How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Magical Realism

by Kathleen Spivack
Knopf, 304 pages

For many years, magical realism felt to me like literature’s answer to a prop comic. It was the cheapest screwdriver in the author’s toolbox, an indulgent and nigh unpardonable offense on the level of the dreaded Third Act Misunderstanding whereby a character’s real motivations are revealed in an aloof and seemingly careless manner that could have been avoided had the protagonist only asked a few vital questions near the beginning. Magical realism was the entitled ruffian who hit you up for spare change yet never had any intention of working. Sure, you gave the fellow your last dollar anyway with the somewhat naive faith that he would either get his act together or, failing that, live interestingly, but you somehow got the sense that your offering was probably going to tallboys and meth.

In trying to understand why magical realism has irked me, I began to realize, conversely, that I’ve always sustained a love for fantasy and its many offshoots. There’s a great delight in reading any novel offering a smart and goofy juxtaposition of historical icons or mythical tropes. I think of Tom Carson tinkering with both Joyce and Sherwood Schwartz in his deeply underappreciated novel, Gilligan’s Wake (almost a couch potato counterpart to Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld novels) or the satirical thrust that fuels Angela Carter’s remarkable Nights at the Circus, in which a woman sprouts wings not long after she is hatched from an egg and joins the big top. I also enjoyed the wave of Bizarro fiction that sprung up a few years ago, which blew the lid off magical realism’s conceit by pushing it into punkish terrain that felt authentically absurdist. I certainly couldn’t resist the thrill of a panoramic phantasmagoria, such as the crumbling world contained within Mervyn Peake’s excellent Gormenghast trilogy. Writers like Fritz Leiber won me over into their imaginative worlds by imbuing such unforgettable characters like Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser with comic depth (or, in a more urban fantasy mode, the Jungian and historical references that Lieber weaved within Our Lady of Darkness). Octavia E. Butler and China Miéville have often made me forget that I was reading a fantasy altogether because they grounded their universes in vital social and moral questions. Clearly, I always needed a bit of what UCB improvisers call “base reality.” 1

So my reluctance has never been about what the artist is willing to conjure up, but the manner in which the story is told. I have held Pinocchio’s story dear to my heart ever since I first read Carlo Collodi thirty-five years ago. I’m happy to accept a piece of wood whose nose grows when he fibs because Pinocchio is imbued with the very human motivation of wanting to be a boy. By contrast, the Tim Burton film Big Fish infuriated me because the great myths that the protagonist invents to bury his pain felt tedious and mawkish: these were very human needs that, in execution, transmuted into quite obvious and soulless mechanisms to advance the narrative and called attention to themselves. But I never felt this way about Terry Gilliam’s ballsy and underrated Tideland, which also contends with how fantasy is a method to cope with the real. That was because Gilliam had the courage to depict, with incomparable poetry, how escaping reality was a double-edged sword. And his fierce vision, which even the cogent Jonathan Rosenbaum called a “diseased Lewis Carroll universe,” was a sharp and welcome contrast to the insufferably bourgeois and risk-averse Burton, whose contributions to magical realism and fantasy continue to resemble more of a desiccated bean counter than a genuine artist.2

Magical realism’s worst moments, such as the many cardinal sins committed by the wildly overrated Salman Rushdie, involve a tremendous contempt for the reader’s suspension of disbelief, almost a crippling anxiety to go the distance with something that is emotionally true rather than an “anything goes” choice. The bad magical realist always opts for the shoddy shortcut. For example, we are expected to buy into The Satanic Verses after two actors descend from the heavens from an exploding plane and hit earth without so much as a scratch. (Even when First Blood had Rambo plunge off a cliff face with barely a bruise, an altogether different sort of magical realism, at least the filmmakers were willing to show us that Rambo suffered from memories of being tortured in Vietnam. When a film helmed by the director of Weekend at Bernie’s respects the audience more than a Booker Prize-winning author, it is enough to cause pause.) To add insult to injury, this duo becomes an angel and a devil. Rushdie’s approach is especially egregious because it comes saddled with grandstanding claptrap in which this creative transgression is aligned with illusory import, such as this needless and quite awful sentence:

Up there in air-space, in that soft, imperceptible field which had been made possible by the century and which, thereafter, made the century possible, becoming one of its defining locations, the place of movement and of war, the planet-shrinker and power-vacuum, most insecure and transitory of zones, illusory, discontinuous, metamorphic, — because when you throw everything up in the air anything becomes possible — wayupthere, at any rate, changes took place in delirious actors that would have gladdened the heart of old Mr. Lamarck: under extreme environmental pressure, characteristics were acquired.

The searing chutzpah of this flagrant aside, which not only claims some tenuous association with Lamarck (the beginnings of a half-baked 550-page riff on immigrants vastly outshadowed by the work of Junot Diaz, Arundhati Roy, Alfredo Vea, and many more), but has the temerity to justify its lack of inventive prowess with the “anything becomes possible” line, was probably responsible for me feeling terribly queasy about reading anything written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende for a long goddam while. But maybe I detected, quite rightly as it turns out, that Rushdie was a man who was less committed to the art and more concerned with having a doting shoulder to cry on each year when the fine folks in Stockholm wisely denied him the Nobel.

Some years ago, Other Press was kind enough to send me a copy of Michael Crummey’s Galore. I very much enjoyed the novel and, when I talked with Crummey as he rolled through New York, I was relieved to hear that he was a bit discomfited by Marquez as well. I learned that Crummey was more concerned with reckoning with 19th century Newfoundland, in which much of its population lived hardscrabble lives that often ended around fifty-five. Galore, with its discovery of on albino inside a beached whale, felt to me like magical realism done right.

