--has small spoilers--
I found Salman Rushdie’s breakout novel all it was cracked up to be, though it did take me about 50 pages to fully commit. It is dense and circular, eschews some common internal punctuation, and has a fantastic story bedded in sharp detail and joy in the wordsmithing. For a dense book, I read it rather quickly, in the 12 days between the end of NaNoWriMo and the date of bookclub (gulping the last dozen pages while riding in the car on the way to the club-meeting).
It gave me so much to chew on (the story of modern India, travel, what it means to be family, what superpower I would want, whether if I dropped to part-time to concentrate on fiction writing I could produce something even remotely like this about my country), that I haven’t read any fiction in more than a week. I keep picking up novels and reading the first few paragraphs at most, then setting them down, not quite ready to start. (OK, that’s published fiction. I did read my NaNo novel through twice already, as part of revising it, but that’s editing, not travel and adventure and escape.)
I didn’t like but did enjoy the narrator, telling his own story as if it were the center of the Indian universe, which, in perhaps less-extreme form, we all think of our own stories.
From the book:
"" If I hadn’t wanted to be a hero, Mr. Zagallo would never have pulled out my hair. If my hair had remained intact, Glandy Keith and Fat Perce wouldn’t have taunted me; Masha Miovic wouldn’t have goaded me into losing my finger. And from my finger flowed blood which was neither-Alpha-nor-Omega, and sent me into exile; and in exile I was filled with the lust for revenge which led to the murder of Homi Catrack; and if Homi hadn’t died, perhaps my uncle would not have strolled off a roof into the sea-breezes; and then my grandfather would not have gone to Kashmir and been broken by the effort of climbing the Sankara Acharya hill. And my grandfather was the founder of my family, and my fate was linked by my birthday to that of the nation, and the father of that nation was Nehru. Nehru’s death: can I avoid the conclusion that that, too, was all my fault? ""
(from MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN, (1981) 2006 Random House trade paperback edition, p. 319)
(I like how when I typed that in, Word said, “run-on sentence. Change?” Actually, no.)
My favorite story-parts included the grandfather’s courting his bride (and the various iterations of a sheet throughout the story), the sister’s childhood strength and her mutation to Jamila Singer, and the crazy-ghost Sundarbans jungle scenes. I didn’t enjoy the “present day” parts, where Saleem is writing and annoying his girlfriend Padma, but even that thread brings a fun part right at the end, as she giddily recognizes herself in the narrative.
Saleem’s final wrap-up metaphor sees his years, and India’s, as a series of flavors of pickles, “special blends, in which, thanks to the powers of my drained nasal passages, I am able to include memories, dreams, ideas, so that once they enter mass-production all who consume them will know what pepperpots achieved in Pakistan, or how it felt to be in the Sundarbans . . . believe don’t believe but it’s true. Thirty jars stand upon a shelf, waiting to be unleashed upon the amnesiac nation.” (p. 530) ("believe don't believe but it's true"–I’m adopting this as my new retort!)
As a victim of too many writing seminars, I also loved this line: “From ayah to Widow, I’ve been the sort of person to whom things have been done; but Saleem Sinai, perennial victime, persists in seeing himself as the protagonist.” (p. 272). Saleem could not be the hero of a series romance; they are required to act, and usually act heroically. He reacts, and often even his reaction is passive, yet he believes he and his fellow children, born in the first hour of India’s political rebirth, are “the gods you never had” (p. 504).
While the book doesn’t end on a happy note, and one of its themes is that optimism is a disease, still there is the promise of the new generation of gods, including the baby Sinai, who should be grown to young adults by now. Do you see them?