‘Knowledge was ignorance and up was down’: an ingenious American parable explores race, sexuality and a nationwide identity crisis The Golden House by Salman Rushdie
Comparisons have been drawn between Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, F Scott Fitzgerald’s
The Great Gatsby
and Evelyn Waugh’s
All three are tales involving great wealth and a great downfall, and all three share a narrator who is not the protagonist, who is peripheral to the action, but yearns to be part of it. Rushdie’s René Unterlinden, the twentysomething son of Belgian academics, lives in the same New York garden square as Nero Golden and his three sons and watches their world with growing fascination. In a book replete with filmic references, this setting owes more than a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
At the centre of the novel is the story of Nero, whose often silent presence flows like a great river off which branch the stories of his three sons. The Goldens pitch up one day out of the blue, take up residence in a house maintained as an anonymous holding, and refuse to reveal anything of their origins. René, a would-be film-maker, decides they are the perfect subject for a film, a “mockumentary” as he puts it, in which he is free to imagine what is going on when he isn’t there. It’s an ingenious conceit, which gives Rushdie much greater scope as a writer than if he restricted himself (and us) to René’s viewpoint. It also mirrors the way we all see our neighbours, with only partial access to their lives; what we cannot see, we amuse ourselves by imagining.
The book begins with the election of Barack Obama and ends eight years later on the eve of an election in which the lead contender refers to himself as “the Joker”. Nero’s character contains echoes of Trump, too; he is a man of fabulous wealth, with a beautiful Russian wife, and a fortune thought to be in part built on real estate. The novel’s transnational supporting cast includes an Australian hypnotist; a Burmese diplomat; Ivy Manuel, a night-club singer; a Somalian artist; and Nero’s assistants, Fuss and Blather. As the election nears, America is deeply divided. “It was a year of two bubbles,” René muses. “In one of those bubbles, the Joker shrieked and the laugh-track crowd laughed right on queue.” In that bubble, “knowledge was ignorance, up was down and the right person to hold the nuclear codes was the greenskinned red-slashed-mouthed giggler”. Thus, by the book’s end, the bubble of New York is where reality perseveres.
The Goldens arrive having fled an unknown city – later revealed to be Bombay/Mumbai – as well as an unknown threat, but seem unable to escape their destiny. At the centre of each character’s predicament lies the question of identity. Here Rushdie puts his finger on the existential crisis of our times and presses down hard. The Goldens are immigrants, refugees of a sort, who have abandoned their ties to their natal country and chosen new names for themselves, names that morph into newer forms in the months following their arrival. The eldest son, newly named Petronius, is known as Petya; Lucius Apuleis becomes Apu; and Dionysus is D. For himself the patriarch portentously takes the name Nero, ill-fated emperor of Rome.
In New York they reinvent themselves, or try to. But with the arrival of the new wife, Vasilisa, the sons leave the family home one by one, only to become unmoored in the vastness of the city. D, the youngest, doesn’t know whether he is a man or a woman, or a woman with a penis. Here Rushdie delves, with considerable courage, into the ever-shifting sands of modern sexual identity, which obsess millen- nials and baffle older generations. D’s girlfriend Riya works at the fictional Museum of Identity, and it is she who persuades him to seek a new sexual self. “You can choose who you want to be,” she tells him. “Sexual identity is not a given. It’s a choice.”
Apu, Nero’s middle son, a handsome, successful artist, suffers the hollow loss of the exile, and longs to return to the land of his birth – only to do so with devastating consequences. Petya develops agoraphobia, finding peace and safety behind the closed doors of his room and in the fabricated world of computer games. In this doomed family, Petya alone seems capable of finding salvation, when he finally breaks free of his self-imposed isolation. And there providing the commentary to the tragedy, witness to it all, is René, who insinuates himself first into the family and gradually into the centre of their unfolding drama.
The Golden House is not Brideshead or Gatsby – it is too rich and too riotous. Rather it is a contemporary Bonfire of the Vanities, New York seen from the inside and the outside, as only a writer of multiple selves such as Rushdie – Indian, British, now a New Yorker – could do. It is a novel about the many bubbles of the United States, written by somebody who has never had the luxury of living in one. His is a hard-won wisdom. “To be plural, to be multiform, is a singular thing,” says Riya in her resignation letter from the Museum of Identity. The notion of identity as overlapping and many-layered is something with which large sections of white America are grappling, in a nationwide identity crisis: they thought they knew who they were, only to discover their sense of self has increasingly relied on telling others what they weren’t.
There is no escaping destiny, Rushdie seems to be saying, because character creates destiny. This is as true of an individual as it is of a country. Nero is smart, entrepreneurial, charming and quick-witted. He is also corrupt, greedy and ruthless, unable and unwilling to curb those tendencies: thus he is the architect of his own downfall.
After reading a book so full of references to Greek mythology, Aesop’s fable of the scorpion and the frog comes to mind. A scorpion persuades the frog to carry it across the water. The frog asks: “But how do I know you won’t sting me?” “Because then we will both die,” says the scorpion – but stings him anyway. “Why?” gasps the frog, as they both sink beneath the water. “It’s my nature,” replies the scorpion.
There is no escaping destiny, Rushdie seems to be saying, because character creates destiny
384pp, Jonathan Cape, £18.99
To order The Golden House for £14.24 go to bookshop. theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Rushdie: a writer of multiple selves