But now that I’ve read Kathleen Spivack’s Unspeakable Things, a book so jampacked with story strands that the only way one can really describe it is to point out that it involves émigrés who have fled from World War II’s turmoil and who are contending with unanticipated memories (apologies for the pat summation), I believe I’m now ready to stop avoiding magical realism. For long stretches of this wonderfully vivacious and often daring novel, it never occurred to me that the book was magical realism, even as the fingers of prominent violinists (the Tolstoi String Quartet, which appears to be based on the infamous Kolisch Quartet) express Nazi sympathies or one of its major characters (Anna, aka the Rat, called so for spending so much of her life sedentary) is physically transformed (complete with burnt-in handprints) after repeat sexual assaults by Rasputin. Spivack’s invention is rooted in a keen interest in prewar Vienna that has been reflected in many of her poems and a great love for music that, as Spivack revealed in a recent Rumpus interview, was carefully compartmentalized through playlists she selected for each character that Spivack would play while writing. Unspeakable Things is willing to impart an atmosphere through many moods. Aside from the aforementioned magical realism, there is a lyrical drive — such as an Esperanto-hawking idealist named Herbert in denial about his personal accomplishments, the ghost of Herbert’s gay son that seems to curl around any stray pipe, and the “keen animal sharpness” of New York’s harsh winds. There is an attention to telling gesture with the Rat’s constant smoothing of her hands against her clothes and a witty portrayal of the traveling musician’s life with an appreciative audience who leaves far too many casseroles at the violinist’s door.

One never feels betrayed by Spivack because her particular spin on magical realism is never used gratuitously. The Rat’s compulsion to dance, her exhaustion from an “an orgasm of endless talking,” not only serves the story, but is a subtle callback to Freud badgering his female patients during the Vienna Secession. Spivack is more inclined to explore the inner minds and hearts of her characters and the Holocaust’s lingering shadow through behavior that emerges from her characters. One never has to worry about some portentous “soft, imperceptible field…made possible by the century” that the reader MUST pay attention to. But just as Spivack’s novel strikes varying levels of invention to propel its narrative, it also manages to tap into a surprising well of hilarity, sadness, outrageousness, and foreboding within its engaging pages.

Interestingly enough, Spivack herself is seventy-seven and Unspeakable Things is her debut novel. And I very much wish this book had been around twenty years ago instead of the infuriating Rushdie. Because if this novel had been one of my main introductions to magical realism, I never would have soured on the form. And I certainly wouldn’t have taken six weeks to tell you why this book is worth reading.

Better late than never.

(Photo: Dominick Reuter)


The Bat Segundo Show: Deborah Scroggins

Deborah Scroggins appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #431. She is most recently the author of Wanted Women: Faith, Lies & The War on Terror: The Lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui. My response to Dwight Garner’s New York Times review, which contains more links and information, is also helpful background reading for this interview.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Oscillating between two polar points.

Author: Deborah Scroggins

Subjects Discussed: Salman Rushdie and the Jaipur Literature Festival debacle, India’s political sensitivity, Islamic pluralism, Theo van Gogh’s assassination, why so many intellectual figures supported Ayaan Hirsi Ali (even after revelations of falsehood), Affia Siddiqui’s fundamentalism while a student at MIT and Brandeis, Hirsi Ali’s desire to abolish Article 23 of the Dutch Constitution, Muslim schools in the Netherlands, Hirsi Ali’s belief that all Islam is dangerous, Siddiqui’s close ties to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Siddiqui’s 86 year prison sentence and murky details in the early stages of her capture, the Justice Department not trying Siddiqui on terrorism, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, how Siddiqui’s treatment has impacted U.S.-Pakistani relations, the Hague spending $3 million a year to protect Hirsi Ali in the United States, the Foundation for the Freedom of Expression, the degree of danger against Hirsi Ali in the U.S., Siddiqui’s lawyers backing off from initial charges that Siddiqui was being tortured in Bagram, Abu Lababa’s claims that Pakistan was going to come under attack from the United States, why Pakistan only selectively observed certain facts relating to Aafia Siddiqui, unchecked claims of Siddiqui has cancer and got pregnant in prison, advantages in not talking with Siddiqui and Hirsi Ali for a dual biography, Scroggins’s efforts to stay objective, Daniel Pearl’s murder, Bernard Henri-Lévy’s claims that there are ties between the ISI and the Deobandi jihadists, speaking with Khalid Khawaja, efforts to steer Scroggins away from Siddiqui, trying to find the truth given so many inconsistent stories and motivations, Yvonne Ridley‘s press conference offering further claims concerning Siddiqui, why Scroggins unthinkingly forwarded a Pakistani journalist’s email to Siddiqui’s lawyers, how lack of journalistic care puts people in danger, Hirsi Ali’s positive qualities, finding the balance between defending extreme free speech and knowing the implications, considerations of nonviolent Islam, connections between Siddiqui and Hirsi Ali, and how extremism feeds upon itself.


Correspondent: I’d like to calibrate this conversation with recent events in India. There was, of course, the whole Salman Rushdie affair at the Jaipur Literature Festival. He gets a report indicating that there are going to be hit men from the Mumbai underworld who are going to assassinate him. So he decides not to go. Then he pulls out. And then Hari Kunzru with various other authors actually read from The Satanic Verses, which is banned in India. Then they have to leave. And then it’s discovered that Rushdie has, in fact, been relying on fabricated police reports, which makes everything extremely interesting. And then, most recently this morning, the latest escapade reaches almost a reductio ad absurdum level in the sense that Jay Leno tells a joke and this is considered a grave offense and they want the government to step in. So all this is happening — as I’m thinking and considering your book, which deals with two key polar figures — Aafia Siddiqui and Ayaan Hirsi Ali — and I’m curious about this. It seems to me that we have an environment in which extremes beget extremes beget extremes. And I’m wondering how understanding figures like Hirsi Ali and Siddiqui leads us to contemplating more Islamic pluralism. Moderation. Or is such a thing possible? Maybe we can start off from there.

Scroggins: Well, absolutely. That could be the whole point of my book. That extremes beget extremes. And there’s no doubt that both of these women — Aayan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui — owe their fame to their enemies. Because if Ayaan Hirsi Ali had never been threatened, she would never have been asked to stand for Parliament in the Netherlands. And then if her film collaborator, Theo van Gogh, hadn’t been murdered on the streets of Amsterdam, she wouldn’t have become internationally famous. Aafai Siddiqui, on the other hand, became famous because she was hunted by the CIA and because the CIA and the Pakistani government were actually kidnapping people and holding them in secret prisons, it came to be believed that they were lying when they said that they didn’t know where Aafia Siddiqui was. And no one would believe them, even though in this case they probably were telling the truth.

Correspondent: But how, using the lives of these two women, does a legitimate concern for radical Islam’s suppression of women transform into extremism? I mean, is it the inevitability of the present climate? Whether it be in India or the Netherlands or elsewhere?

