Nathaniel Rich

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Nathaniel Rich

The Golden House by Sal­man Rushdie

The Golden House by Sal­man Rushdie.

Ran­dom House, 380 pp., $28.99

Whether by design, chance, or orac­u­lar div­ina­tion, Sal­man Rushdie has man­aged, within a year of the 2016 elec­tion, to pub­lish the first novel of the Trumpian Era. On purely tech­ni­cal mer­its this is an as­tound­ing achieve­ment, the lit­er­ary equiv­a­lent of Katie Ledecky lap­ping the Olympic field in the 1500-me­ter freestyle. The pub­lish­ing in­dus­try still op­er­ates at an aris­to­cratic pace; Egypt built the new Suez Canal in less time than it typ­i­cally takes to con­vert a fin­ished man­u­script into a hard­cover. As a point of com­par­i­son, the first novel to ap­pear about Septem­ber 11, Win­dows on the World, by the French author Frédéric Beigbeder, was not pub­lished un­til Au­gust 2003. Yet less than eight months into the ad­min­is­tra­tion, Rushdie has pro­duced a novel that, if not ex­plic­itly about the pres­i­dent, is tinged a toxic shade of orange. Trump poses a risky temp­ta­tion for novelists, es­pe­cially those writ­ing amid the shit tor­rent of his pres­i­dency. As po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ists have dis­cov­ered, the vol­ume of rev­e­la­tions erupt­ing from the White House and the pres­i­den­tial Twit­ter feed threat­ens to un­der­mine the re­li­a­bil­ity of even daily news re­ports by the time they ap­pear in print. It would seem masochis­tic to at­tempt to write a book about such a swiftly mov­ing tar­get, when events could at any time be hi­jacked by a new rev­e­la­tion of col­lu­sion with the en­emy, im­peach­ment charges, a nu­clear war, a race war. In a nod to the fu­til­ity of this en­ter­prise, Rushdie uses as an epi­gram a line from François Truf­faut: “La vie a beau­coup plus d’imag­i­na­tion que nous.”

Far more per­ilous to a nov­el­ist, how­ever, is the prospect of writ­ing about a public fig­ure whose name, in the decades be­fore his as­cen­sion to the pres­i­dency, has car­ried a fixed set of cul­tural as­so­ci­a­tions, has been a brand, a trade­mark, a cliché, ap­pear­ing in the con­scious­ness if not on the page in bold­face type, a tex­tual black hole that threat­ens to vac­uum into it­self any ges­ture to­ward nu­ance, com­plex­ity, or orig­i­nal thought. Rushdie par­ries this haz­ard by omit­ting Don­ald Trump’s name and dis­tribut­ing his sig­na­ture qual­i­ties among sev­eral char­ac­ters. The ab­strac­tion al­lows him to scru­ti­nize in turn var­i­ous as­pects of the pres­i­den­tial char­ac­ter, and ours, with­out suc­cumb­ing to the fa­mil­iar cat­e­chisms of con­tem­po­rary po­lit­i­cal de­bate. The Golden House is not about Trump him­self as much as it is about the con­di­tions that pro­duced him—the con­di­tions, we can now say, with the dawn­ing con­fi­dence of ret­ro­spect, that made him in­evitable. It reads as if Rushdie sought to write a novel of a spe­cific place (Lower Man­hat­tan) at a sin­gu­lar time (the last days of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion), was over­taken by events, and con­cluded that the same logic that de­manded his fic­tional nar­ra­tive end in tragedy also gov­erned our re­al­ity. The al­ter­na­tive is that Rushdie pos­sesses the pow­ers of the seer in Mid­night’s Chil­dren, Shri Ram­ram Seth, who tells the mother of the un­born nar­ra­tor that her son will have “two heads—but you shall see only one.”

