Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie

I've put off reading this or any other book by Salman Rushdie for years because I was kind of afraid that my complete & utter lack of background knowledge about India or anything related to it might make them difficult to understand and/or enjoy, but finally decided I would never know if I didn't pick one and take the plunge. (And let's be real; if a book gets the author sentenced to death in absentia, it is automatically a must-read.)

As it turns out, I was mostly wrong, with a few caveats. If I had to summarize the feel of the whole thing, I would say that The Satanic Verses is Jitterbug Perfume all grown up--longer, more serious, a touch darker, a touch more "literary", but still dealing with themes of history, spirituality/religion, morality, life/death/rebirth, packed with quirky characters, and completely hilarious & irreverent. (There are many people this book is not for, & I suspect you know who you are.)

Caveat #1 is that it does help to have Wikipedia or Cliff's Notes handy (though, apparently, some Rushdie purists would disagree). There are historical, cultural, literary, and pop references to India & topics related to India (particularly Buddhism & Hinduism), and while notes help, it is definitely not the case that you can't follow or understand what's going on otherwise. And actually, the fact of the matter is that there are plenty of historical/cultural/literary/pop references to America & England as well, and in fact, I feel like it's totally possible to be, for example, American and well-educated and well-read and STILL miss some of the American references. And it's okay. I think it still would have been a great book even if I'd missed a lot of that stuff, but having the notes handy helped take it from great to jaw-droppingly brilliant because it exposed so many deeper layers to the storytelling.

Caveat #2 is that you must, must, MUST pay attention. You can't skim, and if you get to the bottom of a page & realize you're hazy on what happened, you must re-read, because it is entirely possible that you could turn the page & be a thousand years and a thousand miles from the previous scene & all the characters still have the same names. Full attention is required at all times, but it's worth it.

Caveat #3 is that it really benefits from re-reading. The first time through it took me a while to get into it, and by the end I realized that there were things I couldn't specifically remember from the beginning & wanted to refresh in my mind in case it helped make sense of the ending. Which eventually led to just re-reading the whole thing. And wow; even paying close attention, even reading with the notes, there are so many subtle things I picked up on the second time through, just because I already knew what happened & where everything was going. So if you like big, smart, multi-layered, beautifully written, baddass books that pull no punches, this one may be for you.

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