Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Midnight’s Children Gives Every Novelist Something to Aspire to

Contrary to what the Grand Ayatollah may have to have to say on the subject, Salman Rushdie is a damn fine writer.   You may recall the Iranian Book-Critic-in-Chief’s dissatisfaction with the fatwa-spawning Satanic Verses, but we can assure you that even his “Supreme Holiness” was impressed by Rushdie’s masterpiece, Midnight’s Children.   The story of a man born on the stroke of midnight on August 15th, 1947, the same moment that India gained its nationhood, and the intertwining of their own dysfunctional histories and futures; it’s a brilliant bit of storytelling and literary genius. 
Midnight’s Children is a work of such rare excellence that there’s not really much more to say about it.  Every conceivable superlative has been slapped on this book and far finer minds than our own have sung it’s praise and lauded its merits.  No less than the Man Booker Prize committee deemed it the best novel of the past 40 years when it awarded it the one-off Best of the Booker Award in 2008.  And now Mr. Rushdie your finest hour: a shout out on The Literate Man.  Well done, old boy!
But lengthy intro aside, this book is so obviously extraordinary, with so many flattering reviews already in print and in cyberspace, that posterity would probably thank us for ending this piece right now.  But we won’t!
Instead, let us count the ways (five) in which our minds were staggered by this work.  First, the sheer ambition and scale of this saga is enough to turn your brain into sawdust.  Rushdie’s packed enough content inside the 533 pages for a dozen novels.  It’s an epic on the scale of War and Peace or East of Eden, but condensed into half the pages.  There’s so many competing themes at work here (coming-of-age, the birth of a nation, ageless religious conflict, culture clashes, family dynasty, etc.) that in the care of a lesser writer this story would be stillborn.  But Rushdie’s mighty talents allow him to weave these ideas into a seamless tapestry that never feels forced, confusing, or worse: boring.
And how does he do this?  By narrating the journey through the eyes of a self-important crackpot.  The Quixotic protagonist adds levity to the heavier themes with his distinct and whimsical voice.  And this is the second point: a fresh, original, and fantastic protagonist point of view. 
Thirdly, the pell-mell stream of consciousness narrative, jumping from present to past and from one scattershot thought to the next add an element of artistic flair that elevates this tale above almost every other literary epic.  Protagonist Saleem and the country of India become one and the same through Rushdie’s brilliant allegory, which is teased to the surface through an earthy mix of magical realism that comes as close to distilling the essence of India onto a sheet of paper as is possible.
Which brings us around the fourth point: Rushdie’s use of local dialects and cultural detail.  He brilliantly mimics the local pigeon and mannerisms of the various subcontinent’s cultures, further deepening the reach of the story and providing a hard-earned authenticity.
And if that weren’t’ enough to convince you to pick up this book than a fifth and final note of praise is due to the author for his courage.  And not his courage in tackling such vast and broad-ranging subject matter, but real courage for attacking the authoritarian regime that nearly strangled the life out of the young nation-state in the 70’s and 80’s and which earned him a libel lawsuit from none other than disgraced former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
In summary, -and after five hundred odd words of redundancy- Midnight’s Children is one of the finest novels ever written in the English language.

(Editor’s Note:  This review coincides with the recent release of Rushdie’s autobiography, Joseph Anton. It’s been well received by critics, and for any lovers of biography, you’re guaranteed top-notch writing and certainly an interesting subject matter as he delves into his years hiding from Muslim assassins.  Enjoy!)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Aesthetic Experience, by Lucas Hunt

[Editor's Note: We at TLM have been fortunate to have made many friends in literary circles around the country and the world.  One such friend is Lucas Hunt, who both writes beautiful, critically-acclaimed poetry and contributes from time to time to our meager efforts here at TLM to spread the good word.  Enjoy.]

I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing. --T.S. Eliot

Our reactions to works of art differ from our reactions to other things in a remarkable way. We look at paintings, listen to music, read poetry, and grow conscious of the distinct impressions they have on us. In a perhaps more tangible way, we stand near buildings with architectural presence, watch films with emotional resonance, and come to realize how powerful representations of life can be.

We become aware of something in ourselves as we experience works of art. There may be a strange, yet familiar, force at play, which changes our understanding of things. There may be a sudden clarity, or wild disorientation, as we participate in a dialogue with an artist who is neither present nor sure of our existence. And we pass a subjective judgment, deeply informed by the unconscious, on a work of art, that might last forever.

To better identify the aesthetic experience, let’s look at poetry, for a poem can burn brighter in the dark. It is a foot in the door of time, a kind of entry that makes uncommon sense to the soul. Poetry is a threshold to possibility, which incorporates all things, even death. Who does not want to come into more direct contact with life, especially thru words?

Poetry is the most exceptional form of human language. It expresses our passion with an exactness that defies rational thought. It is the man who is alive, and the man who is dying, walking in the same direction, down the same road. When you read a poem or hear one read aloud, a lyrical transformation occurs in the heart. The rhythm of breath and pulse alter to receive the message of the poem. Its essential feeling becomes yours for a spell. It all depends on how you take it.

It was his nature to suppose,
To receive what others had supposed, without
Accepting. He received what he denied.
But as truth to be accepted, he supposed
A truth beyond all truths.

This passage from Landscape with a Boat by Wallace Stevens fits perfectly with the notion of aesthetic experience as it differs from other experiences. There are physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and sexual experiences, to name just a few. Such experiences can be described in terms that are recognizable. We can be relatively certain that our bodies, thoughts, feelings, religious attitudes, and erotic appetites can in some way be shared with others. Aesthetic experience has another dimension.

It occurs to the artist that there is something more to life than already exists. They use the inspiration to create, and suffer from it. It is generally perceived that all people experience a type of artistic motivation at some time in their lives, but often, the impulse gets diverted to other types of experience. However, that does not mean the desire or appreciation for a purely aesthetic experience disappears in those who do not personally express it. On the contrary, the hunger grows. Witness our passion for popular music, cinema, and sporting events. (The latter is an experience with multiple aesthetic qualities, the beauty of athletic performance just one.)

Because the artist makes and does things, others can get a sense of their own creative powers thru the various forms of art. Artists act as mediums to the great aesthetic experience human beings crave. We are mortal, but that’s not it. There has always been a sense of something more, beyond ourselves, that finds expression in the notes of a song, the colors of a painting, or the words of a book. There is a fleeting thing that takes flight when we experience a work of art that comes to represent our very souls.

We were born with the ability to appreciate things not just for what they are, rather for what they might be. Aesthetic experience goes back to childhood, when our imaginations were more potent than the world. Nothing really mattered; it was what you made of things. There was an active, participatory, wildness about experience that swirled in a mix of uncontrollable fascination. If we could have spoken during our early lives (but why break the silence?), it would likely have been in poetry. The poetry of aesthetic experience.


Lucas Hunt was born in rural Iowa, and is the author of Light on the Concrete, published in 2011 to critical acclaim. He studied at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, and in the M.F.A. program at Southampton College. He is the recipient of a John Steinbeck Award for poetry, and lives in East Hampton, New York, where he works at a literary agency.