me, does this book. I keep reading because I have hopes that Rushdie is going somewhere, not just illustrating the same ideas for 600 pages, that there is some reason for all the disconnected action aside from allegorizing Indian history. Because the allegorization of history, Mr Rushdie, is not enough to carry a novel.

None of which was quite what I meant to say. What I really mean--what my primary objection seems to be--is that when Rushdie develops his stories and characters, he drops hints all along the way that Something Interesting Is Coming and when the Interesting Moment arrives, it is always small and anticlimatic. I don't think Rushdie realizes that his character and story arcs are unsatisfying. "That's it?" I find myself asking. "That's all that happens? That's your idea of a significant action, Mr Rushdie?" I harrumph too often reading this book. Build, build, build and then...so what? There is no weight to any of Rushdie's outcomes. It's all one, unchanging, with no contrast nor movement beyond the surface. Nothing means anything. None of the characters care about anything (though often they whine at high volume), including their own deaths. Maybe that's Rushdie's point, but I doubt it. It's like watching a battle to the death among circus clowns: a lot of blood and grotesque, fantastic violence, but there's no emotional investment because, you know, all the participants are clowns. I don't think, I guess, that Rushdie cares about any of the alleged humans in his book.

Last night I realized that the primary literary touchstone of Midnight's Children is Gunter Grass, particularly the Danzig trilogy, particularly Dog Years though Rushdie's protagonist/narrator is almost as annoying as Oskar Matzerath in Tin Drum but not quite. Rushdie clearly owes Grass a huge debt, though I begin to think that Rushdie was trying hard to outdo Grass. Alas, Rushdie's over-the-top pyrotechnic prose is more distracting than anything else. Midnight's Children bothers me, I just now realized, because on the whole it lacks beauty. The prose is wild and sometimes amazing but it's ugly, jarring, unbeautiful prose. It lacks poetry and poise, it never settles into any patterns and seems uncomfortable with itself and entirely self-conscious. So I don't know about this book. I will finish reading it because there are some interesting things going on, but I will wish it was about 200 pages shorter and I don't see myself reading anything else by Rushdie for quite some time. Yes, I know: Booker of Bookers and all of that. But still and all.

After this, I'm going to read some Nabokov and then another Shakespeare play. Then, I think, it will be Sebald and then Chekhov again and then, like as not, another assault on Brothers Karamazov.


  1. This post is a bit of evolution on the page, Mr. B! It was fun to read! I've never tried Rushdie. Or, more likely, I've tried it and don't remember it. But I'm curious to see what I think of it now.

  2. I never know what I think until I write it down, you know.

    I keep having the same experience over and over with Midnight's Children: I read along and get caught up in the narrative and then Rushdie writes something dumb. He doesn't develop his materials along interesting lines and he keeps sort of playing the same games for the reader over and over and after a while you've seen the tricks so many times that it's as if he's not doing anything at all any more. Juggle fire for five minutes and it's cool; juggle fire for five hours and it becomes boring to watch. It becomes a lesson in the endurance of the viewer as much as the endurance of the juggler. This narrative lacks sufficient contrast, is what I might mean. It has more cleverness than artistry.

  3. I've read very little of Rushdie's fiction (basically, the beginning of The Moor's Last Sigh) because what I did read made me think the book's primary purpose was to be a vehicle for showing the world how clever Salmanazars Rushdie is. He is clever, of course, but I don't want to read a novel-length boast. So I can relate to what you've written here. On the other hand, in the Best American Short Story anthology Mr. Rushdie edited, I very much liked the stories he selected and what he had to say about them in the forward. Go figure.

  4. The thing is, whenever I read or watch Rushdie give an interview about writing, I find myself strongly agreeing with him. Which I guess makes me wonder if the books he writes are the books he'd enjoy reading, or if they're the books he feels compelled to write as a Modernist. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is lovely work, down at the prose level. I admit that I like to experiment or just play around with the prose, but things have to be happening on bigger scales than the sentence. I've got about 150 pages to go, and I'll be watching to see if Rushdie does anything more than the same stuff over and over again. He has just now explained (again, but this time more directly) how his book operates as an allegory for Indian history. Yes, Sal, I knew that about ten pages in. He keeps reminding me what his Big Ideas are, but he doesn't do anything with those ideas except give them a new shiny coat of paint every 20 pages. In the same colors as the previous coats of paint. I shake my fist at you, Mr Rushdie.

    Jabez, are you writing anything new? I'm reading Rousseau as inspiration for a new book and a revised older book. I'd forgotten how funny Rousseau was.

  5. I'm back to work on my novel. I'm doing a half revision, half re-write process now. It feels a little like surgery, cutting out the diseased tissue and grafting new stuff on. It also feels like trying to teach myself to paint by painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But I just finished a chapter last night and I'm feeling good about it.