I first came across Midnight's Children when I was researching titles for my Classics Club list. I knew that I wanted to include works from diverse authors, and this novel popped right up while I was exploring different possibilities. I didn't know much about Salman Rushdie before reading, only that he famously had a fatwa issued for his assassination in Iran after he published his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses. I was interested to read something from him, and I figured that Midnight's Children, winner of both the Booker Prize and the Best of Booker Prize, was a great place to start.
The plot of the novel is pretty epic and meandering, making it a difficult one to adequately summarize. Essentially, Midnight's Children is the strange and fantastical story of Saleem Sinai, a young man whose life has intimate and magical connections to the history of India. Saleem was born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the exact date of India's independence. The timing of his birth imbues him with powerful psychic powers, and as he grows up, he discovers that he can see into people's minds. Most importantly, he is able to form a psychic link with the hundreds of other children who share his birthday and who also have a wide array of magical powers of their own. He comes to call this group the Midnight Children, and the meetings he facilitates in his mind to bring them together he calls the Midnight's Children Conferences.
As the story progresses, Saleem weaves together an incredibly intricate and far-reaching story about himself and his family that spans generations. He speaks of both small, simple things from his childhood and more weighty matters from his adult life. The actions he takes, whether significant or insignificant, tend to have a ripple effect that impacts major historical and political events in India. In time, he comes to believe that his life has a direct influence on his country. He initially thinks that this connection to India and his ability to connect all the Midnight's Children could be used for some good, moral purpose. However, as time goes on and the children grow increasingly different from each other, he eventually abandons that idea. Similarly, other parts of his life begin to sour right alongside the political situation in his country, leading him down a strange and twisted path that he never could have envisioned for himself.
Midnight's Children was an incredibly detailed and well-crafted novel. It is very obvious that Salman Rushdie is a uniquely talented writer and his novels deserve all the praise and accolades they have acquired over the years. I don't think I've ever read something so full of little writerly tricks before. Images, ideas, and events repeat throughout the text in unexpected and satisfying ways, characters pop in and out in the most unlikely and interesting places, and the interactions between Saleem's life and his country's history were interesting to watch unfold. Saleem was a well-constructed unreliable narrator, and Rushdie did a nice job of including enough plausible and implausible information throughout the book to keep readers guessing as to how much of what he was describing was real. It's the kind of good book that you know is good while you are reading it.
However, at the same time, Midnight's Children was not a good book for me. While the care and skill in its construction was obvious, I found reading it to be a surprisingly unpleasant experience. The story itself is ugly and dark. Tragedy upon tragedy besets Saleem and his family, and they bring a lot of it on themselves. They are a quarrelsome, vicious bunch of characters most of the time, and I didn't particularly enjoy any of them. The story was often gross as well. One of the major symbols throughout the plot is Saleem's massive nose, which is constantly dripping snot everywhere for most of the novel. It's mentioned a lot and I got tired of hearing about it pretty quickly. When combined with the numerous descriptions of other oddly sized body parts, spit, and urine that fill the pages, it just felt disgusting to me a lot of the time, which didn't make for a nice, relaxing read.
I also couldn't get away from the nagging feeling that this was a book written by a man for other men to find meaningful. I'm not trying to say that women can't enjoy this book, because of course they can, it just felt to me like a man's story. There were several female characters present, but they definitely were of secondary importance the the male characters, and there were a few weird sexual situations throughout that I didn't love. For example, at one point in his childhood, Saleem accidentally sees his mother naked. He describes her backside as a "black mango," which is off-putting enough on it's own, but he continually brings up the black mango throughout the rest of the story. Accidentally seeing your parents naked is almost a rite of passage for kids, but this way of describing it and fixating on it definitely felt like something only a man would write. There were quite a few little things like that sprinkled throughout the story that felt a bit alienating to me or made me roll my eyes.
Midnight's Children contains 540 pages of very small print, and making my way through a story that long without being invested in the characters and feeling grossed out by a lot of it was a trial for me. While I can clearly see that Rushdie created a remarkable work here with many excellent qualities, I also just didn't have that great of a time reading it. It felt more like work than a relaxing activity. It's weird to feel so split on a novel with such a positive reputation, but not every book is going to suit every reader, no matter how critically acclaimed it may be. Ultimately, I'm not mad that I read this and I'm happy that I increased my knowledge of classic literature, but I don't think I'm going to be seeking out more of Rushdie's novels in the future.
Classics Club (#16 on my list): 79/100 books completed
Classics Club (#16 on my list): 79/100 books completed
Total Books Read in 2020: 74