Scroggins: Well, I don’t think it has to. I think there are thousands and thousands of women, Muslim women, working to improve women’s rights in the Muslim world who don’t necessarily see a conflict between Islam and democracy and human rights. There’s fascinating things happening as we’ve seen with the Arab Spring. So it doesn’t have to be that way. But in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s case, she has taken the position that Islam is to blame for the oppression of women in the Muslim world.

Correspondent: All of it.

Scroggins: Yeah. So that’s her stance. And it’s been an enormously popular one in the West.

Correspondent: Why do you think it’s so popular in the West? And why do you think Ayaan Hirsi Ali has managed to attract so many notable intellectual figures? As you point out in the book, Rushdie and Sam Harris author this LA Times editorial. You’ve got, of course, Christopher Hitchens supporting her — three days later, revelations occur — in Slate Magazine. You have Anne Applebaum. And they’re still supporting her — even as it’s discovered that she has lied about her asylum application. Even as she is demanding a 50 million Euro security detail from the EC. Unsuccessfully. I’m curious how a person like this also becomes one of the 100 Most Influential People named by Time Magazine. Is it pure charisma? What is the intellectual value of a figure like Hirsi Ali?

Scroggings: Well, the idea that Islam is responsible for the oppression of women is a very old idea in the West. It goes back hundreds of years. So it’s got a lot of roots here. So when somebody says that, it basically coincides with what people believe. So that’s one reason. I think with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, what really has made her so popular is her incredibly personal story. It’s very inspiring how she tells it. Her coming to the West. Becoming converted to Western ideas. Shaking off Islam. And then being threatened with death for speaking out against it. A lot of people feel very sympathetic to her and feel inspired by her because of that. So I think that’s really why she’s gained such an influential backing. And as to why she got named the 100 Most Influential People, that came right after the murder of Theo van Gogh. And I think it was sort of a sympathy vote on Time Magazine’s part. Because prior to all this, she was a very new junior legislator in the Dutch Parliament. Not somebody who would normally be considered one of the most influential people in the world.

Correspondent: It’s fascinating to me that a good story would be all it would take to ingratiate yourself into the intellectual world. And as we’ve seen with the Rushdie thing, he also fell for a good story as well. I mean, why do you think that narrative seems to trump the investigation? Is it difficult, as you learned over the course of writing this book, to pluck away at the pores, so to speak?

Scroggins: Yes, it is. Because a lot of her story is true. And it is inspiring to people. So that’s a big part of it. Some of the things that have come out — for example, the stories that she told to the asylum authorities. You ask why haven’t her backers backed away from her on account of that. Well, I think it’s because a lot of them feel like they might have done the same thing under the same circumstances. There’s still a lot of sympathy for her, despite the fact. And she has admitted to these lies.

Correspondent: So she’s offered enough remorse in the viewpoint of many of these figures who are supporting her.

Scroggins: Yeah. I don’t know if she’s remorseful. Because she admits that if she hadn’t done it, she would never have become the person that she is today. And it’s hard to see how she would. She would have remained in Kenya.

Correspondent: Well, let’s try to swap between Siddiqui and Hirsi Ali, comparable to your book. When Aafia Siddiqui was getting her doctorate in neuroscience at Brandeis, she actually told her professors that the Koran prefigured scientific knowledge and that the scientist’s job was to discover how the laws of the Koran worked. I’m curious. How was she able to get away with this approach at MIT and Brandeis? I mean, she was able to go ahead and cleave to these religious views and still actually get her education. Can we chalk this up to a profound misunderstanding of Islam at our highest institutions? What of this?

Scroggins: Well, when she started saying these things at Brandeis, her professors were completely shocked. They told me that they had never had a fundamentalist of any description in the program, the neuroscience program at Brandeis. And they actually went back to MIT and they tried to find out. Had she had these views when she had been an undergraduate at MIT? And as far as they could find out, she hadn’t said anything in the science classes at MIT that led anyone to believe that she was a fundamentalist. So that’s one of the mysteries. Whether she sort of changed her views and became more outspoken or whether just nobody paid any attention at MIT. But at any event, by the time that she came to Brandeis, she was done speaking out about this. She was such a brilliant student. She could do all the work, the scientific work, and still make straight As. And her professors still told her, “You’ve just got to keep religion out of it.”

Correspondent: And that was enough.

Scroggins: Yeah.

The Bat Segundo Show #431: Deborah Scroggins (Download MP3)

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Midnight’s Children (Modern Library #90)

(This is the eleventh entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Tobacco Road)

It is somehow appropriate to announce, on the 235th anniversary of my nation announcing its independence from Great Britain, my independence from Salman Rushdie. Midnight’s Children is Rushdie’s allegorical novel about India declaring its independence from Great Britain. My announcement is buttressed by the fact that Rushdie himself is British and presently living in the city I happen to live in, albeit in a less interesting borough than mine.

Ultimately, one must separate the art from the artist. Patricia Highsmith preferred the company of animals to people, and was cruel to many. Norman Mailer stabbed his wife. Knut Hamsun sent Goebbels his Nobel Prize as a gift and called Hitler “a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations” after his death. Yet in Rushdie’s case, it has been difficult to draw the distinction, in large part because Rushdie himself is (a) a study in contradictions and (b) not yet dead. The man has sometimes proved so humorless that, when Insulted by Authors‘s Bill Ryan approached him for an insult, the good-natured literary enthusiast received this response from Sir Salman: “Well, why would you want to bring more insults on yourself?” And this seemed a needless extension of Rushdie’s efforts to enforce his will upon others. A few years ago, Rushdie caused Terry Eagleton to partially recant for taking him to task for his neoliberal imperialism. There have been lawsuits. On the other hand, Rushdie did support online criticism much earlier than one would expect from an apparent windbag.

* * *

When I was 22, I read Midnight’s Children for the first time. I was seduced, like many young and impressionable readers, by the language. I also liked Shame and Haroun and the Sea of Stories. I thought The Satanic Verses to be a sensationalistic exercise. The infamous book had earned Rushdie a fatwā, resulting in many years of hiding (with a £10 million tab to UK taxpayers for protecting him over a decade) and a bizarre exchange of letters between Rushdie, John le Carré, and Christopher Hitchens over free speech. Then I read The Moor’s Last Sigh and was greatly underwhelmed. I had the sense that Rushdie’s big mammoth books were less about engaging the reader’s interest and more about forcing the reader to submit. Where was the Rushdie who had charmed in the earlier books?

