Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Books! We got books!

I have recently returned from a wonderful weeklong vacation with my family to upstate Minnesota. During this time, I was reminded about how incredibly fortunate I am to have grown up among these folks. If you dropped in at random during the week, odds are high that you would have found at least half of us stretched out reading our books. Now, reading isn't the only thing we do - we had a blast by the lake, went on a long bike ride, explored the nearby small town, spent hours talking and catching up, even participating in a remarkably democratic kitchen. Still, there's no escaping the fact that this is a scholarly family that loves words and learning, and I owe them for any success I've found in life.

This relaxing and serene environment meant that, rather than squeezing in a chapter between a busy workday and necessary sleep, I was able to devote hours to catching up on things I'd been meaning to read. I brought along two books that have thwarted me in the past: Gravity's Rainbow and Midnight's Children. I never did get around to the first (one of these days, Pynchon! One of these days!), but the long stretches available for reading allowed me to conquer Rushdie's aggressively obtuse prose. It was well worth it.

I've been meaning to read Rushdie for a while now. I think it's the contrarian attitude I take towards censorship, and no modern author has been so famously censored as him. Beyond that, though, he was always at the periphery of my modern English lit classes, and several people I respect have spoken highly of his writing in general and this book in particular.

But the language... ah, the language! Now, I am the last person to complain about an author's adherence to the strictures of the English language. I still think that Ulysses is the most amazing book I've ever read, largely because of the phenomenal way Joyce manipulates the language. That said, I fully accept that I never would have finished Ulysses if the book hadn't been required reading for a college course. The combination of external pressure to push through the reading, along with access to resources and insights from my classmates, turned a solitary chore into a collective joy.

Outside the framework of a seminar, I had to motivate myself to get through this book, and it was tough.... I have to admit that up until around page 250 I didn't like the book. I'll get to the narrator in a moment, but even apart from the character of the narrator, the way he expresses himself is an active challenge. He slings together nouns and verbs in series without any connections or punctuation; his sentences run on; he fills expository passages with authorial interjections; and, perhaps most frustrating to me, he uses dialect throughout the novel. Now, I respect Rushdie the author's choice to use these techniques, but it does mean I need to work much harder to understand what the heck is happening, and only recoup some of that effort in better storytelling.

Besides speaking in a scattershot voice, the narrator may be the least reliable I've read. Now, this part I didn't mind so much, and by the end of the novel, it was actually pretty fun. He forgets what he's saying, realizes that events couldn't have happened in the year he described, suggests that he has been exagerrating or diminishing characters to conform to his prejudices, even admits towards the end that he lied about certain things. As long as you view the whole thing as a yarn, it's all in good fun. Now, the narrator is speaking to the reader, but within the text, he is also describing these things to Padma (I think that's her name...), a young woman. He describes how he carefully watches her to see how she reacts... if her face shows she doubts him, he will backpedal and try to convince her; if she is engaged in the story, he will rush onward, spinning out more for her.


The narrator is, really, a cad. He doesn't like himself all that much, even if he does have an inflated opinion of his importance, so I don't feel bad making that judgement. His failures in life seem of a piece with his failures as a writer.

That said, I don't particularly enjoy reading about mediocre, miserable people. So I only started perking up once the book began delving into the more mystical aspects of the story: the special powers held by the Midnight Children. Even though these proved to ultimately be a bit of a red herring, the mere introduction of the supernatural gave the book a charge it was missing. I feel like the start of the book (which begins, excruciatingly, with his grandfather, many decades before the narrator's birth) was trying to get by on portent and clever writing. After Saleem appears on the scene, and even more once he reaches adolesence, the book turns much more into a story... there's meaningful action there, not just words.

