i first read THE SATANIC VERSES in high school. i remember this very well, because there was an unfortunate incident in which i lent my copy to a boy i very much wanted to impress and there was A GIANT DEAD ROACH inside it (i have absolutely no idea how it got there), and he thought i had done it on purpose and was mad. which revealed him to not have much of a sense of humor or a very stout heart, which was probably a good thing because i had no chance with him, roach notwithstanding.
but anyway, the end of the story is that THE SATANIC VERSES revealed to me that a novel could play with fantasy, with magic and surrealism and hocus pocus, and with words, and also with politics, which suited my burgeoning revolutionary ambitions very well (this was the same time in which i formed a giant crush on Zach de la Rocha). and that furthermore such a novel would be considered High Literature and would not be derided for escapism in the same way that my beloved genre novels were (and often still are) was hugely encouraging to me, and gave me hope for the future of my reading life.
and then my freshman Lit class had THE GROUND BENEATH HER FEET on the syllabus, and that was fantastic. and another time i got miserably sick, and another boy i very much wanted to impress stopped by and brought me HAROUN AND THE SEA OF STORIES, which he told me was his favorite book to read when he wasn’t feeling well. i fell in love with it, of course, before even turning the first page. i only fell half-in-love with the boy, which was good because although he was very nice he was also smitten with the dancer who lived across the hall, who was also very nice so i couldn’t hate her. and for Christmas that year my roommate got me JAGUAR SMILE, which pleased my ZdlR-loving-self to no end. and so i continued to buy Rushdie’s books over the years; i have most of them in hardcover editions, which live inside the special bookcase with the glass doors.
and then last month, when Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on New York and i was putting away all my technology in preparation for a blackout (which my building never had) and i was looking for a book to read, THE GROUND BENEATH HER FEET came off the shelf. it was safe, and familiar, and spoke to the moment in a very real way, and i knew i would love it all over again and be distracted.
so it’s inevitable that i would greet the publication of JOSEPH ANTON with huge anticipation. there are certain writers about whom i want to know nothing more than i already do (DFW), others i know from their memoirs as much as anything else (Andre Dubus III, Mary Carr), but few other authors have been so hugely influential, and being given a peek behind the curtain was both fascinating and a bit weird.
for example, the stories of his marriages. as someone who is divorced herself, i know well the perils of falling in love with the wrong person, sometimes with disastrous results. this passage is perhaps the best thing i’ve ever read about disastrous relationships:
When he looked back on those days through the disillusioned eyes of his post-divorce self he didn’t fully understand his own behavior. … At the time, however, he had a simpler answer. He stayed with her because he loved her. Because they loved each other. Because they were in love.
but again, as someone who is divorced herself, i know very well that there is a flip-side to every relationship. maybe some of those fights were not her fault but his, and maybe she wasn’t as crazy as all that, but in any case we rarely remember intense moments the same way as the people with whom we experienced them. suspension of disbelief applies just as much in memoir as it does in fiction, and LIFESPAN OF A FACT memorably taught me to read nonfiction with salt close to hand, and so that’s fine.
the true joys of reading JOSEPH ANTON might be particular to me. matching up my timeline to his — i was this old when this happened, i was at this job when this happened — was satisfying not only because i could also match up which of his books i was reading at the time, but because i sorted out what i was aware of and unaware of. there were these huge political moments that just passed me by (and i’d bet i’m not alone in that). it’s an example of the bigness of the world, and also the smallness of the world. it’s an important story of the fight for free speech, and what it was like to have your government telling you that you could be killed at any moment. what would you do? how would you live? this is what he did, this is how he lived.
and then learning that this scene in this novel was inspired by this incident, but that this character whom everyone assumes is this real life person is actually not that person, and that this is what was happening when he wrote this book, is also a joy. it makes me want to go back and reread the books, not so that i can compare but so that i can re-experience them and see what difference (if any) a little knowledge makes.
add to that that Rushdie remains one of the most playful, entertaining, skilled wordsmiths i have ever read, that JOSEPH ANTON is simply stuffed with passages as insightful as the one i quoted above on everything from love to literature, and well. i loved this book.
and i think that there is something in it for people who are not me. there are stories about famous people and foreign countries. there are scandalous moments and tragic moments and funny moments. it’s a rare opportunity to see how someone, about whom the entire world has an opinion, sees himself. i think you should read it.
p.s. everyone who knew i was reading it asked me if it was weird that it was written in the third person. i barely noticed.