Still, I decided to give the man another chance. I read Shalimar the Clown and discovered a remarkably ho-hum book despite the promising title. I had observed Rushdie at a few literary events I had attended, seeing a man who appeared to be in love with himself. Since Rushdie wasn’t going away anytime soon, I figured the best thing to do would be to ignore the guy. Let the man stay busy with his half-assed involvement with politics and the film world. Let him have fun persuading supermodels and actresses decades his junior to hop into bed with him. It’s a free country. I didn’t need Rushdie.

So I had thought myself done with the man. It had not occurred to me that Rushdie would pop up like some zombie surprise when I threw down the gauntlet back in January.

* * *

Ultimately one must separate the art from the artist. And I cannot deny, in my thirties, that Midnight’s Children is a stylistically accomplished novel. If you know nothing about Rushdie and you are young and in need of patois, it will almost certainly fulfill a need. It is adept in stringing the reader along. Chapters begin with bold bursts of storytelling: “To tell the truth, I lied about Shiva’s death” and “No! — but I must.” So in Saleem Sinai, you have an unreliable narrator who is lying and twisting and inventing and rambling, but always giving you more. And by bringing in such side characters as the Brass Monkey begging, “Come on, Saleem; nobody’s listening, what did you do? Tell tell tell!” and in deftly deploying dependable tricks such as swapped babies and secret basements and political intrigue and creepy soldiers at tables and convenient coincidences, Rushdie’s gargantuan story reminds the reader that not only is this a story, but it’s a story familiar with story. There are indeed very few places in the book where I wasn’t aware that what I was reading was a story.

But Rushdie is not a writer who I enjoy reading now.

Perhaps it is because life is more than story. Or maybe I have reached a point where story is no longer enough to satisfy me in a novel. I confess that I had to take three twelve mile walks, dutifully flipping and sweating into the pages in the humidity, in order to finish this book. And even then, this eccentric form of self-discipline was countered by the many dogs, kids, and people who I talked with along the way — all of whom proved more worthy of my time and more interesting than Midnight’s Children.

The issue is not India’s marvelous history. Before rereading Midnight’s Children, I decided to read an enormous book (Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi), which outlined the great nation’s vivid history in remarkably clear and quite interesting detail. I figured that knowing more about Nehru and Indira and Sanjay — to say nothing of the Kashmir conflict, the battles with China over Tibet, and the wars with Pakistan — would give me additional insight and interest into Rushdie’s carpet bag. And yes indeed! I became very excited to step right up and enter Rushdie’s rollercoaster.

Until I realized the lack of tensility in the track.

The issue is not my mixed feelings about magical realism. I should probably confess that, while I’m almost always game for fantasy and speculative fiction and Murakami’s surreality, magical realism has felt like a cheat to me. Yet in revisiting the Midnight’s Children Conference, Saleem Sinai’s nose, and his ability to clamber inside other people’s heads, I found these portrayals justifiable because Rushdie remained fairly fluid with his allegory.

The issue is not complexity. Even now, when I read Joyce or Faulkner or Gaddis, I still have a good time doing so. I delight over the sentences and the jokes and the obscure words and the convoluted plots and the complex character relationships revealing more human insight, and I still feel very much alive on the second or third or fourth read. (Since some of these titles are contained on the Modern Library list, I look forward to experiencing this life again!)

Rather, the issue is Saleem/Salman’s desperate need to be liked, to smother the reader into a participatory role rather than that of a peer or a fellow adventurer seeking mystery and ambiguity. Back in 1981, Rushdie’s hey presto smashing mingling mixing form of writing was fresh and innovative: a defiant assertion from a wily wordsmith sticking up for his needlessly neglected home turf.

But thirty years later?

* * *

Statement Posited in Recent Weeks to Random Smart Literary People in Empirical Attempt to Determine Rushdie’s Current Stature: “I’m reading Midnight’s Children.”

Literary Person #1: “Oh, that’s great.” (Begrudging tone, recalling something distasteful — as if one is supposed to like the book rather than genuinely like it. Efforts to press Literary Person #1 on subject prove fruitless.)

Literary Person #2: “I read that in my early 20s.” (It’s the opening paragraph she likes, although she agrees with me that Lolita‘s opening is better. Have you reread it?) “No.” (Would you?) “No.”

Literary Person #3: “Oh….Rushdie.” (Do you like him?) “…” (Do you know him?) “…” (What’s wrong with Rushdie?) “Let’s just say I’d rather read Naipaul.” (You and me both.)

* * *

Indagating further:

independent: adj. 1. not influenced or controlled by others in matters of opinion, conduct, etc; thinking or acting for oneself: an independent thinker 2. not subject to another’s authority or jurisdiction; autonomous; free: an independent businessman.

What type of person initially read Midnight’s Children? Let’s slide the lectern to our man Rushdie:

“The people who like the book most are young. That’s obviously a simplification, but it’s interesting that very large numbers of the people who came to meet me or hear my talks were very young. They were all Saleem’s generation or younger. And I like that. I felt that it was right that the people who were the essential subjects in the book had taken it for themselves and made it their own. Endless numbers of people, not just in Bombay, would come up to me and say, ‘You shouldn’t have written this book. We know all this stuff. We could have written this book.’ And I thought that was an extraordinary thing for a writer to be told — much the biggest compliment anyone has ever paid me. The older generation, I suspect, were often shocked by it.” — Rushdie in conversation with Una Chaudhuri (interview conducted 1983, published in 1990 in Turnstile 2.1)

* * *

In 2011, I am neither especially old nor especially young. I was born in the state of California…once upon a time. No, that won’t do. There’s no getting away from the book.

I was not especially shocked by Midnight’s Children: not even with the book’s admirable depiction of forced sterilizations. But the assault upon the magicians ghetto near the end felt very much like an author desperately needing to justify his novel’s importance:

…standing in the chaos of the slum clearance programme, I was shown once again that the ruling dynasty of India had learned how to replicate itself; but then there was no time to think, the numberless labia-lips and lanky-beauties were seizing magicians and old beggars, people were being dragged towards the vans, and now a rumor spread through the colony of magicians: “they are doing nasbandi — sterilization is being performed!”

