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Monday, October 30, 2017

How Many Pages Are Too Many?

Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie, was a difficult book for me. My problem was not the exotic locale or unfamiliar names but the kind of story-telling employed.

If I cannot help comparing Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children to Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, that’s only in part because both novels are set in India and focus on the time of the country’s independence. Other similarities lie in the novels’ daunting number of pages and a stunning number of characters and settings. In the end, however (and “in the end” here can be taken literally as well as figuratively), although Rushdie’s novel was less than half as long as Seth’s, with Midnight’s Children I kept looking to see how far along I was in the book—not halfway yet! now at the halfway mark! still, how slowly it goes!—and over and over again I set it down and picked up something less demanding for the remainder of the evening, returning to Rushdie the next morning with a sigh and a sense of determination.

In other words, this reading experience was completely different from my happy immersion in A Suitable Boy, a book that captured me on the first page and held me in its steady thrall, although it took me nearly a month to get through its 1400 or so pages. I’ll go so far as to say the length was essential to the spell it cast, because I lived in that book for the time I was reading it.

The truth (about me) is that in film, on the stage, and in the pages of fiction, I gravitate towards the various forms of realism. Material may be romantic, comedic, serious, or tragic, as long as its fictional world is coherent with reality as I know it. By the same token, the further the story moves away from a plausible (if new-to-me) reality, the higher my resistance, which I think is why most works of science fiction and fantasy fail to hold my attention. I tried and tried, for instance, to read The Hobbit, for my son’s sake (at a certain age, it was his favorite book), but while my eyes went dutifully over the book’s lines of type, my mind kept wandering. I never did get very far with it. Station Eleven, on the other hand—yeah, I could see that happening.

The way I see it, at least in Midnight’s Children (I confess to never having tried The Satanic Verses), Rushie is not a modern realistic novelist at all but a fabulist. In addition, he has quite a bit of the early teen bad-boy, Almodovár-like scatalogist in his sensibility, and for me a little of that goes a long way. All of which is to explain why it was that I did not really “get into” Midnight’s Children, a 533-page book in Penguin paperback, until I’d read over 300 pages.

But I did, finally, enter into the fable, falling in with the narrator’s pretense that his own life and its events, from his birth in the same moment as that of India’s independence, were tied to Indian politics and, in fact, brought about the events that befell the country, its leaders, and everyone whose life he touched, which was, of course, everyone! Yes, it’s a lot to swallow! Now imagine (if you haven’t read the book) swallowing not only that basic premise but a world-flood of details large and small, reminders and repetitions, revelations of what has not yet been and will not for sometimes many pages ultimately be revealed (in its own good time and in all its detail), and perhaps you begin to see the challenge a reader is given to get through this book.

I’m glad that I read Midnight’s Children, and I really enjoyed the last 150 pages. Things went better for me then because I at last stopped struggling against where the author was trying to take me.

I’ve always thought it was unfair to criticize an author for not writing a different book than the one he or she wrote. The question to be asked, rather, in this case of Rushdie, is whether or not he succeeded in the task he set himself, and as I closed the book on the last page I thought that he had.

In a way, I thought, as I was finally starting to enjoy the story, Midnight’s Children is reminiscent of Don Quixote. Rushdie, like Cervantes, asks us to believe unbelievable events, and both writers drag readers through numerous passages detailing excretory functions and unlikely mishaps to body parts. I also remember a member of our reading circle saying that she would have liked Don Quixote twice as much if it had been only half as long.

Would I have had a more positive impression of Midnight’s Children had it been only 300 pages long? I don’t think so. Since it took me over that many pages to enter the author’s world, I would have finished a shorter version more quickly but probably have closed the book shaking my head and dismissing the work as sophomoric.

N.B. What I have written today is not a book review! It is not a critical analysis! You might call it a literary confession. But most of us as readers, I think, have personal limitations that affect our reading—style prejudices, genre preferences, interest or lack or interest in certain topics, etc. I’m not talking only about “comfort zones,” but that’s part of it, I guess. Whatever you want to call my resistance in this case, I feel that pushing myself to read Midnight’s Children was the right thing for me to do, and reading all the way to the last page was, for me, its own reward.

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