Rushdie’s satire take us all on the ride
Salman Rushdie’s previous novel came with an unwieldy title and overstuffed contents. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, an unpacked, stretched-out One Thousand and One Nights, saw Rushdie playing Scheherazade by spinning countless outlandish tales and spawning umpteen exotic characters. In New York in an epoch marked by so-called “strangenesses”, good and evil genies did battle, cataclysmic disasters raged, and one gardener found himself able to levitate.
Two years on and Rushdie’s 13th novel sees him reining in these fantastical flourishes and resuming his grip on reality. Once again the setting is his now home city of New York, only this time not in the near future but the recent past.
Alarm bells should sound. Fury, Rushdie’s previous attempt at a modern-day, naturalistic, jinn-free New York novel, was a stinker. His views of the city had bite and pungency, Manhattan being a “money-mad burg” where “people lived such polished lives that the great rough truths of raw existence had been rubbed and buffed away”, but the protagonist’s wanderings were directionless and his experiences vapid.
This reality was not worth returning to. So just how engaging and immersive is the real world of The Golden House, published in the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency? Has Rushdie now hit the ground running, or come crashing down to earth?
The book begins with two fresh starts. On the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, Nero Golden arrives in New York with his three sons and moves to an exclusive Manhattan mansion.
This “enigmatic septuagenarian” is a man with a new name and more than a few skeletons in his closet. On his orders, his sons have also chosen classical names for themselves. There is Petronius (Petya), Lucius Apuleius (Apu) and Dionysus (known simply as D). Where all four came from and what brought them to the US remains shrouded in secrecy.
Delving into their murky past and documenting their meteoric rise in their adopted land is the narrator, Rene, a neighbour to the Goldens. He is a budding filmmaker. He ingrati- ates himself into their gilded world, assumes the role of chronicler and “imagineer”, and sets about collecting facts to turn into footage.
Rene is not short on material for his careerlaunching film project. He trails Petya, who makes his mark in the field of computer games but, being autistic, agoraphobic and alcoholic, is afflicted by demons. Handsome, outgoing Apu finds success as an artist but a return trip to his homeland to make peace with angry spirits wrenches him out of his comfort zone. And golden child D, who increasingly feels like “a misfit in his own skin”, embarks on a personal quest to resolve his gender-identity issues.
The larger-than-life Nero emerges as the most complex member of the clan, a man whose power and wealth may not be able to repair the cracks that threaten to undo him. He marries a young Russian temptress, Vasilisa. Comparisons with Trump inevitably will be made.
He invites Rene to live with them for a while, leaving our narrator feeling on the one hand “like a serf offered a bedroom in a palace, and, on the other, as if I had done a deal with the Devil”.
In the end, Rene is lured into doing a deal with the conniving Vasilisa. An outsider admit- ted to the inner sanctum, he acts out his role and at the same time watches as individuals unravel and the family fragments.
The longer he sticks around, the closer he comes to understanding and uncovering a mighty yet fatally flawed patriarch, “a man who erases all his reference points, who wants to be connected to nothing in his history”.
VS Pritchett said Midnight’s Children, still Rushdie’s supreme masterpiece, was a novel about “the mystery of being born”. The Golden House is a novel about being reborn. “[W]e are make-believe people,” Nero tells his offspring, “frauds, reinventions, shapeshifters, which is to say, Americans.”
Even Rene admits he is a “self-concealer”, like his subjects. He reveals the Goldens came from “the broken quarrelling city” of Bombay (as did Rushdie). The US is for them “the land of the self-made self”.
Only much later, after the characters have flailed around within their new skins, do we discover what drove them to remake themselves and just how painful their rebirth was.
As ever with Rushdie, this is a Russian doll or Chinese box of a book, full of cached stories, digressive riffs and subplots. Histories and