Note the way that Saleem telegraphs this horror to the reader without subtlety. Instead of letting the dreadful action speak for itself, Rushdie feels the need to frame it through “the ruling dynasty of India.” The prose here begs (pardon the crass pun) for a rhythmic juxtaposition between “labia-lips and lanky-beauties” and “magicians and old beggars,” but aside from the visual dashes and a few alliterative Ls in the first phrase, we have commonplace discordance. Is this an occupational hazard of communicating through a mishmash Mother India tongue? Saleem is capable enough to joke of a “djinn-soaked evening,” but why the explicit explanation for nasbandi? (Later Rushdie novels are, in fact, less literal than Midnight’s Children. But it is interesting to me that the Rushdie novel that is most celebrated is the one most cemented in explanation.)

* * *

Indagating further:

Rushdie’s early copywriting teaches him to condense. “Midnight’s Children may be long, but I don’t think it’s overwritten.” (The Sunday Times, October 25, 1981)

Rushdie establishes his vocational conditions on his own terms. “There are quite a lot of writers too who do advertising part-time. They both use it for the same reasons, a means to an end. I used to work never more than two days a week in advertising. Those two days would finance the other five. It’s very difficult for a completely unknown writer with no private means to find five-sevenths of his week entirely free for his own writing. In that sense, it was very useful. But it was also good to get out of it.” (Debonair Reviews, February 1982)

* * *

In Midnight’s Children, Saleem declares “…in autobiography, as in all literature, what actually happened is less important than what the author can manage to persuade his audience to believe.” Rushdie has denied that Midnight’s Children is a historical novel in numerous interviews. Is belief the only quality that remains? Aadam Aziz, Saleem’s grandfather, is separated from his friends by “this belief of theirs that he was somehow the invention of their ancestors.” And yet belief related to birth is both problematic and ugly, as when Saleem states his “belief that Pavarti-the-witch became pregnant in order to invalidate my only defense against marrying her.” Then there is India’s “national longing for form” — “perhaps simply an expression of our deep belief that forms lie hidden within reality.” The midnight children do eventually lose belief in the very mechanism Saleem creates for them.

So if belief in Midnight’s Children cannot be tied to history, cannot be tied to people both real and imagined, and cannot be manifested even in the positive events that Saleem describes in hindsight (even the ones that result in betrayal), why then should we believe in Saleem? Why should we believe in Rushdie?

It seems to me that what I have been protesting through this essay — admittedly in the manner of an easily distracted tap dancer who longs for another ballroom — is not so much the idea of a novel reframing intricate history in a quirky and robust manner (which Midnight’s Children does quite well at times), but the troubling notion of Saleem (and by extension Salman) refusing to believe or burrow into belief.

In a 1996 interview, The Critical Quarterly‘s Colin McCabe asked Rushdie about the idea of creating a version of Islamic culture that could be inherited without belief. Rushdie replied (in part), “I felt that I had inherited the culture without the belief, and that the stories belonged to me as well. And because they belonged to me they were mine to use, in, if you like, my way.”

So if Rushdie sees culture, both religious and secular, as mere mechanical strata to pluck and claim as his own, then perhaps I’m objecting to his inherent insensitivity: his brazen ownership of other people’s ideas without recognizable deference to the originators. But in claiming ideas so totally in Midnight’s Children (an admittedly admirable performance), I don’t think he leaves nearly enough for the reader.

Next Up: Henry Green’s Loving!

Lifestyles I'm Sorry Take Two

The Follies of Emotional Expression

Lifestyles I'm Sorry Take Two

ITEM: September 1, 2009. A YouTube video surfaces. In the video, Van Jones calls Congressional Republicans “assholes.” The video is from an event in February 11, 2009. Jones was appointed by President Obama in March 2009. After considerable outcry from conservatives, Jones resigns from his White House position as Special Advisor for Green Jobs.

ITEM: September 8, 2009. President Obama delivers a speech before Congress. Rep. Joe Wilson (R – SC) shouts “You lie!” in the middle of the speech. Wilson apologizes, but the matter isn’t dropped. There are countless efforts to find ways to respond to Wilson’s words (is it racism as Jimmy Carter suggests a week later?). There is endless chatter by liberals and conservatives alike. More than a week later, Joe Wilson remains in the news.

ITEM: September 13, 2009. Serena Williams goes ballistic at the US Open. She is fined $10,000 for delivering a tirade at a judge. (She is also docked $500 for racket abuse. It was a tough racket.)

ITEM: September 13, 2009. Taylor Swift wins a Video Music Award. In the middle of her acceptance, Kanye West grabs the microphone out of Swift’s hands and shouts, “I’m sorry, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.”

ITEM: September 13, 2009. President Obama is asked about Kanye West and Obama calls West a “jackass.” Efforts to prevent the tweet, the audio clip, and the video clip from disseminating around the Internet fail. Most side with the President.

One could probably include many other visceral explosions in recent history. Sherman Alexie, Alain de Botton, Alice Hoffman, Michael Richards, Christian Bale, or Don Imus all come to mind. But the above items all went down this month. We still have about two weeks to go before September’s over. It appears very likely that more public figures will erupt (or interrupt) with a subtlety worthy of Vesuvius.

But what do these reactions mean? And what is the appeal? It would be superficial to blame it all on the media, although the media is going out of its way to perpetuate these stories. (Arguably, as a questionable media source, I am going out of my way to perpetuate these stories, although I am trying to ruminate on it all instead of getting away from it.) Could it be that the tendency to fixate on these incidents involves some desire to make sense of these reactions? Maybe. I doubt that any of us could have predicted that POTUS would have managed to mix himself up in a Kanye West tirade, particularly when more pressing concerns like unemployment and health care are burning up national peat. But politics is now just as vital to the celebrity-industrial complex as sports, movies, and music. (It could hardly have been an accident that the FOX Network timed its announcement of Ellen DeGeneres as new American Idol judge to coincide with the President’s speech.)

