Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: Salman Rushdie

Tale of Two Reading Groups

One of my reading groups has just ended, and the other one revived.

After over two months, our book club finally met again Sunday night. I came directly from an eight-hour shift, unshowered and tie-askew. I prepared myself for the worst as I feared that everyone hated The Satanic Verses and would, correspondingly, hate me. It was just Nina (our sole girl) and I for the first forty minutes, so we gossiped and I made her jealous of my WORN internship and we finished off a pitcher of sangria. Then the boys arrived and we ordered another one.

Patrick, our soft-spoken engineer (and, as it turns out, an industrial artist) was the first to bring up Mr. Rushdie. “Max, it took me two months, and I read the final sixty pages today, but I finished the book… and I didn’t hate it.”

That made it all worth it.

Nina gave us special not-for-sale copies of our next book from her publishing house and I buzzed my way home in order to have a cold shower and rewrite my final column for my Ryerson class, before collapsing in bed around midnight.

This is my life right now.

Last night was our final column-writing class. I stressed out all weekend over my last submission. I wanted it to be good because of what had happened last time. The previous week, when we were supposed to hand in our “perfect” column (one which reflected everything we had learned in the class), I had proudly submitted my ‘Up to You’ story, which I thought was one of the strongest, most emotional things I had written.

And the class destroyed the first two paragraphs; “run-on sentences”; “hiding behind jokes”; “too detailed”; “too long”; “confusing”; “keeps the reader at a distance”. It felt like Lord of the Flies.  The hardest thing to hear was the question “Who did you write this for? Was it for yourself?”

Even in the middle of the massacre, I knew they were right.

“Well, that was the hardest class so far,” I said to my friend Ricki as we wandered out.

“Truthfully, I really liked it and I didn’t notice what everyone was talking about when I first read it,” she said. “But now I see it.”

You don’t take workshops to get praise. You take them to get better.

So, after meeting up with the Gentleman at a Chinese restaurant and allowing myself to be distracted by his rationalization of why he won’t be cancelling his speech at Pride over the anti-Israel scandal (a decision I was proud of), I sat at my laptop in his apartment rewriting the entire beginning of the story. And I made it better. I considered sending it back out to my class, but then I thought that would look crazy and obsessive (“DO YOU LOVE ME NOW?”), and besides, I didn’t do it for them. I did it for myself and for you guys, the readers.

Last night we went around evaluating our ‘voices’. I said that I write the way I talk, which is a strength but also a weakness. For instance, I have to avoid run-on sentences, making assumptions about what the reader knows or cares about, and throwing in extraneous details which would be charming in person but tiresome in writing.

I had sent an email thanking the class for helping me become a stronger writer, and suggesting that we could continue to meet up on our own for occasional workshops, if people wanted. I haven’t got any response yet. But as I was walking to the subway with Ricki, I described the crazy busyness of the last couple of days.  

“You have a book club?” she asked. “Can I join?”

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The Satanic Verses

My book club might hate me.

The one thing I miss about being a student (besides library access and student card discounts) is reading books as a group and discussing them. My Dad has a book club (middle-aged academics who often get distracted by arguing about Israel) but the idea to start my own only took shape when my best friend’s boyfriend Dan expressed interest in joining one. “Why join one when we can do it ourselves?” I asked, almost slipping into the sing-song-MGM-Mickey-and-Judy-‘Let’s put the show on right here in the barn’-voice I am want to do. So we cobbled together a merry band of twenty-something (mostly) former-English students and began meeting at an Annex bar at which we’re already legendary with the bar’s staff. So far, we’ve read Czechoslovakian outcast and sex addict Milan Kundera and witty effete Anti-American Evelyn Waugh. In a short time we had developed a system for choosing books (everyone would have a month) and a friendly, open discussion style. The third pick was my choice and I may have ruined everything.

I have been intrigued by Salman Rushdie and his owlish little eyes since falling in love with the first chapter of Midnight’s Children in high school. Since then, I read his book about The Wizard of Oz and my favourite part of Bridget Jones’s Diary is when she asks him where the toilets are. It was reading Sandra Mackey’s book about Iranian history (titled The Iranians) and learning about the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie in 1989 for his novel The Satanic Verses decided my choice for me. I wanted to have an opinion about the book that was so controversial that Rushdie had to have secret service protection for a decade (and a few international translators were killed over), and I thought my book club should too.

The Satanic Verses is not a short book. Okay, so it’s 561 pages, a fact I may have neglected to tell the club. The title refers a controversial story in the Koran in which the Prophet, in order to convert the people of Mecca, appeared to call on three pagan goddesses and thus corrupt his monotheism. The novel deals with this incident through dream sequences of characters living in the present. Another subplot concerns a wealthy Indian man who becomes enraged and turned on by a possibly-psychotic young woman who claims to be a prophet and eats butterflies. She convinces a large group of villagers, including the man’s wife who is dying of cancer, to go on a suicidal mission to Mecca on foot, claiming that the ocean will part ala Moses. The man follows after them in is Mercedes Benes, preaching rational scepticism to the supposed-prophetess’s faith, and picking up villages as they become disillusioned. This was the most memorable allegory of the perpetual symbiotic relationship between believers and non-believers I have ever read.

But the main plot concerns two Indian actors who, in the first couple pages, get blown up in a plane. Rushdie describes the two of them suspended in mid-air, and then their plummet towards earth, so vividly in multiple places that you feel like you know what it’s like to be surrounded by blue sky with air rushing past your falling body. Inexplicably, neither men dies, but rather have been chosen by some unknown force (of good or evil) to perform some kind of task. One of the men notices an orb of light emanating from his head, while the other grows horn-like bumps on his forehead.

As though this wasn’t enough, the novel is also about Indian-ness and British-ness (and the characters’ devotion or disgust towards the contrasted cultures), the immigrant experience in Thatcherite Britain (a description of a Bangladeshi woman’s disappointing marriage, exodus to England and management of a restaurant was at once so universal and individual that I read it three times), and Anglo-Indian men dating white women (presumably, drawn from Rushdie’s life). Salman is a writer’s writer, with passages that could be described as indulgent and overwrought, but other times I wanted to highlight phrases with a pen and scrawl in the margin “I WANT TO WRITE LIKE THIS!”

I knew it was a dense book and so I suggested we take another two weeks when book club members said they weren’t finished yet. I grew nervous as a few of them appeared stuck in the page 150-range, and felt personally responsible for complaints that it was “too long” or that the story didn’t “suck them in”. I told people to come anyways, even if they had read just part of it, as there were more than enough ideas in there to talk about. As I walked in to bar, wearing a vest with a white flower pin to celebrate my surprise at not hating Sex and the City 2, I prepare myself for a barrage of criticism and glares.

Turned out, I was worried about nothing because only Dan showed up. And, although he had also gotten bogged down around page 150, we discussed the book’s themes, the Ayatollah and Salman Rushdie in Bridget Jones and then just hung out and bonded over bad dating stories and the potentials and frustrations of writing in the era of Twitter.

And don’t worry, I’m being facetious: I know my book club doesn’t hate me. Next time, perhaps I’ll pick War and Peace.