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Rushdie vs. Murdoch: A Review of Midnight's Children (and The Black Prince) - by Nowick Gray

After reading the first fifty pages of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, I tossed it away with disgust . . . something like the disgust I felt recently after waiting at a bus stop for a half an hour, for a scheduled bus that never arrived. (I finally gave up and walked the five kilometers home.) On the back cover of Rushdie's breakthrough novel are praises from reviewers across the English-speaking world: "brilliant and remarkable," "huge and engrossing," "important and vital," "prodigious and magnificent," "glittering and startling," and so on. What strikes me in this book is certainly a prodigious imagination, whereby language and characters sprawl across the page as if unloosed by a hurricane. I think of Rabelais, or Thomas Wolfe, or perhaps, as the reviewers suggest, Grass or Irving. But this ocean of verbiage is not my cup of tea . . . despite its narrator's gargantuan self-confidence that all will be permitted.

"Do you mind if I find you incomprehensible?" my partner said to me last night before I began reading.

"I don't ask to be found comprehensible," I replied.

"Only to be allowed to be as you are," she finished.

I guess Rushdie was given, or he assumed, the same license somewhere along the line. But I will prefer to go bookless now, content with the vast wordless sea a stone's throw from this cottage, rather than allow my consciousness to be deluged with the unbridled meanderings of a massive literary ego such as Rushdie's. There is no story to be told there, no construction of art, just pure artifice, bullshitting uncomposted and unproductive of any edible crop.

It wasn't the narrator-author's up-front intrusions that were most upsetting to this reader. On the contrary, they were the only thread of interest that kept me going, out of a certain formal curiosity. They are what this book shares with another book much higher in my personal ranking of literary value, Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince. I give the nod to Murdoch because her intrusive narrator is more clearly himself a fictional persona, than is Rushdie's thinly disguised autobiographical voice.

Murdoch's narrator Bradley Pearson, while dissembling as a "failed" novelist, proceeds to weave a taut, tight tale, a riveting plot which turns around his attempt to get away from his small London circle to a seaside writing retreat. During the course of the book, that quest for success becomes instead a quest for love. The airtight plot coexists quite naturally with periodic digressions on the nature of art, which are themselves highly cogent and tightly reasoned. In either case no action or argument, no thought or conversation is wasted; each impacts directly on the dilemma at hand. At each page the plot is advanced with heightened tension, complication, and dramatic necessity. These are the marks of a well-made thriller, mystery or romance—the stuff, ironically, of Pearson's friend and rival, the popular novelist Arnold Baffin, whose casual, formulaic fiction Pearson openly disdains. Yet despite the author's own professed disavowal of the popular literary game, he manages to tell his own tale with the utmost impact on the reader's sympathy and interest . . . an interest which, because of the multi-layered intention and construction of the book as a whole, is redoubled on the intellectual and aesthetic side.

Both elements, the simple dramatic tension and the higher ironic tension, woven so masterfully by Murdoch into her artful container, are loosely applied at best by Rushdie. His plot is nowhere to be found, and the only ironic interest is produced by the author appearing now and then (purportedly as the narrator Saleem Sinai) in a cameo role, as Alfred Hitchcock used to do in his films—but here there is no mystery to smile at, from under the light of the lamp post. Just words, the natural effluent of a prodigious imagination and a writerly ego coddled by the allowance of a band of reviewers who must be so starved for quantities of imaginative production that they set their literary standards on those shifting Saharan sands, rather than atop the castles of a more distinct and disciplined artistic creation. It may well be that Rushdie sweats years of blood over his occasional "masterpiece." But the effect is rather that of the rather raw outpouring of a man in a hurry to dash off his five hundred pages.

I suspect that my dislike of Midnight's Children, or of Rushdie's style in general (I couldn't finish The Satanic Verses either) is not so much a matter of literary theory as of narrative personality. I couldn't get through John Irving's The World According to Garp, either; though I enjoy Günter Grass. So maybe it all comes down to my present condition, on a desert island (Formentera) with only one novel left to read, and it happened to be Midnight's Children, and it just didn't turn my crank . . . so I was especially disappointed, to the point of stewing up a petulant, academic sort of minor rant.

But let poor Rushdie be, I say now. Do I contradict myself? Very well. I will not after all wish success to the Ayatollah's henchmen in pursuit of the poor man . . . nor do I harbor ill will to the independent reviewers of The Times, The Observer, or my God, The New Yorker. We all have a right to our own taste. Now if the international postal services would just do their jobs properly and send me that  handpicked set of six masterpieces with which I can happily pass the rest of my desert island days, I will simply pass off Mr. Salman Rushdie as "not to my taste" and leave it at that.

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