Midnight’s Children

Midnight's Children

Title: Midnight’s Children
Author: Salman Rushdie
Publication date: 1981
Country/culture: India/Pakistan

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

 

Midnight's ChildrenWhat’s it about?

Saleem Sinai is born at the very moment India gains its independence, and later finds himself gifted with extraordinary telepathic powers. He perceives his own life as inextricably intertwined with that of his country, and we see their stories develop in parallel as the young country and the young boy begin to find their purpose and their way in the world.

What did I find out?

I started to read this book on a warm afternoon, sitting outside in my garden with a glass of cold lemon by my side and the sun toasting my back. As I read on through pages describing life in India – a hot country – it felt somehow appropriate to be absorbing this story in such weather. Obviously there is a vast difference between British heat (especially in April) and Indian heat, but it was a gentle reminder that appreciation of a book can be enhanced by one’s reading environment.

The books on my list for this year have been selected from around the globe, and I have tried to alternate longer books and shorter ones; I’ve not actively attempted to fit them in at a time of year when the weather suits the country of origin of the work. This would probably put too many limitations on what is already a big scheduling issue for me (and not least because the British weather is so unpredictable). However, it’s something I will bear in mind for the future.

What do I now see differently?

Midnight’s Children is undeniably a work of literary fiction, a genre I don’t usually gravitate towards – but it also has a strong element of magical realism, in the depiction of the special powers and abilities of the ‘midnight children’, from telepathy to time travel to sorcery, and more. This perhaps shifted the novel into territory I am more familiar with, thus making it a slightly easier prospect than it otherwise might have been (not least because, at over 600 pages, this is the longest book on my list this year).

I realised (or was reminded) that ‘genre’, while sometimes a helpful concept (particularly in libraries and bookshops, where items have to be shelved in a single physical location), is also an artificial construct. Books can happily overlap genres without necessarily confusing the reader; indeed, it is perhaps by insisting on a label in the first place that we throw up barriers where none need be. Magical realism, to my mind, is a form of fantasy; and while fantasy is sometimes looked down on by readers of literary fiction, the fantastical elements of this novel intrigued me and made me pick it up – thus introducing me to a work I would probably never have considered otherwise.

This is a reassuring realisation, and I’ve decided not to worry (yet) about what genre my novel fits into (supernatural? paranormal? fantasy? horror? medical? thriller?) and just write the thing. The time for finding readers will come later.

How will this inspire my writing?

Midnight’s Children is an incredible tale, interweaving personal stories with national ones and layering themes, leitmotifs and imagery with supreme skill. This can only be something to aspire to! The length of the book, the period of time it covers and the subject matter make the intertwining of recurring elements particularly compelling, but I think that even shorter, less ambitious books can learn from it. I am only 26,000 words into my own novel, but I’ve already made a start at using imagery in my presentation of certain characters, as a kind of shorthand to illustrate their lives and relationships.

My novel won’t reach the dizzying heights of Midnight’s Children, but I’ll certainly be taking a deeper look at how I use themes and imagery to underscore key parts of the story.

A musical interlude

Although this song doesn’t exactly reflect Saleem’s specific narrative, I feel that there are enough similarities between its content and his experiences to at least make it worthy of a ‘Discuss!’ essay question. You may discuss if you like – or just listen.

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture

Generation X

Title: Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture
Author: Douglas Coupland
Publication date: 1991

What’s it about?Generation X

The novel focuses on three friends – Andy, Dag and Claire – who have moved to a desolate part of the California desert to reevaluate their lives and, they hope, gain some focus. Feeling that the future is uncertain, they attempt to find themselves in part by telling each other stories. Over the course of the novel we see their own stories develop in unexpected ways.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This was another birthday present. I’ve now also designated a special bookcase at home for all of my Book Diaries books – which means that I need to get cracking on acquiring some of the titles I don’t possess, so that I can fill it!

What did I learn from it?

I’ve been very conscious this year that a significant number of my book choices have been ‘white and Western’, a large proportion of them being, specifically, American. (This is, indeed, one reason why for the 2017 Book Diaries I’ve chosen the theme of World Literature, to broaden my horizons.)

