Yesterday, I wrote a 3000 word post about grammar that some folks seemed to like. The point of that post was that grammatical correctness is often confused for facility with words, that the former is a step toward the latter but not the entirety of it. I argued that it is more important for writers, be they students or professionals, to say what they mean. In that post, I used a sample from Lionel Tiger’s new book–a sample originally posted on The Sexist–to show how grammatically correct writing can sometimes become unreadable. Amanda Hess evidently saw the trackback and liked it, because she devoted a whole post to it! And traffic on this blog has increased by like 2000%! And I’ve had to delete some trolls who didn’t actually read the post, which is, I think, a blogger rite of passage! So, thank you Amanda Hess!
Today, however, I am going to offer up an example of how language can be used beautifully, how a writer can use sophisticated sentence structures and even non-standard grammar to great effect. I just finished teaching Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to my Literature and Religion class, so I might as well go with that. When students first encounter Rushdie’s prose, they often find it difficult to wade through, but as I will show, the complexity of it–the way he piles images and motifs onto one another–actually enhances the ideas he is presenting without obscuring them. In other words, it’s challenging in a good way. It immerses you in the ideas instead of pulling you out of them. Let’s start with the third paragraph of the first chapter, which begins with two men falling from the sky:
Gibreel, the tuneless soloist, had been cavorting in moonlight as he sang his impromptu gazal, swimming in air, butterfly-stroke, breast-stroke, bunching himself into a ball, spreadeagling himself against the almost-infinity of the almost-dawn, adopting heraldic postures, rampant, couchant, pitting levity against gravity. Now he rolled happily towards the sardonic voice. “Ohe, Salad baba, it’s you, too good. What-ho, old Chumch.” At which the other, a fastidious shadow falling headfirst in a grey suit all the jacket buttons done up, arms by his sides, taking for granted the improbability of the bowler hat on his head, pulled a nickname-hater’s face. “Hey, Spoono,” Gibreel yelled, eliciting a second inverted wince, “Proper London, bhai! here we come! Those bastards down there won’t know what hit them. Meteor or lightning or vengeance of God. Out of thin air, baby. Dharrraaammm!Wham!, na? What an entrance, yaar. I swear, splat.”
Ok, first of all, let’s get one thing straight. This is not stream of consciousness narrative. My students are quick to toss this term onto the table, but it isn’t accurate. One of the Amazon commenters on Tiger’s book referred to it as “stream of consciousness,” which has come to mean, I think, “prose I don’t understand.” Stream of consciousness narrative attempts to replicate the thought processes of an individual mind and reads the way it does (not easily) because when we think, our thoughts jump around. Perception and cognition aren’t coherent or linear. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is representative of stream of consciousness because we never leave the mind of the protagonist, Stephen Daedalus. The first two sections of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury are stream of consciousness because they occupy the minds of Benjy and Quentin, and they are difficult to read because neither of these two characters are neurotypical.
No, The Satanic Verses employs a straightforward omniscient narrator, and omniscient narrator who turns out to be Satan actually, but we don’t know that at this point in the novel. The terms that best describes Rushdie’s prose are non-linear or surrealistic, though magic realism is the generic name for this type of fiction. Magic realism is where the narrative clearly inhabits the “real world” (i.e. this isn’t Narnia or Middle Earth) but crazy supernatural stuff happens. However, you also have to account for the fact that Rushdie often uses the speech patterns of Central Asian English speakers in his prose, and that is part of what de-familiarizes it, though in an intriguing way, I think. There is an aural quality to his writing that makes for great out-loud reading. As an Indian man who grew up in the wake of the British Raj and inhabits a globalizing society, he is interested in how linguistic groups from the former colonies have adapted the language of their colonizers. But he isn’t exactly doing dialect, which has historically been used as a kind of literary black-face. He isn’t trying to convey a character’s accent through non-standard spelling. Instead, he reproduces the idiom and cadence of those speech patterns, which is really effing cool.
