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From the archives

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

A Larger Role for Unions

Organized labour may be shrinking but the rhetoric is still upbeat

This United League

Will not die, will not perish

Stage Write

I once read differently

John Delacourt

Thirty years ago, I got my first cheque for something I had written: a play, staged in Toronto, inspired by the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie for publishing The Satanic Verses. I knew precious little about stagecraft, but I sensed the whole process of working with a director and actors would probably require me to speak about character and motivation and how much of the play’s plotting was evocative of the world Rushdie created with his novel. You would think this might intimidate a first-time playwright, but I suppose I felt the stakes weren’t so high: at no time in rehearsals did I think to myself, “I should probably read that damned book.” The best acting during the whole process was probably my own, playing the role of the writer who could capably answer all the actors’ questions.

It gets worse. Right up to this spring, decades after I last wrote for the stage, I still hadn’t gotten around to The Satanic Verses, despite reading much of Rushdie’s work and eagerly anticipating the release of his memoir Knife. For years, I would declare to anyone who’d ask that Midnight’s Children was the best novel I had ever read: considering its strengths — the development of character, evocation of place and time, the line-by-line elegance of a perfectly pitched authorial voice — Rushdie had masterfully integrated all the components distinct to the form. Even now, I’d probably nod along with that earnest assessment of a work I haven’t reread in a decade. No point arguing with such passionate conviction; choose your battles carefully, especially with your younger self.

But the book that changed Rushdie’s life irrevocably had become freighted with too many memories of my first play. Because I really didn’t want to revisit that experience, The Satanic Verses remained unread in my library — a hardcover, household-god tribute to my imposter syndrome.

It was time to get over it. The publication of Knife this past April nudged me along further, if only because of how Rushdie described the initial reception of The Satanic Verses: “It was fashionable in some literary quarters to describe the book as unreadable, a book in which it is impossible to get past page 15. In such quarters people spoke of a ‘Page 15 Club.’ ” It might have been a club that would have me, but I didn’t want to belong to it anymore.

To read The Satanic Verses at last was to realize that I once read differently: more deeply, more slowly, less for the plot, and with a greater tolerance for elliptical, episodic passages, evocative of, say, old Islamic tales, myth, or dream sequences. Said plot concerns two contemporary Indian men: Gibreel Farishta, a Bollywood star, and Saladin Chamcha, who has spent his life trying to refashion himself as a British gentleman. They are both passengers on a hijacked plane from Bombay that explodes in mid‑air over the English Channel. After the two fall to earth and somehow survive, much magic realism ensues, with frequent meanderings on a principal theme of migration and shape-shifting identity.

Page 15 flew past unnoticed, but page 115 was duly noted with a pause for self-congratulation. Imagine those pauses transforming — as I read pages 215, 315, and 415 — into virtual high-fives between my younger self and the middle-aged, under-slept, and over-caffeinated plodder, tetchily resisting the urge to reach for my phone, the buzzing little dictator of my waking hours. Hitting the last paragraph on page 547 did feel like a signal achievement, a victory over distraction, commemorative of the reader I used to be.

This is not to say that getting through The Satanic Verses was just an exercise in Olympian willpower, however. There were many passages of vivid, stunning imagery and quicksilver shifts in tone from the grimly ironic to the baldly comic. Virtually no sentence clanged with a wrong note. The Rushdie of 1988 reminded me of how a novelist’s powers could be focused primarily on the work as a performance of voice. How the pleasure in the text was all about submersion into that other consciousness. How the traditional architecture of the novel could be transformed into something like a postmodern cathedral, capacious enough to house fable, dream, cake recipe, and dirty joke. How the earnest or critically enlightened among us had hung in there way past page 15, enjoying the performance and maybe fulsomely congratulating themselves for the winking suspension of disbelief. A little forced laughter from the reader all those years ago seems pretty harmless in contrast to the murderous outrage of Rushdie’s adversaries.

As Knife so tragically affirms, such outrage remains all too present today, even though the moment for a novel like The Satanic Verses seems long past.

John Delacourt recently received a Pushcart Prize nomination for his story “Liner Notes.”