One thing I’ve noticed about a few of these American books (On the Road is the main one that springs to mind) is the use of ‘driving to Mexico’ as a plot device; we are shown characters who are looking to broaden their own horizons by travelling into the unknown, to see what unfolds. Venturing over the border is symbolic: it is the ultimate gesture in breaking free from convention and expanding one’s worldview.

It is intriguing to read about these journeys in a year when the President-Elect of the United States has talked about building a wall along this very border. The reason for this wall is ostensibly to protect Americans from a dangerous influx of illegal immigrants – but if we see cross-border travel not as a practical trip but as a symbolic gesture, the effect that such a barrier might have on the worldview of American citizens is chilling.

It’s one thing to protect ourselves from dangers (real or perceived) coming in, but do we really want to stop ourselves from even looking out?

How did it make me see the world differently?

In addition to the US presidential election, this has been the year of Brexit: the UK’s referendum on leaving the European Union. One of the issues that raised its head during the vote and its aftermath was the feeling of the younger generation that the older generation had screwed them over by voting ‘Leave’. News articles would regularly voice the theme of inter-generational conflict.

It struck me on reading Generation X that, as the old phrase has it, ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ The Generation X-ers complained that the baby boomers had stolen their future; one character in the novel, Dag, has a habit of vandalising cars that sport bumper stickers he objects to, such as ‘We’re spending our children’s inheritance!’ And now the millennials are complaining that their parents’ generation have stolen their future.

Clashes between the generations are surely a part of life: back in the 1950s the newly minted ‘teenagers’ undoubtedly had their own issues with the fuddy-duddy oldsters who didn’t get the fresh sound of rock ‘n’ roll. Stating your own claim to the world is a natural rite of passage, and rebelling against the views of those who you perceive to be on the way out is equally normal and natural. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the previous generation really did ruin your life – just that the world is changing, and what you thought you were supposed to expect from it has now morphed into something new.

I would encourage everyone, of all ages, to read this book: if you’re part of the younger generation, know that you are not the first to feel like this; if you’re older, spare a thought for the difficulties your children face and try to help where you can.

Me? I’m Generation X, and my future is wide open…

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Although I’m technically Generation X, I don’t think I’ve ever felt the existential dread that seems to afflict the characters in the novel – but I have certainly wondered what my contribution to the world will be.

In the two years since starting this blog challenge, my creativity has opened up in new and surprising ways; and if you’ve followed me for a while, you’ll know about my frustrations with the constant flow of ideas and the relative failure to see any of them out into the world. I have such big, specific plans, but they never seem to work out.

So, taking heart from Coupland’s novel, I’m going to use the end of this year to take stock, to (metaphorically if not literally) retreat from society, take a proper Christmas break, and tell myself stories. Yes, I have plans for my writing next year, but I don’t know exactly what will emerge – and I have decided that this is fine. I need to focus on sitting down and putting pen to paper, but I won’t try to force what comes out of the pen.

I will take my own ‘journey into Mexico’ to see what new big adventure awaits me, and I will simply see what unfolds. Who knows: I might surprise myself.

A musical interlude

Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit is frequently cited as the song that represents this generation. I have to admit grunge passed me by, or at least was not quite to my taste, but the track is still significant enough for it to be the obvious choice to accompany this book.

Enjoy!

Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five

Title: Slaughterhouse-Five
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Publication date: 1969

What’s it about?Slaughterhouse-Five

Billy Pilgrim is a time traveller. He experiences his life in irregular flashes, from his suburban life as an optometrist, to his time spent in Dresden during the Second World War, to his abduction by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. Throughout the book he muses on what life – and, perhaps more importantly, death – means to him, and to the human race as a whole.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This was a birthday present.

I normally include links to WorldCat (for finding the book in a library near you) and Hive (for supporting independent UK bookshops), but, somewhat oddly, I couldn’t find this book listed on either of these two sites. So this time I’m simply going to have to give you a link to Amazon.

What did I learn from it?