The Golden House re­counts the fall of the house of Nero Golden, a rich sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian busi­ness­man and ego­ist, fa­mous for be­ing fa­mous, “a man deeply in love with the idea of him­self as pow­er­ful.” He is the kind of man who walks “to­ward closed doors with­out slow­ing down, know­ing they would open for him” (for all his nar­ra­tive fire­works, Rushdie is a mas­ter of iso­lat­ing the be­hav­ioral tic that re­veals a char­ac­ter). A vet­eran of the down­town scene of the 1970s and 1980s, Golden got his start in the con­struc­tion busi­ness and traf­ficked in a wide range of le­gal and semi­le­gal schemes, in­clud­ing pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment, be­fore lever­ag­ing his fame into a valu­able brand­ing op­er­a­tion. His name is it­self an­other scheme, a pseu­do­nym in­vented to sound as Amer­i­can as Jay Gatsby and to con­ceal a crim­i­nal past (and In­dian na­tion­al­ity) be­hind a scrim of Ro­man im­pe­rial grandeur. He li­censes it to of­fice tow­ers, for-profit uni­ver­si­ties, and hot dogs, the word GOLDEN writ­ten in cap­i­tal let­ters, il­lu­mi­nated in gold neon. His cus­tomers don’t seem to mind that his busi­nesses are plagued by per­sis­tent ru­mors of pyra­mid schemes, bank­rupt­cies, and ties to or­ga­nized crime.

With his three grown sons, from two women, he has a “strangely au­thor­i­tar­ian re­la­tion­ship,” hold­ing sep­a­rate daily meet­ings with each of them in which he de­mands to know what their broth­ers are say­ing about him be­hind his back. For Golden, loy­alty is “the only virtue worth car­ing about,” apart from strength. “Once he de­cides you’re a weak­ling,” says one of his sons, “you’re dead to him.” Dur­ing the 2012 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Golden de­vel­ops an ob­ses­sion with na­tional pol­i­tics, sup­port­ing Rom­ney and loathing Obama with a rage an­i­mated by racial big­otry. Near­ing the end of his eighth decade, he be­gins to show signs of men­tal de­te­ri­o­ra­tion. Yet de­spite his ad­vanc­ing se­nil­ity—or per­haps be­cause of it—he is able to land a Soviet-bloc third wife, a for­mer nude model, sev­eral decades his ju­nior.


Golden pos­sesses qual­i­ties that Trump does not: in­tro­spec­tion, his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive, re­morse. Fic­tion, un­like re­al­ity, makes cer­tain in­flex­i­ble de­mands on its author. Chief among these is cred­i­bil­ity. For a char­ac­ter to hold the at­ten­tion of a reader over the course of an en­tire novel, he must pos­sess some sem­blance of an in­ner self, ca­pa­ble of com­plex and con­tra­dict­ing emo­tions, fear as well as bom­bast, shame as well as pride. He must, that is, ap­pear to be hu­man.

The source of Golden’s shame and fear is a mys­tery that Rushdie’s nar­ra­tor, a twenty-five-year-old neigh­bor of the Gold­ens named René Un­ter­lin­den, en­deav­ors to solve. The Golden House is pri­mar­ily a char­ac­ter study, not only of Golden but of his three sons, his viper­ish young wife, and René. Rushdie is too de­voted a sto­ry­teller to rely en­tirely on char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, how­ever. He turns to a trio of nar­ra­tive con­ceits to en­liven the ac­tion, one for each of the novel’s three acts. In the first, we learn that René, an as­pir­ing film­maker with a lot of time on his hands, sees in the Gold­ens a sub­ject for his début: “I felt the ex­cite­ment of the young artist whose sub­ject has ar­rived like a gift in the hol­i­day mail.”

René’s cin­e­matic am­bi­tion jus­ti­fies his nosy ef­forts to in­sin­u­ate him­self into the Gold­ens’ clois­tered lives; from his apart­ment’s rear win­dow he spies on his neigh­bors in the com­mon gar­den be­low. It also al­lows Rushdie to make fre­quent use of film ref­er­ences, to ren­der scenes in a screen­writer’s short­hand (end­ing chap­ters with “Cut,” “Slow dis­solve,” “Black­out”), and the li­cense, when con­ve­nient, to shift promis­cu­ously, if in­con­sis­tently, be­tween René’s first-per­son nar­ra­tive and an om­ni­scient per­spec­tive.