Again, the turning point for me came when Saleem snorts a drawstring and becomes telepathic. I fell in love with the book when he describes the nightmare he has of the Widow's hand. It was this passage that convinced me that his prose wasn't an obstacle, wasn't just necessary for this character, but actually could contribute wonderful writing that is impossible in standard proper English. The nightmare contains all the things I complained about before - run-on sentences, stacked unlinked words, etc. - but they transformed the piece and made it a living nightmare that actually frightened me, even as I was sitting on a sunny porch near a beautiful lake. Here's an excerpt:

The Widow sits on a high high chair the chair is green the seat is black the Widow's hair has a centre parting it is green on the left and on the right black. High as the sky the chair is green the seat is black the Widow's arm is long as death its skin is green the fingernails are long and sharp and black. Between the walls the children green the walls are green the Widow's arm comes snaking down the snake is green the children scream the fingernails are black they scratch the Widow's arm is hunting see the children run and scream the Widow's hand curls round them green and black. Now one by one the children mmff are stifled quiet the Widow's hand is lifting one by one the children green their blood is black unloosed by cutting fingernails it splashes black on the walls (of green) as one by one the curling hand lifts children high as sky the sky is black there are no stars the widow laughs her tongue is green but her teeth are black.

Isn't that AMAZING?

The only comparable thing I can think of is the poem Fear by my favorite poet, W. S. Merwin. And that's really special. At his peak, Rushdie is crossing the ancient boundary between poetry and prose. Not content to waste words on merely telling a story, he elevates the language above the story, calling attention to it, playing with it, and making this ultimately a story about words and storytelling.

By the end of the novel, I was very impressed with it as a whole. Rushdie has truly created a unique voice here, and I can understand why this book made his reputation.


The other major catch-up I made over vacation was The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders. Saunders is my favorite active short story writer, but this is a collection of his essays. I was delighted to find that his essays are just as trenchant, funny, and observant as his fiction. Not only that, they can be just as subversive, creative, and beautiful. He has a wonderful essay on Britain in there, based on several pieces he wrote for The Guardian, and you have to approach it the same way you would approach one of his short stories... it is non-fiction, nominally, but non-fiction with the tongue so firmly planted in cheek that it might as well be fiction. (I think I'm leading off with this essay because it seems of a piece with the Midnight's Children observation above... you need to have a clear understanding of the difference between Saunders, the author, and Saunders, the narrator, to "get" what these pieces are doing.)

The title piece, The Braindead Megaphone, is arguably the most important piece. It is a thoughtful and damning indictment of the present state of the media in the United States, and how our relationship with it has warped the national psyche. I previously agreed with pretty much everything in this essay, but don't think I'd ever previously heard it said so eloquently.

He's also a very accomplished travel writer. His pieces on Dubai were fascinating, both for their early insight (he published these pieces before Dubai became a common topic here), and also for their musings on the role of culture and the future of nationalism. Some of his conclusions reminded me of Neal Stephenson's Disneyland tangent in In The Beginning... was the Command Line. Near the end of the book he visits the Buddha Boy, and along the way experiences the wretched life lived in Nepal. In between he spends more time in Texas than I ever will as he explores the border between the U. S. and Mexico. That piece may be the most interesting of the trio, as he spends time with the Minutemen (many of whom actually sound like nice people) and grapples with the implications of "the immigration issue."

Gosh, I really can't describe every chapter in here... it's all solid stuff. In terms of theme: he also has a few pieces about writing, all of which are excellent. One is semi-autobiographical, discussing "Johnny Tremain", the first good book that he'd read, and how it opened his mind to what good writing meant. The evolution continues with an appreciation of Kurt Vonnegut, who turned him from being a mediocre writer trying to channel Hemingway into who he is today. Finally, he offers one of the most concise and insightful evaluations of Huckleberry Finn that I've seen.

This also collects some of the great "Shouts & Murmurs" pieces that he's done for the New Yorker. If you missed them the first time around, you'll be heartily amused; otherwise, you'll enjoy seeing them again.

It's good to know that Saunders is a man of many talents. He's shown that he can write amazing short stories, great columns, and beautiful essays. Now he just needs to write a full novel, and we'll be set!

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