Instead of trying to understand these visceral impulses, it has become the duty of every cultural observer to perpetuate the shallow headlines rather than plunge deeper. Are two words or two sentences really enough to denounce someone? Is this not continuing the soundbite culture? (No accident that Twitter, itself a bedrock of textual soundbites, was one of the major conduits through which these stories spread.) Should we not judge these people on a more complete impression? What resides beneath the comments?

Van Jones’s “assholes” admonishment came when the assembled group was trying to understand how bipartisanship could be an option when the Republicans remained obdurate. That’s a fairly interesting question, but it’s too bad that sensitive ears and Penn Ave propriety weeded Jones out.

Joe Wilson, as inappropriate as his actions were, was trying to express his passion. And isn’t understanding that passion, as unsettling as the motivations may be, the more important concern here? If we calmly listened to people, as Al Franken patiently did, wouldn’t this cut down on conservatives showing up at town meetings packing heat? Why not ask questions? Or see where people are coming from? Why did Wilson think that Obama was lying? And why aren’t we discussing the more interesting facts?

The Nation‘s Dave Zern observed that Roger Federer had a tantrum two days after Serena Williams, but Federer wasn’t upbraided in the press as severely as Williams. Is there a double standard? Does Federer get a free pass because he isn’t African-American and he isn’t a woman? Maybe it has more to do with celebrity figures fulfilling our expectations. After all, Federer is known more for his calm demeanor on the court. Williams, on the other hand, is known for her temper. Shouldn’t Federer’s incongruous reaction (“I don’t give a shit what he said” uttered on national TV) be rejoined with greater severity? And shouldn’t we praise Serena Williams for handling a future game with calm professionalism? Are we not just as guilty with our predictable responses? Are we true to our nature?

Kanye West acted like a jackass (a subjective view), but he never called Taylor Swift a jackass (the objective quote). He told Swift that he was “very happy” for her before turning his back and denying her moment. And yet President Obama, who used an ad hominem remark to respond to the whole mess, has neither given an apology nor been asked for an apology. (Contrast this with the Cambridge Police Department demanding an apology from Obama in late July, after Obama declared that the police had “acted stupidly” in the Henry Louis Gates arrest. Obama didn’t apologize, but there was a beer summit.)

Since the President has become involved in these public disputes with greater frequency, and he reserves the right to tell people that they “acted stupidly” or call someone a “jackass,” then perhaps he should start setting a better example for rational bipartisan discourse. Or perhaps he should abandon his “civilized” remarks and call people “jackass” from time to time. (Nixon was hardly a President to be proud of, but it’s worth noting that he had no problem using the word “cocksucker.”)

Maybe there’s something else at work here pertaining to executive privilege. The New York Times reported that New York City’s unemployment rate hit 10.3% in August, a 16-year-old high. The national unemployment rate still holds at just under 10% — the highest unemployment rate since 1983. As of April, two million jobs were lost in 2009. In tough times, when those who are fortunate enough to remain employed have a strong desire to stay mum and keep their jobs, and when millions of unemployed people can’t take any chances, it makes intuitive sense to look vicariously towards those who have this executive privilege of emotional expression.

But if emotional expression is so atavistic, shouldn’t it be predicated on egalitarianism? Is it not a double standard for Van Jones to be dismissed while Obama keeps his job? Subjectively, I happen to think that Obama was correct in both instances. But why can’t somebody who isn’t the President make such statements and not have to go through the endless rigmarole of apologizing over the course of multiple interviews? Why can’t we just accept someone’s apology and move on? If we don’t, then the purpose of an apology is useless or the apology doesn’t fit the apparent punishment for the crime. And if we don’t accept other people, which includes listening to their heightened emotional expression, then this runs counterintuitive to eclectic discourse.

If emotional expression is reserved only for those at the top, then should we really be surprised by the people who show up at tea parties? Should we really be surprised that Glenn Beck’s popularity has risen dramatically during the Obama Administration?

Perhaps these people are expressing extraordinary emotions like this because society has established unspoken prohibitions in the manner by which they communicate. As I type this sentence, I happen to believe that Salman Rushdie is a cunt. I could tell you why if you asked me. And if Rushdie were to explain himself, I would be happy to listen. If he had a reasonable explanation for his cunt-like behavior, I might change my mind. But because I have stated that “Salman Rushdie is a cunt,” people will see this and possibly believe me to be an asshole. But should such a sentence discount all the thoughtful and positive sentences I have ever uttered? And is my opinion of Rushdie so inflexible? By our present emotional expressive standards, this would certainly be the case if I had, by some lark, achieved the fame of Serena Williams.

But let’s approach this issue from another sideways shuffle. It is very possible that you, dear reader, harbor a feeling, however permanent or temporary, that someone that you know is a cunt. If that sentiment is permanent, and if it is not subject to change, then you may not be a civilized person. (Or, in Joe Wilson’s words, you lie!) But if you accept the follies of your emotional expression and you remain flexible enough to change it or to embrace it, then it is very probable that you are a civilized person, assuming that you aren’t a sociopath.

And now that I’ve thought about it, I don’t think that I believe that Salman Rushdie is a cunt. I believed it just now, but after thinking about it, it seems ridiculous to place a writer who has written a novel as great as Midnight’s Children into the same milieu as Hitler, Nixon, and Genghis Khan (to name only a few rotten apples, but, to give Hitler that cliched benefit of the doubt, he treated his dogs well). I have not thought to strike the sentence from this essay. But if this were published somewhere, I’m certain that very few editors would print the phrase “Salman Rushdie is a cunt.”

Is it reasonable to prohibit ad hominem or emotional expression? Or to dwell on it, as it crops up from time to time, as if it something to be skimmed over and over like a four-second tape loop? Only if you believe that humans — or, with the second rhetorical question, a select civilized elite — are capable of nothing more than profound enlightenment. Humans certainly do great things, don’t they? But if you’re naive enough to believe that they contribute nothing but thoughtful contributions, then I urge you to acquaint yourself with the many psychopaths who have chewed up the scenery over the course of human history.)

But let’s say that we accept emotional expression and slow down with these knee-jerk responses. We therefore give those who practice this perfectly normal tendency an opportunity to explain or atone. The eccentric contributors come out of the closet. Innovators who have held their tongues are permitted to communicate wild ideas and become part of the process. And we expand the repertoire of human behavior. There will probably be ugliness, but ugliness can be rectified without forcing horses to drink the water. Asking people to constantly apologize — often before a camera — is the action of an autocratic enforcer who has no faith in humankind. But when two people listen to each other without instantaneous judgment, you can plant seeds instead of chopping down trees.


