by Ted Gioia

India celebrated its independence from the
British Empire shortly after midnight on
August 15, 1947.  No, Salman Rushdie
wasn’t born on that precise day and hour—
he arrived on the scene 57 days earlier, the
son of a middle-class Muslim
family in Mumbai.  But
Rushdie's most famous
protagonist, Saleem Sinai
takes his first breath at the
very moment of his nation's
release from colonial control.  
As a result, Saleem’s photo is
featured in the
Times of India,
and the infant receives a con-
gratulatory letter from Prime
Minister Nehru:

"Dear Baby Saleem, My belated congratulations
on the happy accident of your moment of birth!  
You are the newest bearer of that ancient face of
India which is also eternally young.  We shall be
watching over your life with the closest
attention; it will be, in a sense, a mirror of our
own."

Nehru’s words come true with a vengeance—not
just for Saleem, but for his whole cohort of
"midnight’s children," those hundreds of others
also born on August 15, 1947.  In a strange quirk
of fate, each of these youngsters was given some
magical power, and the closer their time of birth
approached the midnight moment of
independence, the more impressive the ability.  
Saleem learns during his adolescence that he
has been given the power of telepathy.  Others
who share his birthday, can turn base metals
into gold, travel in time, enchant strangers with
their preternatural beauty, and perform a host

of other miracles.  This remarkable cadre
includes "Kerala, a boy who had the ability of
stepping into mirrors and re-emerging through
any reflective surface—through lakes and (with
greater difficulty) the polished metal bodies of
automobiles…and a Goanese girl with the gift of
multiplying fish…and children with the powers
of transformation: a werewolf from the Nilgiri
Hills, and from the great watershed of the
Vindhyas, a boy who could increase or reduce
his size at will…."

We have now entered the realm of so-called
magical realism, and Rushdie doesn't hold back
in infusing his novel with the mystical, the
implausible and the wholly impossible.  Our
author is clearly indebted to
Gabriel García
Márquez, whose influence hovers over almost
every aspect of this work. (And I would have
hoped for one further step of emulation—the
inclusion of a family tree as a frontispiece would
have been a great aid in this novel with almost
100 significant characters, around half of them
related by blood or marriage.)  But Rushdie
incorporates, if anything, even more magic into
his novel than does his Colombian role model.  
That said, he does not stint on the realism, and
stuffs his novel full of the historical and political
events of India and Pakistan during the first
several decades of independence.  

We encounter the optimism of the early days of
Indian statehood, the assassination of Mahatma
Gandhi the following year, the Five Year Plan of
the early 1950s, the conflicts with Pakistan and
China, the rise to power of Indira Gandhi, the
Bangladesh liberation war, India’s development
of nuclear weapons,  the Indian state of
emergency and suppression of political
opposition of 1975-1977, and other incidents,
minor and major, of the era.  

Scholars and critics typically take on the task of
drawing the symbolic connections between
world-historical events and the quirky personal
exploits of the characters who inhabit a work of
fiction.  But Rushdie has already done this work
for us—in almost laborious detail.  A significant
portion of
Midnight’s Children reads like the
mutterings of a fastidious literary critic, as the
narrator expounds on the many linkages
between characters, symbols and events. "As a
people we are obsessed with correspondences,"
Rushdie writes at one point in this novel.
"Similarities between this and that, between
apparently unconnected things, make us clap
our hands delightedly when we find them out. It
is a sort of national longing for form—or perhaps
simply an expression of our deep belief that
forms lie hidden within reality; that meaning
reveals itself only in flashes."  Certainly Rushdie
shares this fixation with connections, and never
lets the opportunity to pass in this work of
pointing out the similarities, repetitions and
other linkages—both metaphorical and real—
that figure so prominently in
Midnight’s
Children
.

Even while admiring the imaginative riches of
this bountiful novel, I couldn't repress the
tedium caused by many of these lengthy
digressions.  Readers must navigate through an
interminable account of the symbolic
resonances of snakes and ladders, recurring
speculations on noses and knees, and—worst of
all—Rushdie drones on at length about the four
kinds of connection between characters and
historical events in his novel, namely, the
passive-literal, the passive-metaphorical, the
active-literal and the active-metaphorical.  I
would like to think that this digression was
intended as a parody of bad literary criticism,

but I suspect that Rushdie was merely, once
again, exhibiting the "obsession with
correspondences" described above.  No, I did

not clap my hands delightedly.

But if I dream of a revised
Midnight’s Children,
vastly improved by the excision of a hundred or
so pages—ah, that would be the true
masterpiece!—I also recognize that Rushdie is
intentionally imparting a long-windedness to his
magnum opus.  His narrator often apologizes for
his meandering accounts, and Rushdie invents
the character of Padma, who is listening to the
story as it is recounted, and constantly trying to
keep Saleem on track and concise—hopelessly,
because Rushdie has channeled this story
through the voice of a storyteller who hates to
come to the point.   At times,
Midnight’s
Children
even resembles Tristram Shandy,
Laurence Sterne’s extended exercise in
thwarting readers’ expectations about plot and
pacing.  As with
Tristram Shandy, Midnight’s
Children
deliberately delays the birth of its main
character for chapter after chapter after chapter,
and takes a sardonic delight in not coming to the
point.

Then again, I can hardly blame Saleem Sinai for
not wanting to get on with a story in which so
many things go badly for the narrator.  Let
others write about rags-to-riches, Rushdie
prefers to tell us about riches-to-rags.  Even
Saleem’s face, body and internal organs take a
severe beating during the course of these pages,
and not all of his constituent parts survive to the
end of the book.  His hopes and dreams face
equally daunting obstacles—but in a book in
which the main character represents
(metaphorically, literally, actively, passively) the
fate of a nation during a time of turmoil, we
should expect no less.

Saleem's destiny is also shared by those other
children of midnight.  Can their magic overcome
the banalities, the crudities, the indiscretions,
the corrupt failings  that surround them? Or are
the exigencies of history too powerful for even
those who can transmute lead into gold, read
minds, multiply fish, and travel through time?   
In the final analysis, Rushdie has achieved
something fresh and original in this novel:  he
has crafted a magical realism in which ultimately
the magic and the realism match up in
confrontation—the fanciful and pragmatic go to
war, so to speak—and that is a battle with, yes,
meaning for India, but also with a few
connections outside of Rushdie’s native land.  I
am happy to say that our author—in a rare
concession—allows us to make some of those
connections on our own.
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL READING
Midnight's Children
by Salman Rushdie
Click on image to purchase
The Year
of
Magical
Reading
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the course
of 2012,  I will explore an important
work of fiction that incorporates
elements of magic, fantasy or the
surreal.  My choices will cross
conventional boundary lines of genre,
style and historical period—indeed,
one of my intentions in this project is
to show how the conventional labels
applied to these works have become
constraining, deadening and
misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only in
recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These labels
are not without their value, but too
often they have blinded us to the rich
and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works
share.  

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very few
retain into adulthood this sense of the
kind of enchantment possible only
through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in our
imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
by
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter
Grass

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by Apuleius

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa
Obreht

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and
Pantagruel by François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
by
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark
Helprin

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.
Delany

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz
Leiber

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.
Tolkien

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas
Mann

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia
Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John
Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.
Thomas

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil
Gaiman

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis
Borges

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni
Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki
Murakami

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice
Hoffman

Week 38:  Blindess by José
Saramago

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev
Grossman

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim
Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to reviews)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas
Camp Concentration

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Saramago, José
Blindness

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute


Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
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