‘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

The Guardian - Review - - Fiction - Ami­natta Forna Ami­natta Forna’s The Hired Man is pub­lished by Blooms­bury.

Com­par­isons have been drawn be­tween Sal­man Rushdie’s lat­est novel, F Scott Fitzger­ald’s

The Great Gatsby

and Eve­lyn Waugh’s

Brideshead Re­vis­ited.

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

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