Since we’re doing book reviews I thought I’d take a moment to tell everyone about one of my two favorite novels* Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Unfortunately Rushdie is now best known for the fatwa levied against him by the Ayatollah Kohmeinei** in response to the 1988 novel The Satanic Verses (also a great read) rather than for his writing; this is unfortunate as Rushdie is arguably the world’s greatest novelist, and Midnight’s Children is widely considered one of the great works of magical realism and among the very best novels written during the second half of the 20th century.
In other worlds it’s a good read, and something fantasy readers ought to try.
Midnight’s Children is the self narrated story of one Saleem Senai, a child born at the exact moment of India’s independence from the UK in August 1947, whose life is inextricably linked to the fate of India. Also––if that doesn’t sound fantastic enough–– Saleem is a telepath, there’s a league of super-powered children, and really more weird stuff happens than you can shake a stick at. This is one of those rare books that manages the rare and quite fantastic trick of seeming to encompass everything under the sun and to make the real world seem bland and uninteresting by comparison.
Rushdie is an absolute master of English prose, the very rare twister of words who is worth reading simply to experience the simple beauty of his authorial voice. But beyond that Rushdie also has a tremendous knack for storytelling, and especially for twisting interesting short vignettes out of the larger arc of his novel. For example early on in the story a young doctor is required to treat a female patient he can only examine through an eight inch hole in a bedsheet; he proceeds to fall in love with her, one bodypart at a time. Later on there will be a lethal showdown between the two most charming men in the world, a temple lost deep in the Bangladeshi jungle inhabited only by willing women long since immolated, an all smelling Buddha, a witch, knees and a nose, a nose and knees…
Anyway, it’s a good book.
But this isn’t the only reason I’ve decided to highlight it. In addition to being a great writer Rushdie also does a credible job of straddling the worlds of literary and genre fiction. Many so called ‘literary’ writers avoid the fantastical, which is, in my opinion a loss to both genre and mainstream fiction: people who enjoy fantasy are deprived of many first class authors, while the readers of literary fiction find their literary world artificially constrained. Rushdie does a great job of showing what a writer who is not constrained by mundane reality can accomplish, and I really do think that if literary writers try to be a bit more fantastical and fantasy writers try to be a little more literary everyone will be able to enjoy better and more interesting books.
For the record the other favorite is Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s pitch-black comedy about the World War II US Army Air Corps. It is an absolute must read for everyone IMHO, but it’s subject matter is beyond this blog.
** Tangentially related point: I just saw Argo this weekend and highly recommend it.