Rushdie’s satire take us all on the ride

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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