I knew Rushdie was a really good writer from some short stuff of his I had read in the New Yorker. So I finally got around to reading this book. I picked this one first because I wanted to see first hand what the controversy was about. I have to say that the book is extremely mild toward Islam and the Prophet, compared to what I expected. There is absolutely nothing evil or bad about this book. It obviously took some very messed up and severely fundamentalist people to take offense at this, and obviously they shot themselves in the foot by so doing -- making it seem much more interesting and making themselves look quite foolish and ignorant.
But setting that aside, it took me a while to get into the story because Rushdie's writing itself is so lush and lovely that it kept getting in the way. Very dense intense sentences full of lots to think about meant I would read a page or two then have to set it down and think. Usually a good thing, a book that makes you think. But in this case it maybe detracted a bit from my enjoyment of the story, at first.
One quite interesting thing is that I can't tell yet whether I absolutely love this writer or despise him. He's sort of perfectly poised between being a shallow jerk, like some of his characters, and being a deeply thoughtful, mindful, wise, and fascinating good person.
(When authors are jerks, I can't usually enjoy their work much. That's my own bias, I guess. But I begin to see their jerkiness all over their writing, real or imaginary, and it spoils it for me. I can recognize Yeats as a very talented poet, for instance, but the spiteful way he treated Maude Gonne, and his ugly wishes for his daughter just completely spoil my enjoyment of his poetry. He's a jerk. Who cares what he has to say? (I know. My bias.))
Anyway, I'm racing through the end of this book now, totally involved in what's going on, and fascinated by the juxtaposition of religiosity and schizophrenia, which is something I think about a lot, since I've gotten religion in my middle age after a life as an atheist scientist and philosophical materialist, and because my son has schizophrenia, which involves forming a highly nonstandard worldview from basically the same evidence or inputs that the rest of us use to form our own standard ones. After talking to him daily for years about his view of reality, I've come to see that his world is fairly internally consistent. And that he is as fully sure about his conclusions as anyone I know is about theirs, including me.
How do we know what we know, anyway? It's clear to me that our brains construct our waking reality for us, and his is doing the same, forming a narrative that makes some kind of weird sense, is internally consistent, as I said, and is as persistent, solid, and real to him as mine is to me. I try to encourage him to write all this up as science fiction, but maybe his attention span is degraded and his higher executive functions, as well, so that he can no longer carry out extended tasks. I'm not sure. But this combined with my having had the experience of being deeply religious and also, earlier, deeply atheistic, gives me several data points to ponder.
Our worldviews are many and varied and probably don't any of them correspond very well to ultimate reality (whatever that may be). Think of how people thought of the world before Newtonian physics existed, for instance. How could they think that way? It seems almost inconceivable! Now think of how people thought before relativity. Now before quantum mechanics. Now think of what reality is like *with* quantum mechanics. All those pictures of existence are mutually exclusive. Think of how much we still don't know about the universe and the fabric of reality, including all the things we *know* we don't know (like dark matter, dark energy, nonlocality, etc.) and probably much, much more that we don't even have a clue about now, that we'll learn later on. (By the way, all this physics stuff isn't in the book. It's just me thinking about the nature of reality that was prompted by my reading the book.)
It's about immigrants, and how they manage the superposition of their old culture with the new. How the world looks totally different from those two perspectives, such that it's nearly impossible to hold them both in mind at once. It's about racism, and how completely and ludicrously wrong the popular press and authorities get any story that has to do with people of color. It's about reason and miracles.
But I think, so far, that I'm very far from grasping the whole of what is being said in this book, which is why I've suspended judgment so far. It has lots of cool things about it, though. It makes me remember the world as it was in the 1980s, very different from today, especially politically. It's as though Rushdie tapped early into contact with the dangerous fanaticism which the rest of us mostly ignored until 9/11/2001. It's also a perfectly normal, interesting, expansive, gorgeous wealth of a book by someone who knows a whole lot, including a few cool words I didn't know before. (It's always great to read someone who knows more words than us, don't you think?) I'm loving the fictional view of historical things that I don't know much about, but won't forget ever. I'm truly glad I'm reading this.
But I still hold the book, and Rushdie himself in a perfect superposition of states that may or may not be resolved by the end. Either he's fatuous, smug, self-congratulatory, dismissive, and shallow despite all his learning, or else he's deep, rich, and soul-satisfying in his wisdom and understanding of the wondrous multiplicity of life. I'm so hoping it's the latter. I'm almost giving up hope that I'll figure out which, by this point. But I'll update when I'm totally done and let you know. I'm not even rating the book yet, because it literally could be a one- or five-star book for me, still, when I'm 9/10ths of the way through it.
It's five. Definitely five. The end is ... exalting.