Rushdie is a rest­less pres­ence on the page, with a deep bag of tricks, and un­con­cerned with break­ing his own rules in ser­vice of a nar­ra­tive jolt. So while there are scenes writ­ten in the form of a screen­play, con­sis­tent with the premise, there are also chap­ters ren­dered as in­ner mono­logues,

writ­ten and imag­ined cor­re­spon­dence, stream-of-con­scious­ness, para­bles, an in­ter­ro­ga­tion, and a word col­lage. Lest the reader’s at­ten­tion flag dur­ing the ex­po­si­tional first act, Rushdie makes fre­quent asides por­tend­ing juicy de­vel­op­ments to come: “As we will see...” “Pa­tience: I will not re­veal all my se­crets at once.” “By the time I’m done, much will be said, much of it hor­ri­fy­ing.” “Many years later, when we knew ev­ery­thing . . .” “Now that ev­ery­thing is known...” “Now that I know the fam­ily se­crets . . .”

One per­sonal rule Rushdie does not break, how­ever: the in­ter­ven­tion of a femme fa­tale. Vasil­isa, with her shad­owy con­nec­tions to the Rus­sian petro­c­racy, sylph­like fig­ure (“she is strik­ing . . . as­ton­ish­ing . . . she runs marathons, and is a fine gym­nast”), and cal­cu­lat­ing, Siberian af­fect is a de­scen­dant of Rushdie vix­ens like Fury’s Mila Milo (“The queen web­spy­der... had him in her net”); the in­car­na­tion of Padma Lak­shmi that ap­pears in the mem­oir Joseph An­ton, “who had grand am­bi­tions and se­cret plans that had noth­ing to do with the ful­fill­ment of his deep­est needs”; and Teresa Saca in Two Years Eight Months and Twen­tyEight Nights, “a no­to­ri­ous lib­er­tine and fisher-for-rich-men” who elec­tro­cutes a lover with light­ning bolts shot from her fin­ger­tips.

Vasil­isa too is a sex­ual sorcerer with “the wis­dom of the spi­der” who casts “the web of her words and deeds around the lit­tle fly, the old fool.” She is a fisher-for-rich-men with grand am­bi­tions and se­cret plans that have noth­ing to do with the ful­fill­ment of Golden’s deep­est needs. Nero’s sons are not fooled. They pre­dict she will marry their de­clin­ing fa­ther and at­tempt to seize their in­her­i­tances. Nero is not fooled ei­ther, how­ever. Vasil­isa understands that the four Golden men are not fooled. Yet she man­ages to pre­vail nev­er­the­less, with an un­likely as­sist from our com­pro­mised nar­ra­tor. Though the film René ul­ti­mately ends up mak­ing about the Golden fam­ily is a pres­tige drama, the novel as­sumes, in Part II, the nar­ra­tive ve­loc­ity of a te­len­ov­ela. A hor­rific car crash is fol­lowed by an adul­ter­ous pact lead­ing to a fal­si­fied parent­age, the ap­pear­ance of a male hyp­no­tist with a blond bouf­fant, the first of two ma­jor acts of ar­son, a cameo by Werner Her­zog, a sex change, a dou­ble as­sas­si­na­tion, a prison es­cape, a sui­cide, and a mass shoot­ing, all against the back­drop of the 2016 elec­tion. In Rushdie’s comic­book par­al­lel uni­verse, which varies only by a de­gree from our own comic­book uni­verse, “Bat­woman” runs for pres­i­dent against a build­ing mag­nate named Gary “Green” Gwyn­plaine, who apart from his in­ex­pli­ca­ble limegreen hair and pur­ple coat, has much in com­mon with Golden. The of­fices of Golden En­ter­prises are even lo­cated in Gwyn­plaine’s Mid­town sky­scraper, though Nero con­sid­ers his ri­val a vul­gar­ian and re­fuses to ut­ter his name. Rushdie fol­lows his char­ac­ter’s ex­am­ple. Once in­tro­duced, the vil­lain Gwyn­plaine is ex­clu­sively in­voked by his nick­name, the Joker. (Gwyn­plaine is the name of the de­formed hero of Vic­tor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, a model for Bat­man’s Joker.)