Demand Curry Accountability from John Sutherland!

Despite John Sutherland’s previous pledge that he would curry and eat his proof copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence if the book did not win the Booker Prize, Mr. Sutherland revealed to the Guardian this morning that he would not fulfill his promise! He does say that he “might manage a custard pie on October 10.” But a custard pie isn’t good enough, Mr. Sutherland! A custard pie is not a curried proof copy! Not by a long shot!

This is curry hypocrisy of the first order!

The time has come to publicly scold Mr. Sutherland for failing to live up to the terms of the stunt. I therefore announce the John Sutherland Curry Hypocrite Photoshop Contest. Send in your graphical response to Sutherland’s curry flip-flopping, along with your URL and mailing address. I will post the entries over the next several weeks, as they come in. The winner of the contest will receive a copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence. The email address is ed@edrants.com.

[UPDATE: Mr. Orthofer likewise takes Sutherland to task.]


Booker Shortlist Announced, John Sutherland Dinner Date In Works?

This year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist has been announced, and Rushdie is not on it.

What this means is that John Sutherland, who promised that he would curry and eat his proof copy of The Enchantress of Florence if Rushdie’s book did not win the Booker, is now under a certain gustatory obligation reminiscent of a certain German filmmaker.

If Sutherland does not eat his proof copy, then one can never take the man’s word seriously again. Never! Fair is fair, Sutherland. You promised to eat your proof copy. The time has come to live up to your pledge.

Here is the shortlist:

Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger
Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture
Amtiva Ghosh, Sea of Poppies
Linda Grant, The Clothes on Their Backs
Philip Hensher, The Northern Clemency
Steve Toltz, A Fraction of the Whole

[UPDATE: Sutherland won’t do it! He is not a man of his word. Tread carefully around Sutherland’s culinary duplicity! For shame!]


Stanley Fish, Sherry Jones, and the Free Market Apparatchiks

I am certainly not a fan of Salman Rushdie’s limitless capacity for self-promotion, but I am even less enamored of smug academics who wish to split hairs over the term “censorship” to serve their partisan purposes. Rushdie, of course, expressed understandable umbrage over Random House’s decision to withdraw Sherry Jones’s debut novel, The Jewel of Medina from publication. Random House pulled the book because it feared that Jones’s book “could incite racial conflict.” This was, of course, a decision that was every bit as cowardly as those who stood against desegregated schools in the 1960s and 1970s. A bigot during those times might likewise oppose this small step for humankind by claiming that busing kids into other neighborhoods “could incite racial conflict.” It is, in other words, a speculative proposition. A decision based on a peremptory what if. The “all Americans need to watch what they say, watch what they do” form of fearmongering popularized by Ari Fleischer is now just as applicable to spineless corporate goons who fail to consider that controversy has also been known to sell. (Indeed, in Rushdie’s case, The Satanic Verses sold very well indeed.)

But this is not really about Rushdie and it is not really about Random House. It is about Stanley Fish’s refusal to accept the possibility that the American publishing industry does indeed censor. Fish begins his post with free market bluster:

It is also true, however, that Random House is free to publish or decline to publish whatever it likes, and its decision to do either has nothing whatsoever to do with the Western tradition of free speech or any other high-sounding abstraction.

Change “Random House” to “Stalinist Russia” and Fish shifts from a capitalist crusader into a bona-fide apparatchik. But never mind that. In examining the etymology of the word “censor,” one must go back to the Roman era when magistrates were then in the habit of legislating public behavior and morality. To be as literal-minded as Fish (censorship only applies to government entities and not the free market), it seems to me that “censorship” is no longer viable as a noun, given that the Roman Empire is no longer around. Fish’s argument is an example of an equivocation. If I tell you that an bird must fly, and I then tell you that what cannot fly is grounded, and I point out that an ostrich is grounded and therefore cannot be a bird, you wouldn’t accept the terms of my argument. In fact, you would string me up and inform me that I am a moron, which would be a well-deserved assessment. And yet Fish has done the same thing with the term “censorship.”

Of course, Rushdie didn’t just use the word “censorship” in his letter to the Associated Press. As Bill Poser has pointed out, Rushdie used the phrase “censorship by fear,” conveniently elided by Fish to serve the terms of his fallacious argument.

Fish does offer a somewhat more valid thesis by comparing the restriction of Jones’s book to a library refusing to stock a book from the shelves. Unfortunately, he makes a comparison that is patently unmeasurable to what befell Jones. He claims that if you can’t get a book from the library, “[y]ou can still get it from Amazon.com or buy it in Borders.” But Jones’s book is not available anywhere else. It was dropped by Random House — i.e., it won’t be published. And, as the record shows, a Serbian publisher stepped in to print 1,000 copies, but stopped the presses when it received protests from a Belgrade mufti. What Fish doesn’t seem to understand is that you can’t obtain this book anywhere else.

If I wanted to go out and purchase a copy of Jones’s book right now, I simply couldn’t. Random House has thereby operated in a lieu of a government body and prevented this book from being distributed to a mass audience. An act of censorship applies to the writing, not the writer. It doesn’t matter that Jones hasn’t been imprisoned for her words. That Fish cannot understand this suggests that he hasn’t paid attention to the media developments of the past twenty years, in which imprisonment has been replaced by the penalty of being denied the airwaves or, in this case, denied a publisher, with contractual details preventing or delaying alternative means of distribution.

Rushdie is absolutely right to declare this “censorship by fear.” “Censorship by fear” is now the way in which magistrating “indecent” material occurs, whether it be networks terrified of airing Janet Jackson’s nipple and facing stiff FCC penalties, an NPR regular who fears speaking unscripted or like an actual human, or a cowardly publishing conglomerate who adds a morality clause to a YA writer’s contract or stubs out a novel because of Denise Spellberg’s threats of a lawsuit. Make no mistake. This is censorship, 21st century style. And it’s as American as apple pie.