I found out a lot about the bombing of Dresden during the Second World War, and the experiences of the American soldiers billeted to Europe to assist the Allies. Although I studied 20th-century history at school, we ran out of time before we could really get into this period, so my knowledge of it has been limited to what I’ve picked up through national anniversary commemorations and the occasional TV documentary.

The book traces the story of Billy’s journey in war, from manoeuvres in the USA to service as a chaplain’s assistant, subsequent capture as a prisoner of war, survival of the Dresden bombing, and eventual trip back to freedom. It is an unforgettable insight into such painful experiences.

One particular scene (or series of scenes) also reminded me of an earlier Book Diaries book: A Farewell to Arms. In Hemingway’s novel, the main character spends some time in the Italian countryside, attempting to evade capture; in Vonnegut’s novel, Billy Pilgrim does the same in the German countryside. It’s interesting to hear about war on these ‘fronts’; men did not suffer only in the notorious battles, but also by freezing and starving away from the main action.

How did it make me see the world differently?

Vonnegut’s meditations on life and death, particularly death, seem to be inspired by his experiences of war. The alien Tralfamadorians see life in four dimensions, the fourth dimension being time. They can see the whole of life at once: past, present and future as one all-encompassing vision, where everything has already happened and always will. Billy’s experiences with time travel illustrate what this might feel like to a human.

Naturally, this touches on the subject of free will: if the future already exists, how much power do we have to change it? And should we bother trying? This is a key question, particularly, in the discussion of war: it seems that Vonnegut is making the point that we, as humans and not Tralfamadorians, always have the choice of whether we go to war; it is not something that has to happen – we choose to make it happen. This is a fairly damning statement on the human race: that we persist in choosing to do this terrible thing when, actually, we could choose not to.

Vonnegut also quotes – twice – what is known as the Serenity Prayer: ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference’. The suggestion is that we should try to prevent the worst from happening, but if it happens anyway, we shouldn’t waste our energies trying to fight it but focus instead on the things we can do something about.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

For a long time now I’ve regarded the Serenity Prayer as a means of figuring out my own path through life – i.e. which ‘battles’ to pick – so it was fascinating to see it quoted here. This year has been particularly fraught for me as I’ve navigated and negotiated my way through various practical trials and tribulations (building work), exciting yet tiring times (US road trip), more creative ideas than I can shake a stick at, and lots and lots of work.

It’s been exhausting. I’ve pitched from one challenge to another with barely a chance to draw breath, and I’ve lost the ability to focus: to distinguish between battles that need to be fought and those it’s far better to walk away from. My fight-or-flight instincts have been so churned up I can no longer see straight.

So I need to reboot; to recalibrate. The end of the year seems a particularly appropriate time for this, so I’ve decided that I will give myself a prolonged period ‘off’ when December arrives. I will cut down any freelance work to the bare minimum, and once my last Book Diaries post is published I will give myself permission not to do anything creative or work-related for a whole month – unless I really want to.

I hope that, this way, I will rediscover what battles are really important to me, and set in motion the plans I need to tackle them in the New Year.

A musical interlude

I searched for ages for a song that suited this book. I didn’t want to pick a straight anti-war song, as I felt that wouldn’t reflect the time-travel aspect of the plot. But on a list of protest songs I found Turn! Turn! Turn! by the Byrds, and I knew I’d found my track.

The song quotes heavily from the Bible, and the lyrics suggest that there is a time for all things, both good and bad. For me, this matches Billy Pilgrim’s experiences perfectly.

Naked Lunch

Naked LunchTitle: Naked Lunch
Author: William S Burroughs
Publication date: 1959

Note

It’s become increasingly difficult to pinpoint genres for the books I’m reading this year, as several of them seem to be best served by the description ‘general fiction’. As Naked Lunch kind of defies categorisation altogether (unless it is ‘Beat fiction’), I’m therefore going to stop including this element in my posts from now on. I will, however, continue to tag them with suitable keywords.

What’s it about?Naked Lunch

The novel is a loosely connected series of vignettes, which (according to the author) can be read in any order. They tell the story of a junkie, his travels around America and the wider world, and the people he encounters along the way. It is incredibly surreal.

Where did I get hold of the book?

The university library again! What would I do without this place?

