Amer­i­can named

Sal­man Rushdie’s The Golden House sug­gests names might be the mother of rein­ven­tion Paul Taun­ton

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The Golden House, Sal­man Rushdie’s 12th novel, doesn’t con­tain much of the au­thor’s sig­na­ture magic re­al­ism, but it is a story about ex­treme wealth, which, let’s face it, can be con­sid­ered a type of magic. What we re­fer to as “Mary Sue sto­ries” in fic­tion – where peo­ple live in im­pos­si­ble houses, where their life floats upon un­spec­i­fied sources of in­come – ex­ist in real life. In an odd re­ver­sal, the main char­ac­ters in The Golden House, pa­tri­arch Nero Golden and his three sons Petya, Apu and Diony­sus, re­flect the kinds of peo­ple whose real lives are stranger than fic­tion.

“There are houses and apart­ments, in both New York and London in neigh­bour­hoods which I know very well, where no­body lives,” says Rushdie by tele­phone from Man­hat­tan. “A lot of the new res­i­den­tial high-rise build­ings have been com­pletely sold, there isn’t an apart­ment you can buy, but no­body lives there. They’re all just peo­ple park­ing their money. That’s why I had this idea that the Golden House could have been sit­ting there owned by Nero for a re­ally long time with these two women be­ing the house man­agers.” It was ready for him, Rushdie says, “ex­cept that he’d never both­ered to show up be­fore.”

The Golden House is si­t­u­ated at one end of the MacDou­gal- Sul­li­van Gar­dens in Green­wich Vil­lage ,where ev­ery pizza place is filled with glossy 8 x 10s to show tourists what once was. ( The Golden House has many such pic­tures with Nero in the frame along­side celebri­ties.) Some of those Vil­lage streets used to have views look­ing south to the World Trade Cen­ter, misty like on the cover of Don DeLillo’s Un­der­world. The rea­son for the Gold­ens’ ar­rival is a mys­te­ri­ous calamity of Nero’s mak­ing, one that has roots in the March 1993 bomb­ings in Mum­bai, which them­selves oc­curred just af­ter the first World Trade Cen­ter bomb­ing – such cou­plings per­vade the novel.

The fam­ily’s back­story is to be sussed out in the course of the novel by its nar­ra­tor, a neigh­bour and as­pir­ing film­maker named René. He de­scribes the Gar­dens as the scene of “an Alt­man en­sem­ble cast,” but to a newer gen­er­a­tion it might feel more like The Royal Te­nen­baums ( and Wes An­der­son is men­tioned later). It’s René’s girl­friend Su­chi­tra who evokes this best when she de­scribes the Golden House as like the Ad­dams Fam­ily Man­sion. Gothic, yes, but more car­toon­ish than, say, the House of Usher.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, the Golden men’s lav­ish names are, like their new home, adopted – or one might say af­fected. The smart move would have been to be­come anony­mous, but Nero and his sons would rather be pseudony­mous. Then again, New York is fa­mous for be­ing the womb of rein­ven­tion, and the Gold­ens aren’t the only ones whose names ring ei­ther falsely (by de­sign) or too on-the-nose.

Petya’s Aus­tralian hyp­nother­a­pist Mur­ray Lett, for ex­am­ple, is the spit­ting im­age of for­mer Wim­ble­don cham­pion Pat Cash; his name is a mash-up of a re­cent Bri­tish Wim­ble­don cham­pion’s sur­name and a ten­nis ser­vice term. Apu’s art dealer is named Frankie Sot­tovoce, a pulpy rack­e­teer’s name in a novel that lib­er­ally ref­er­ences both comics and The God­fa­ther ( Nero re­names a fig­ure from his tragic past as “Don Cor­leone,” and Nero’s sec­ond wed­ding is com­pared to the one that opens Cop­pola’s tril­ogy). And fi­nally, the New York of the novel is in the midst of its own adap­ta­tion: “Con­struc­tion work was the city’s new bru­tal­ist art form, erect­ing its in­stal­la­tions wher­ever you looked.”

Nero Golden is at the heart of this, erect­ing build­ings with his name in gold ( sound fa­mil­iar?). “This was a pow­er­ful man,” René says, “no, more than that – a man deeply in love with the idea of him­self as pow­er­ful.” Is it sim­ply ego, though? An Amer­i­can face for an im­ported oli­garch? “The busi­ness of Amer­ica is busi­ness. This is what I be­lieve,” Nero says (with­out cit­ing Calvin Coolidge). Or is it rather a man­i­fes­ta­tion of guilt and a sort of death- wish: the miss­ing man who more than any­thing wants to be found?

The al­lu­sion to Don­ald Trump was orig­i­nally writ­ten be­fore the elec­tion, though Trump ul­ti­mately fig­ures heav­ily in the novel through a car­toon­ish apoc­a­lyp­tic politi­cian re­sem­bling The Joker (who of course also re­sem­bles Don­aldTrump-as-Pepe-the-Frog). Trump’s vic­tory re­quired some re­work­ing of the novel, Rushdie ad­mits, but the un­for­tu­nate re­al­ity is that much of the hys­te­ria was al­ready in place – the novel’s char­ac­ters fre­quently chan­nel the anx­i­ety of the age:

“Maybe a life lived in the bub­ble had made me be­lieve things that were not so, or not enough to carry the day.” – René

“Truth is such a twen­ti­eth- cen­tury con­cept. The ques­tion is, can I get you to be­lieve it, can I get it re­peated enough times to make it as good as true.” – Su­chi­tra

“In al­most ev­ery sit­u­a­tion, ev­ery­one be­lieves him­self and her­self to be right, and any op­po­nent wrong.” – René’s fa­ther

The U. S. pres­i­den­tial cam­paign isn’t the only mo­tif from 2016 that weaves its way into The Golden House. A grace note in its de­noue­ment is the ap­pear­ance of Leonard Co­hen’s “Bird on the Wire,” to re­mind us of what will doubtlessly be a year also re­mem­bered for its celebrity mu­si­cian deaths. Rushdie met Co­hen in 2012 when asked to present the song­writer with the PEN Song Lyrics Award, and de­spite hav­ing a dif­fer­ent song in mind to ce­ment the re­la­tion­ship of René and Su­chi­tra, he changed it af­ter Co­hen’s death “as a kind of tip of the hat.” (Hu­mor­ously, “Don Cor­leone” mar­ries a star­let whose name, trans­lated, means “Goldie” – while Goldie Hawn’s 1990 ve­hi­cle Bird on a Wire is named for a Neville Broth­ers cover of Co­hen’s song.) In another ele­giac mo­ment, if un­in­tended, Mur­ray Lett and Peyta see Soundgar­den at Jones Beach; the band’s singer Chris Cor­nell would pass away as the book was in pro­duc­tion.

It’s hard not to read The Golden House, de­spite its satire, as an el­egy for many things. De­cency. Pri­vacy. Per­haps just the masks with which we’re com­fort­able, rather than the ones we re­vile. It’s hard not to won­der whether the char­ac­ters who leave the story have ex­ited the stage, or es­caped the build­ing, leav­ing us in­side with our hys­te­ria.


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