In this paragraph, he is introducing the two main characters of the novel and showing us that they are complete opposites, “levity against gravity.” Though Gibreel’s banter and his mode of falling, we get a sense of his exuberance and wonder. Then we see Saladin Chamcha with his buttoned up suit, bowler hat, rigid posture, and hatred of nicknames and immediately understand that he is a grouch. Gibreel is sort of loving this unlikely and surely terrifying experience, but Saladin is clearly hating it. If you got nothing more out of that paragraph than what I just said, you would be perfectly capable of grasping what happens in the rest of the chapter and the rest of the novel. In other words, it is possible to have a purely straight foward, non-symbolic understanding of this paragraph if that’s your thing. But there is actually more going on here, and one of the beauties of Rushdie’s prose is that it rewards you on the second and third and fourth reading. Having read this book something like five times, I now know enough about what is about to come to appreciate how Rushdie uses these early paragraphs to set up all of his themes.
In traditional sonata format–the compositional structure that informed a lot of the classical music you hear–the first section is called the Exposition. This is where the composer introduces the tonal key and musical ideas he plans to explore in the rest of the piece. That’s essentially what Rushdie does here. For one thing, there is actual music here. Gibreel falls while singing, an activity that presages the significance of “verses,” namely the verses of the Qu’ran later in the book. We are also about to learn that Saladin Chamcha, an Indian expatriate who lives in London, has shunned his past and family history. His fractured relationship with his father, his embarrassment about coming from the “third world,” and his desire to impress the British have led him to become, well, T.S. Eliot or something. He has reinvented himself and become more British than the British, adopting a stereotypically “proper” mode of dress (the grey suit and bowler hat). Furthermore, the nickname that Gibreel uses–“Spoono,” which is a play on Saladin’s Anglicized last name, which used to be Chamchawala and is now Chamcha–translates to something like “sell-out.” Saladin’s truncated name is a derogatory word for Indians who collaborated with the British under the Raj, and Gibreel is mocking him for it. Conversely, Gibreel, a Bollywood film star, is the pop culture icon of his nation. He is exuberant in his Indianness, and that is partly why Saladin finds his nattering–so different from Saladin’s, due to his attempts to erase his linguistic past from his speech patterns–so irritating.
But it gets even more trippy than that. Rushdie slyly sneaks in many of the leitmotifs that will become significant in the rest of the novel. The big theme of this book is transformation. He is exploring the way the post-colonial experience has metamorphosed not only individuals but entire cultures, the way in which it is in the process of transforming both colonizer and colonized in frightening and unintended ways. Gibreel and Saladin are about to be changed into the forms of the angel Gabriel (Gibreel adopts “heraldic postures” in the air) and the Devil respectively (there’s that whole magic realism thing) following this fall from the sky. The first sentence of the book is “‘To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die.'” So after metaphorically “dying” by falling from an airplane that was taking them from India to Britain and was blown up by a suicide bomber, they emerge from the English Channel bearing these new forms, which will symbolize the divergent fates that await immigrants on the shores of a new country.
So this paragraph is laden with images of transformation. Among Gibreel’s many mid-air stunts, he performs a “butterfly-stroke,” and butterflies will become an important metamorphosis image later on. We also have the exploration of liminal space. The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word for threshhold and means the space in between spaces or states of being. Victor Turner applied the term to religious rituals he observed in his ethnographic research. In the space of the ritual, social boundaries evaporated and roles were reversed. One might say that it is in the liminal space of the Eucharist that the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Liminal spaces are where things pause on the way to becoming other things, where the magic happens. When Rushdie speaks of “the almost-infinity of the almost-dawn,” this is what he is talking about–the in between time where these people are no longer what they were but not yet what they are going to be, no longer night, but not yet morning.
There are multiple liminal spaces in The Satanic Verses, but the two important ones in this paragraph are water and air. the air part is obvious. That’s what they’re falling through. It is the medium they inhabit between the wreckage of the airplane, carrying their past lives, and the new life ahead with all of it’s uncertainty. Thin air is a dangerous place, but it is also a spiritual place. Gibreel himself refers to “thin air” at the end of this paragraph, and that phrase gets repeated twice in the next paragraph. (Ok, how cool would it be if it turned out that Jon Krakauer’s book title was a reference to this?) That paragraph also references Mount Everest, the obsession of British mountain climber Allie Cone, who sees ghosts and angels after ascending the highest mountain in the world without supplemental oxygen. High spaces, where the air is thin, are spaces in which we face mortality, in which the barriers between life and death, earth and the afterworld are rendered permeable. This is also true of water, which is the space of birth but also of drowning, the space of baptism and ritual cleansing but also of destruction (later we are introduced to a desert city made of sand, where water represents a threat). Rushdie is playing with these two mediums by having Gibreel literally “swim” through the air as they plummet toward the sea.
