For the 40th anniversary of the Booker Prize—Britain's annual award for the best novel by a Commonwealth or Irish citizen—a Best of the Booker is being bestowed on July 10. The winner (who gets a trophy and bragging rights) will be chosen by popular vote from among six preselected finalists. The shortlisted names are illustrious: Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee. But none of the contestants truly stands a chance against the supernova shining in their midst, one Sir Salman Rushdie and his incandescent breakthrough novel, "Midnight's Children."
Other Booker winners who might have given Rushdie a run for his money—"Life of Pi," for example—failed to make the cut, and Rushdie has already won a Booker of Bookers on the prize's 25th anniversary. While his five rivals are notable examples of English prose, they can't match the ambition and sheer exuberance of 1981's "Midnight's Children," which borrows from magical realism and Dickensian caricature to tackle the entire Indian subcontinent and the maelstrom of its independence and partition. Upon publication, the book and its author vaulted to literary stardom (a fame furthered by Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" and the ayatollah's fatwa). By now, Rushdie's jet-set circles (Padma, Bono) overshadow his output, which has been plagued by a string of lackluster novels that read like strained imitations of his own prodigious early style. If Rushdie wins, sales of "Midnight's Children" will certainly spike. This could remind readers of all that Rushdie can achieve—unless it serves to illustrate how long it's been since he's achieved it.