Salman Rushdie’s The Golden House suggests names might be the mother of reinvention Paul Taunton
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.
THERE ARE HOUSES IN NEW YORK WHICH I KNOW WHERE NOBODY LIVES.