Reason #482 Why Salman Rushdie is a Colossal Douchebag

Los Angeles Times: “It was as a puckish media figure rather than as that ’employee’ that he attended Vanity Fair’s post-Oscar party and met Robert Altman — one of Rushdie’s proudest moments. ‘Late that night,’ Rushdie said, ‘I found him leaning against a bench at the side of the room, cradling his Academy Award. I sat down next to him and said hi. And I said, ‘Can I hold your Oscar?’ He said, ‘It’s bad luck, you know. . . . If you hold someone else’s Oscar you’ll never win your own.’ I said, ‘Give me the damn Oscar.’ So I held Bob’s Oscar. He died a few months later. It was the last time I’d seen him.'”

AUTHORS: Do You Have What It Takes?

It’s the ultimate reality series, the ultimate game show and the ultimate half-hour of intriguing storylines. The Ultimate Author is an awesome television program packed with entertaining, engaging and interesting events. Each week, contestants go toe-to-toe in a writing competition that tests their ability to develop attention-grabbing content.

Casting Call: June 16, 2007. Fort Lauderdale, FL.

[via gawker.]

Clowing Around with Slim Returns

As the Literary Saloon points out, Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown has sold only 26,000 copies, despite a massive publicity blitz. M.A.O. suggests that this is because nobody is really interested in reading Rushdie.

But I think the answer is simpler. Who, outside of hard-core literary geeks, can really remember a title like Shalimar the Clown? And are clowns really all that sexy? Perhaps in small doses, such as between acts at a circus. But not throughout the duration of an entire novel. (Which is not, incidentally, how Shalimar is structured, but we’re talking about impressions here!)

If I were Rushdie’s publisher, I would have urged Rushdie to come up with a title that didn’t involve clowns at all or that included words with no more than two syllables. Midnight’s Children? Sure. The Satanic Verses? Absolutely. Rolls off the tip of the tongue and cements itself into your head. But Shalimar the Clown? Not really a lot of enigma there. You may as well call the book Joe the Barber.

Besides, name a book or a film with the words “the clown” in it that has actually sold well. Not even a Robin Williams cameo in 1992 could save Shakes the Clown from losing dinero.

The moral of the story: If you want to make money, don’t include the words “the clown” in your title.

[UPDATE: OGIC notes that the Times may have the figure wrong and that the actual number is closer to 80,000. If this is indeed the case, then this is a serious journalistic mistake that deserves more than a mere “correction,” particularly since the article went out of its way to suggest that Rushdie sales fell dramatically short of publisher expectations, imputing that fiction sales were in a slump. (An image of the specific paragraph, if the Gray Lady corrects it, can be found here. Perhaps someone with a Bookscan account can contribute Shalimar‘s true sales here.]

Non-Katrina Roundup

  • Earlier in the year, Jenny McCarthy, one of the finest anthropologists of our time, sold a book for $1 million called Marriage Laughs. It was a book offering marriage advice. Unfortunately, it appears that Ms. McCarthy has had to go back to the drawing board. You see, she couldn’t follow her own advice. She’s divorcing husband John Asher. Perhaps she can successfully retool her book. After all, how many self-help books are out there that offer a winning formula for short-term marriage. Here’s a potential title for Ms. McCarthy: Short-Attention Span Marriage: A Modern Woman’s Guide to Getting the Most Out of Your Man for a Few Years.
  • Is Christopher Paolini the new J.K. Rowlng? He’s just 21 years old and Eldest, the sequel to Eragon, has sold more than 425,000 hardcover copies. If movies are involved, we only ask that Mr. Paolini hold out against offering the film rights to Chris Columbus.
  • The Rake believes that John Updike’s review of Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown is a pot/kettle/black situation.
  • And speaking of Rushdie, he’ll be part of a new History Channel series called The Write Stuff. Each episode will “reveal the trials and tribulations of these writers on their journey to literary success.” Why not a series dedicated to the struggling freelancer? Surely, the History Channel is interested in portraying a fair and accurate depiction of history (which does after all include losers), rather than recruiting big names to perpetuate the myth that one can actually make a living from writing, right?
  • For now, despite an impending move and a sartorial dilemma, David Kipen’s still banging out a column for the Chronicle. This time, perhaps alluding to his forthcoming departure, he writes that San Francisco Noir is “the perfect sadistic gift for somebody getting ready to miss the Bay Area like crazy.”
  • Like book reviews, scientific papers are about settling scores.
  • The Bay Guardian chats with cartoonist Justin Hall.
  • The Book Standard talks with newspaper editors about their bookloads. (via Haggis)
  • And if you’re in San Francisco, please note that tickets are now on sale for this year’s San Francisco Fringe Festival. How can you go wrong with Cervis with a Smile performed at Original Joe’s?

Rushdie Rumored to Be Joining Stanley Crouch for Anger Management Class

We’re not quite sure what to make of Salman Rushdie chasing down journalists with a baseball bat. On one hand, we’d probably be a bit pissed if we had to live secretly while a price was on our head or the novels we turned out were declared more and more irrelevant. But Rushdie’s fury was driven by words against his wife. We only wonder how he’ll survive the acid barbs of Fleet Street.

The Reader’s Last Sigh

The Associated Press reports that Rushdie’s new novel will “have a lot more India in it” than Midnight’s Children. That’s great. But it still doesn’t change the fact that Rushdie hasn’t written a single compelling novel since Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

Who says they aren’t crazy about libraries in the sticks? In Modesto, 100 volunteers are trying to maintain a small sales tax to ensure that their libraries stay open.

Geologists are trying to stop a creationist book from being sold at the Grand Canyon. The book, Grand Canyon: A Different View, suggests that the Canyon came into being not by the erosion of the Colorado River over millions of years, but because of a wager between Jesus and Peter. Peter lost the bet. And instead of turning water into wine, as Peter hoped, Jesus created the Grand Canyon. But not without starting a few side projects like lime jello and double-entry bookkeeping.

And Pete Rose has the best marketing gimmick around: “Read my book before judging me.”

[1/24/06 UPDATE: As of November 2004, the controversy died down. I am not in a position to confirm this, although I will try and make a phone call to determine what the National Park Service’s position is, but it appears that Tom Vail’s apocryphal book is still being sold at the Grand Canyon store. Of course, all this came well before any of the Intelligent Design bullshit. But the decidedly unscientific Tom Vail has remained quite smug about his victory.]