M. Keith Booker has recently drawn attention to a common tendency in the interpretive criticism of Salman Rushdie, and indeed of much postcolonization literature: the tendency to assume that any deviation from "linear" narrative is disruptive of colonialist hegemony. Booker rightly points out that this assumption lumps Marxist anticolonial histories into the same category as imperial propaganda ("Midnight's Children"). He might have added that it lumps anticolonial postmodern narratives together with any incoherent, rambling, paranoiac, racist history.
The problems don't stop there. Humanists write as if the difference between "linear" and "nonlinear" narrative is straightforward. But in fact it is hardly clear what constitutes a linear narrative. Sometimes a "linear" narrative is one in which there is any sort of causal explanation. But by this criterion, all narratives are linear. You just can't have a narrative without causal explanation. Sometimes "linear" narratives are ones in which everything is given a causal explanation, while "nonlinear" narratives have gaps, occurrences that are not explained. This is a reasonable definition. But it reverses the preceding problem, for by this criterion there are no linear narratives. No story explains everything. There are only degrees of explanatory completeness. Moreover, this definition makes standard political claims about narrative self-evidently implausible. How could it be the case that a story with more unexplained variables--events, situations, actions of characters that are not accounted for but occur as if at random--how could it be that such a story is politically empowering simply by explaining less? This would seem to entail the bizarre idea that one is best able to change a political or economic system when one understands nothing at all about it.
Finally, this assumption participates in the absurd rhetorical inflation that has affected humanistic writing in recent years. It seems that we are no longer satisfied with saying that a novel criticizes or analyzes colonialism. Rather, we must say that it "disrupts" the economy of colonialism, or "undermines" hegemony, or "empowers" colonized peoples. In other words, we cannot simply describe the political implications or purposes of a particular literary work. Rather, we must posit an effect--and, indeed, an effect that is vast, revolutionary, transformative, as if the very fact of a story's publication was socially equivalent to a decade of systematic land reform or the establishment of an independent government.
I should say at the outset that I have nothing against nonpolitical interpretations of literary works. Human life is vast, multiple, irreducible. Literature is not confined to one part of it. Thus all sorts of analysis, discussion, appreciation, and critique have a place in literary study and in what the Greeks called eudaimonia, human flourishing. But the problem with claims of the sort isolated and criticized by Booker is that they pretend to be political while in fact they occlude many real economic, cultural, governmental, historical, and more generally human issues that are or should be central to political discussion. In short, they usurp the place of politics. Booker suggests that this tendency may be particularly unfortunate in Rushdie's case, for the politics concealed in Rushdie are, effectively, a Cold War politics of anticommunism.
It seems to me that Booker somewhat overstates his case. Yes, the communists are treated parodically in Midnight's Children--but so is everyone else. Yes, Rushdie is critical of the communist movement--but he also shows considerable sympathy for some aspects of the movement and some of its representatives. Yes, the communists are presented as magicians and illusionists, but they are also "people whose hold on reality was absolute" (476). Yes, Saleem tells us that Picture Singh, the communist leader, was antidemocratic, but Saleem also tells us, "I can say, with utter certainty, that Picture Singh was the greatest man I ever met" (474). …