These are profoundly religious images. Angels, demons, baptism, rebirth, judgement. Rushdie mines the myths of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism for metaphors and narratives that help him explain how post-colonial migrants experience this new world. In doing so, he is giving that story dignity, but he is also commenting on the role that religion itself plays in public life. Gibreel alludes to this when he mentions “meteor or lightning or vengeance of God.” Rushdie is concerned about what happens when these religious myths and metaphors cease being metaphorical and start structuring our lives in potentially scary ways: when religion is used to justify oppressing people or blowing up planes. Gibreel will ultimately style himself as the instrument of God’s vengeance upon the unfaithful (namely, people he does not like or trust), and that brings him to a bad end.
And all of that stuff is expressed within that one dense paragraph. As I said, even without knowing all that is foreshadowed here, you could get the major point. The complexity adds meaning to the text rather than obfuscating it. It’s difficult to say the same for Tiger’s “enchanted puzzlement.” No words are wasted here.
Yet two weeks ago, one of my undergrads moaned, “Why can’t he just use proper grammar?” This happened. I’m not making it up. It’s at times like these when I wish my classroom came equipped with trap doors under each chair like at Dr. Evil’s conference table. First of all, this student and his ilk clearly did not recognize that most of Rushdie’s prose is grammatically correct. He does deliberately use things like sentence fragments in dialogue because that is how most people talk, and most novelists since the Victorian era have felt free to break that rule. What they seem to be reacting to is the non-linearity and complexity of it. And I’m actually ok with that. Occasionally, good writing doesn’t bottle-feed you. This is why we have English class.
When you were a snotty teenager and first saw abstract art, wasn’t your first reaction something like, “Feh, I could do that.” The truth is, no you couldn’t. Most abstract and surrealist artists had to learn how to do photo-realistic drawing and painting before they moved on to paint splatters and blocks of color. Grammar is sort of like that. You have to learn how to play by the rules so that you can selectively break them when it serves your purpose. As a former Washington Post columnist, Rushdie has proven time and time again that he is capable of writing lucid expository prose. Here is what he says about the stories religion gives us, the stories that inform alot of his fiction, in a 1997 letter to the “Six Billionth World Citizen” and reprinted in the non-fiction collection Step Across this Line:
Many of these stories will strike you as extremely beautiful, and therefore seductive. Unfortunately, however, you will not be required to make a purely literary response to them. Only the stories of “dead” religions can be appreciated for their beauty. Living religions require much more of you. So you will be told that belief in “your” stories, and adherence to the rituals of worship that have grown up around them must become a ital part of your life in the crowded world. They will be called the heart of your culture, even of your individual identity. It is possible that they may at some point come to feel inescapable, not in the way that the truth is inescapable but in the way that a jail is. They may at some point cease to feel like the texts in which human beings have tried to solve a great mystery and feel, instead, like the pretexts for other, properly anointed human beings to order you around. And it’s true that human history is full of the public oppression wrought by the charioteers of the gods. In the opinion of religious people, however, the private comfort that religion brings more than compensates for the evil done in its name.
Okay, I chose this passage on purpose, not only because it speaks to the themes of The Satanic Verses but because it says something rather similar to what the Tiger example says. It’s talking about the intractability of public discussions about religion as an evolutionarily and aesthetically important part of human history because the enemies and champions of religion essentially have nothing to say to one another and don’t want anyone else to talk about it either. But look what we have here: modifiers, some of them even arguably extraneous, but none of which impede the flow of the writing. In addition, we have poignant metaphors, sentence variety, neat shifts from lofty to vernacular language, from “pretexts” to “order you around.” The meaning of this paragraph is transparent and well-said. It’s quotable, even. I can read it out loud to my class (which I did) and maintain their rapt attention.
That’s what language, in the right hands, can really do. Rushdie is capable of using both standard and non-standard grammar because of that fluency thing. He commands the English language. Every word does what he wants and needs it to do.