(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
Midnight's Children (1981)
By Salman Rushdie
Book #58 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
The second novel of this young cosmopolitan's career, after a science-fiction debut that was received poorly, Salman Rushdie's 1981 Midnight's Children has a surprising amount of speculative elements to it as well, telling no less than the entire history of modern India as seen through the eyes of a man born exactly at the moment of the country's independence (the stroke of midnight, August 15th 1947) and who discovers that the event has given him godlike powers. As such, then, this magical-realist story is best read as both historical fiction and metaphorical fairytale, with every single inventive and experimental element corresponding not just to the actual storyline but a real detail of India's history; just to cite one of hundreds of examples, it turns out that all 500-odd kids born on the day of independence around the country each possess some kind of supernatural power or another (hence the book's title), and that they constantly fight with each other during their psychic meet-ups hosted by our hero Saleem Sinai, which can be seen as not only a call-out to the nature of Hindu mythology but also the nature of India's first several political get-togethers after independence, historically famous now for the massive amount of infighting that took place at them. The novel can definitely be read as a straightforward chronology if one wants -- it starts with Saleem's grandparents in the 1920s, then follows Saleem as he grows up in Bombay, moves to Pakistan after the Partition, participates in one of the many IndoPak wars of the '60s, then returns to Bombay (now known as Mumbai) just in time for the Indira Gandhi constitutional crisis of the 1970s -- but it's definitely worth your while to do just a little reading about India's history as well before tackling this ultra-dense novel, in that it so clearly and deliberately lays out that history in such a beguilingly symbolic way, the main reason to read this funny yet erudite book in the first place.
The argument for it being a classic:
The argument for Midnight's Children being a classic is perhaps the strongest of any of the "contemporary" novels being reviewed for this essay series ("contemporary" here of course meaning anything less than 40 years old); it's been the recipient of multiple awards, has made nearly every "Greatest Novels of All Time" list ever created, and was even voted in both 1993 and 2008 to be the very best title in the entire history of the Booker, considered by many to be the second most important literary award on the planet, after the Nobel Prize. More important than any of this, though, Rushdie himself is considered by his fans to be one of the pivotal figures of Postmodernism, one of the handful of academically revered authors to break the color barrier of the "Great Books" canon in those years (along with contemporaries like Toni Morrison, Oscar Hijuelos and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, all of whom non-coincidentally first became famous through the Postmodernist invention of magical realism), and that it's this plus his even more successful subsequent career that automatically earns him a spot on the "classics" roster. And then there's the fact that the book itself is simply great, say his fans, a challenging but satisfying experience designed expressly to reward the smartest and most attentive readers out there; and of course it exists just as a fine primer on modern India too, a great companion to a traditional textbook that helps make such boring subjects as import tariffs and water rationing really come alive.
The argument against:
Just one main one, really, but one that stops a lot of people from reading it; that for a must-read classic, it sure is freaking difficult to get through, and that maybe some people don't actually want to do a week's worth of homework just to make it through a ho-hum bildungsroman about a whiny self-pitier with a famously big nose and constant woman troubles. Oh yeah, plus there's the whole "Salman Rushdie Is A Tool Of The Devil And God Says That You'll Get A Shiny New Car In Heaven If You Kill Him" thing; but that's really more of a personal issue than an analytical or critical one, so won't be examined here today.
Well, before anything else, let me just confirm that the stories about this book's textual density are absolutely true; it took me over two weeks of daily reading to get through it myself, for example, when I usually average an entire book every 48 hours. But that said, let me also admit that this turned out to be one of my absolute favorites so far of all 50-something titles in this essay series I've now gotten through, and that the novel legitimately deserves all the accolades that's been heaped upon it. And that's a bigger statement than it might seem at first, because of my well-known disdain for most Postmodernist literature, and the way I find so many of the academic novels from those years to be essentially shell-games, snotty little clever exercises designed not for reader enjoyment but to justify that author's MFA degree; but here Rushdie really delivers the goods, a story that nestles ideas inside ideas inside ideas like a Russian doll, paying off endless dividends the more closely you analyze it yet still providing a great experience with even just a surface-level look.
I mean, sure, Rushdie is also widely known as a pretentious boor in real life, a serial philanderer and media addict who dates supermodels decades younger than himself, and who has admitted that he provides cameos in Hollywood films mostly so he can hang out with movie stars; but that's part of the delight at trying to look at a writer like this from a historical perspective already, is that we still have no idea what future events from his own lifetime might eventually flavor and color the way that posterity will choose to remember him. For example, one of the emotions I had while reading this was sadness over the glum and bitter tone it ends on, coming as it did right after the martial law and human-rights abuses of Indira Gandhi and her cronies, and I confess that I tremble with delight at the mere idea of Rushdie eventually writing a sequel called Midnight's Grandchildren, all about the economic miracles and global successes that country has seen in the '90s and '00s. Now, there's a good chance that he'll actually write something like this before he dies, and there's also a good chance that he won't, which is what makes speculation over contemporary authors' "classic" status such a fascinating yet frustrating guessing game; but for sure I think it's pretty safe to already start calling Midnight's Children itself an undeniable classic, and that it's very likely that future generations will see Rushdie as modern India's Nathaniel Hawthorne or Mark Twain, one of the country's first truly brilliant artists to break through to global recognition and respect, dragging the entire rest of the Indian arts with him and helping to make it as respected around the world as it currently is. You'll need to dedicate some extra time and head space to do it, that's for sure, but today I heartily recommend that everyone pick up this important, entertaining novel and give a go for themselves.
Is it a classic? Yes
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo
A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)