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Tuesday, May 09, 2017

The Satanic Verses (1988) by Salman Rushdie


Book Review
The Satanic Verses (1988)
 by Salman Rushdie


   I am now convinced that Salman Rushdie is the best novelist of his generation, maybe the best novelist of the 20th century and certainly one of the top 5 novelists of all time, alongside writers like Daniel DeFoe, Charles Dickens, James Joyce and Marcel Proust.  Before I started the 1001 Books project, the Rushdie slot would have been taken by a writer like Thomas Pynchon or maybe David Foster Wallace, but I have no doubt that Rushdie leaves Pynchon in the dust.  Rushdie's protean ability to absorb almost every aspect of the western AND eastern literary tradition within a single work is remarkable.  There is enough to unpack in each of his novels to keep people interested for decades in  unraveling it all.  At the same time, his work is never over complicated or technical to the point of being obscure.  His books traffic in the kind of universal human emotions, love, hate, anger, that people want to read about.

  Of course, The Satanic Verses is best known for provoking the Iranian government-clergy to pronounce a fatwa against Rushdie soon after the book was published.  The reasoning behind the fatwa is obscure but not that obscure.  The title of the book refers to an actual "incident" that happened during the life of the prophet Mohammed.  Basically, it was a time before Mecca (or really anywhere) had converted to Islam.  Medina was a city that had temples and shrines to many deities, standard in the ancient world at that time.  Mohammed was offered control of the city, provided he acknowledge three female deities. He agreed, only to later say that he had been deceived by the devil, who had interposed himself between Mohammed and his angel-contact. The verses he recited justifying his decision to acknowledge the three female deities, a clear violation of the Islamic adherence to monotheism, are known as the "Satanic Verses."

  These verses were part of the canonical tradition for several centuries, but were eventually stripped out both for technical reasons and reasons having to do with the doubt it placed in the idea that Mohammed was infallible.   Salman Rushdie, provoked the Shi'a clergy of Iran in the much the same way the Catholic Church would be provoked if one wrote a book about Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene.  Obviously minus the fatwa.

  This rich historical background is just a single strand of the multi-layered plot, which interweaves fantasy, science fiction, post-colonial literature, posts-modern literature and the tradition of the 20th century English domestic novel into a rich tapestry.  Like many works of genius, description lessens the impact, but I would like to say that The Satanic Verses is not nearly as difficult to read as one might expec from it's reputation, and it is, in fact, a good deal of fun.

The Beautiful Room is Empty (1988) by Edmund White


Book Review
The Beautiful Room is Empty (1988)
 by Edmund White

   The coming-of-age stories of the LGBT spectrum are one of the limited areas where a "coming of age" novel can hope to bring something new to the table by the end of the 20th century.  Coming-of-age tales are contained by the formalism of the genre: first person narration by a character who closely resembles the author.   Edmund White represents the bleeding edge of the LGBT wave:  A white male, not particularly effeminate nor trans, from a privileged economic upbringing, with a very good education and a prestigious job in New York City as an editor.  The Beautiful Room is Empty is the second of his cis gay coming of age trilogy- this chapter covers the events from college until the Stonewall riots, which the author/narrator character takes part in.

   In 2017 there is nothing particularly revelatory in the terrain covered by White in The Beautiful Room is Empty- in the first novel- the best parts concern his becoming aware of his sexuality in the relative isolation of Cincinnati.  By the time he gets to New York City and pre-Stonewall Greenwich village, he is documenting a scene that is well known to all with even a casual interest in social equality

  White writes frankly about gay male sex, oral and anal, describing intimately such milleus as the Port Authority bathroom-which sounds like a virtual bachinallia of sucking and fucking (I'm just being descriptive) and the gendered practices of gay love making in pre-AIDS New York City.  Perhaps the most lasting importance of The Beautiful Room is Empty is to give a portrait-in-time of pre-AIDS New York City- a virtual Weimar Republic before the onset of AIDS terror.

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