The novel’s fi­nal act plays out in the man­ner of a gang­ster film, with the ap­pear­ance of a dandy in­ter­na­tional as­sas­sin, a crime boss known as Don Cor­leone, and a quar­tet of ep­i­theti­cized heav­ies, one of whom is known as “Short Fin­gers with the orange hair.” Mean­while, amid lita­nies of mass shoot­ings and racial vi­o­lence, the bitter pres­i­den­tial cam­paign en­dures its fi­nal an­ar­chic con­vul­sions. The con­test is not be­tween right and left (po­lit­i­cal par­ties are not named) but be­tween moral­ity and sav­agery. It is a bat­tle for mod­ern civ­i­liza­tion. “I be­gan to won­der,” writes Rushdie, “if we were moral be­ings at all or sim­ply sav­ages who de­fined their pri­vate big­otries as nec­es­sary ethics.”

The Joker speaks at packed, chant­ing are­nas, where he ex­tols “the un­ri­valed beauty of white skin and red lips.” He is ut­terly in­sane, that is ob­vi­ous, but his sup­port­ers back him “be­cause he was in­sane, not in spite of it. What would have dis­qual­i­fied any other can­di­date made him his fol­low­ers’ hero.” Who cares if he is propped up by Rus­sian oli­garchs, pro­poses that Mex­ico will be forced to pay for a wall built on its bor­der, as­sails the First Amend­ment, and opines that a hos­tile fe­male re­porter has blood com­ing out of her what­ever? Not enough vot­ers to stop him. The Sui­cide Squad—Two-Face, the Rid­dler, the Pen­guin, and Poi­son Ivy—is swept into the White House on the Joker’s pur­ple coat­tails.

Yet de­spite the mael­strom of René’s pri­vate life and the public life of the na­tion, life goes on. “The Repub­lic,” René ob­serves in a tone of won­der, “re­mained more or less in­tact.” To a cer­tain ex­tent this re­flects a philo­soph­i­cal truth. As Rushdie writes, “I know that af­ter the storm, an­other storm, and then an­other. I know that stormy weather is the fore­cast for­ever and happy days aren’t here again.” But the note of equa­nim­ity also re­flects René’s mi­lieu, which is to say the bub­ble or, in the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of René’s Bel­gian pro­fes­sor fa­ther Gabe, “de bub­ble.” Though “the lib­eral bub­ble” is now taken to in­clude most ma­jor Amer­i­can cities, col­lege towns, and large swathes of the coasts, Gabe Un­ter­lin­den de­fines his bub­ble more nar­rowly. It is a bub­ble within the bub­ble. Its ge­o­graph­i­cal bound­aries in­clude only Man­hat­tan—be­low 96th Street, it is im­plied, and per­haps even be­low Union Square—and, grudg­ingly, parts of Brook­lyn. Those who live in de bub­ble share not only pro­gres­sive po­lit­i­cal at­ti­tudes but fi­nan­cial prosperity. De Bub­blians are the guardians of en­light­en­ment thought. In the na­tional con­test be­tween moral­ity and sav­agery, de Bub­ble is moral­ity’s head­quar­ters, the cen­tral com­mand.

“De point is, we like de bub­ble, and so do you,” René’s fa­ther tells him. “We don’t want to live in a red state, and you—you’d be done for in for ex­am­ple Kansas, where dey don’t be­lieve in evo­lu­tion. ... So dis iss who you are . . . . The boy in the bub­ble.”