What did I learn from it?

I learned that I should never make assumptions about a book before reading it!

I fondly imagined last year, when I successfully turned over the final page of Ulysses, that the most difficult reading experience of my life was behind me. Not so. I opened Naked Lunch with the vague awareness that it was (a) about a junkie and (b) a bit surreal. However, at no point had I expected it to be quite as weird as it was.

I’d seen the film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (by Hunter S Thompson) and had got it into my head that Naked Lunch would be similar. And it is, in a way. Both are stories of travels and increasingly bizarre events experienced through a drug-induced haze. However, the film felt more cohesive – probably because films have to be, to attract funding and gain/retain audiences – whereas when I’d finished Naked Lunch, I wasn’t at all sure that I hadn’t just come round to the beginning again (or the middle, or somewhere else entirely). But I guess that’s how Burroughs intended it.

So I really, really struggled with this one. Instead of a slightly odd tale of junkies and other colourful characters, I found a writhing mass of weird, sometimes brutal, sometimes pornographic imagery that conjured up blurred, fantastical snapshots of a world that was totally alien to me, even if I could figure out what was going on (which, a great deal of the time, I couldn’t).

I don’t think I dare make any assumptions about the remaining books on this year’s list…

How did it make me see the world differently?

It gave me an insight into what it might be like to be a drug addict – but then made me realise that, no matter how many books I read or people I meet, there are some life experiences I will never even begin to understand.

Reading books and talking to people from different backgrounds are often suggested (by myself as much as anyone) as ways of getting to know the world outside your front door; of gaining understanding of – and therefore empathy for – those in unrelated and unfamiliar circumstances. If we cannot live a myriad of lives, we can at least talk to those who do live them; and if we can’t meet the people, we can at least read about them.

However, Naked Lunch brought it sharply home to me that, no matter how much I read about the experiences, feelings and thought processes of those addicted to various hard drugs, a true understanding of what it must be like to experience this every day simply eludes me. The flights of fancy in the novel are partly due to Burroughs’ writing style, but also to the life he has lived – which is far beyond anything I have ever encountered.

This doesn’t mean I’ll stop reading books to learn about the world. I’m certainly not so desperate to know what life is like for others that I’ll undergo their own trials and tribulations to find out. But it certainly doesn’t do any harm to remember that, whatever we think we know of people from the stories told about them (or that they tell about themselves), we can never, ever, really know what it is like to be them.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

While I was getting to grips with figuring out what on earth was going on here, the one thing that kept me going was the author’s use of language and imagery. Even though I didn’t understand half of the situations and events that were being rolled out in front of me, I could still tag along by letting the visual pictures wash over me and carry me forward with them. In this way it was similar to Ulysses, where I also gave up any attempt to make linear sense of the action and just went with the flow – and ultimately got the gist.

This is seriously inspiring stuff for any writer. I’m very conscious that these blog posts are essentially quite prosaic: I want to get my message across as simply and directly as possible; and also, with one post to write every fortnight, I don’t feel there’s much time in my schedule for working on my style. There’s normally so much going on inside my head that merely unravelling the threads and getting a blog post published feels like an achievement.

However, this book has caused me to see things differently. I need to practise my writing for its own sake, to go beyond a basic attempt to translate the contents of my head into something less resembling Klingon to the average reader, and to create a work of art in and of itself.

I can’t promise I will manage this with these posts; it may be that I simply step up my plans to do more creative writing and liberate my own flights of fancy that way. My novel is pencilled in for next year, and also a few short stories if I can really get into gear. Let’s see what kind of style emerges…

A musical interlude

I nearly didn’t pick the song I’ve opted for this week, because I’d already chosen a track by the same artist for a recent post. However, it struck me that the book in the other post was from the same era and same ‘school’ of writing as Naked Lunch, so I thought that it might be rather appropriate after all.

The previous book is On the Road, another Beat novel, and the song accompanying the post was The Passenger by Iggy Pop. Can you guess which track came instantly to mind for Naked Lunch? It’s probably most well known for its use in a seminal film about heroin users in Scotland: Trainspotting.

Yes, you guessed it. It’s Lust For Life.