Sure, some books are longer, crazier or emotionally weightier, but as far as language, history, sexuality, spirituality, ancient mythology and pop culture go … Rushdie has simply crammed more into 547 pages than most writers get around to in their entire lives.
And this isn't a “blow it all on one novel” kind of novel: oh no no, this is his third novel. Better still: he wrote this after writing Midnight's Children, twice awarded the Best of the Booker in 1993 and 2008.
I'm an outspoken fan of Midnight's Children, and I find myself equally enamored with The Satanic Verses. Both novels are sparkling, labyrinthine stories of magical realism and historical fiction, but while the Booker-winner is centered through the character of Saleem Sinai (whom I lovingly call The Nicest Unreliable Narrator I've Ever Met), the fatwā-provoker is pulled apart by the wild exertions of Gibreel Farashti and Saladin Chamcha, as well as every minor character they ever encounter, are related to, copulate with, or dream about. If Midnight's Children is Rushdie's Abbey Road, then The Satanic Verses is certainly his White Album.
The book just feels full: faces, objects, relations, faiths, voices, deeds, truths and lies, dreams and realities, ghosts and angels and demons, men and women, ancients and children, meals, jokes, politics, violence, revolution, sex, irony, pain, and love. But it isn't mere spectacle: he employs true craft. With expert pacing, bold narrative voice, and thematic interweaving, Rushdie allows you to appreciate each moment without bogging you down or losing your focus.
More challenging still, and more daring: he blasphemes binarism itself. With each passing paragraph, the book challenges our sense of ethical behavior, undermines our definitions of Good and Evil, disorients all beliefs both political and spiritual … and finally humanizes them. No matter who has the halo and who has the goat horns, their thoughts and deeds ultimately determine who they are. Whether we're in India or Britain, on a movie set or on Mount Everest or in the fictionalized life of Muhammad, we are close enough to feel for these people while remaining distant enough to perceive them honestly.
Rushdie's novel will give your brain a workout in addition to your heart – but only if you feel like it. Yes, it's laden with literary, historical and cultural references; yes, its linguistic wordplay is omnipresent. But its many characters are so engaging and its narrative voice is so enthusiastic that it can be enjoyed at any level of “comprehension.” Both high- and low-brow; something for my fellow fans of Das Racist.
The book itself isn't a challenge, but perhaps the act of reading it is. It asks you to trust the author: to have faith in his vision, what he emphasizes, what he leaves unanswered. It calls for the suspension of disbelief: that you can accept the transformation of plane crash survivors into supernatural avatars. It tests you to be content with not knowing: grasping some of the inside jokes but not all, never really uncovering the narrator's identity. It begs you to hold the entire novel in your mind: the little moments and the entirety, all at once. You can actually do it with this one: it's big, but not too big. Rushdie links scenes and sentences in such a way that, by the book's completion, past pages will bubble up in your mind with the bittersweetness of genuine memories. It has a beginning, middle, and end that are all just as vivid, surreal, stupid and beautiful as our own.