But The Golden House’s mi­lieu is re­ally a bub­ble within de bub­ble within the bub­ble. Most of the ac­tion oc­curs within the Mac­dou­gal-Sul­li­van Gar­dens in Green­wich Vil­lage, a hedge­lined park of maple and sy­camore trees that oc­cu­pies the in­te­rior of a full city block, ac­ces­si­ble only to the in­hab­i­tants of twenty-one brick town­houses that stand along its perime­ter. In Rushdie’s novel the Gar­dens re­sem­bles the Grand Ho­tel in Grand Ho­tel, a lux­u­ri­ous oa­sis

oc­cu­pied by a cos­mopoli­tan cast of char­ac­ters of am­bigu­ous in­ter­na­tional wealth. Be­sides the Gold­ens, who have moved there from Mum­bai af­ter a fam­ily cri­sis, there are a pair of Si­cil­ian aris­to­crats, a soli­tary Ar­gen­tine-Amer­i­can, a UN diplo­mat from Myan­mar, and the “post-Bel­gian” Un­ter­lin­dens, their mem­ber­ship jus­ti­fied with an aside not­ing that they bought their town­house “back in the Juras­sic era when things were cheap.” (It is not ex­plained why they haven’t yet sold the prop­erty, but we can guess: though they would profit by many mil­lions of dol­lars, they would be forced to live out­side of de bub­ble.)


Mac­dou­gal-Sul­li­van Gar­dens, Rushdie ne­glects to note, were in­tended to be cheap. They were de­signed in 1921 by Wil­liam Sloane Cof­fin Sr., later the pres­i­dent of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art, as part of a pri­vate cam­paign to pre­serve af­ford­able homes for mid­dle-class New York­ers. Cof­fin had been alarmed that the boom­ing real es­tate mar­ket had ejected artists, ac­tors, trades­men, and mu­si­cians into the outer bor­oughs and be­yond. For the orig­i­nal ten­ants the com­mu­nal veg­etable gar­den was a ne­ces­sity more than a pas­time, and the park a pro­tected refuge for their chil­dren, who num­bered in the dozens.

New York­ers will not be sur­prised by how this story ends. In June one of the Mac­dou­gal-Sul­li­van town­houses sold for $14 mil­lion. A few artists, ac­tors, and mu­si­cians still live in the Gar­dens, but only those suc­cess­ful enough, and late enough in their ca­reers, to af­ford it. Oth­ers, like the direc­tor Baz Luhrmann, rent (the go­ing rate is $40,000 a month). One of the build­ings be­longs to Vogue’s Anna Win­tour, one to the Ital­ian direc­tor Francesco Car­rozzini (son of the for­mer edi­tor of Ital­ian Vogue), an­other to Francesco and Alba Cle­mente, friends of the author, to whom Rushdie ded­i­cates The Golden House. There are fewer chil­dren, and when they play soc­cer it is, ac­cord­ing to a res­i­dent quoted in a re­cent New York Times Fash­ion & Style piece, “much to the dis­may of some neigh­bors.” The old com­mu­nal gar­den is kept up by a pri­vate land­scap­ing firm.

Last year a row­house built dur­ing the Civil War on Bleecker Street, at the north­ern end of the block, was de­mol­ished and re­placed by the Dolce Green­wich Vil­lage, a seven-story “bou­tique con­do­minium” nearly twice the height of the other build­ings, with ter­races over­look­ing the gar­dens, de­spite Win­tour’s protests that it would block out the sun. The gar­dens them­selves have be­come a lux­ury ac­ces­sory, listed on Dolce’s brochures be­tween the tanned oak hard­wood floors and Cae­sar­stone coun­ter­tops. It would be dif­fi­cult to find a bet­ter metaphor for what Man­hat­tan has be­come.

Rushdie ac­knowl­edges that the in­hab­i­tants of the Gar­dens are “co­cooned in lib­eral down­town silk,” but his sym­pa­thy with its res­i­dents is unironic, his satire never ris­ing be­yond a play­ful chid­ing. In a novel full of howl­ing po­lit­i­cal out­rage, with ex­cur­sions into trans­gen­der pol­i­tics, shoot­ings of and by po­lice of­fi­cers, Black Lives Mat­ter protests, cam­pus bat­tles over safe spa­ces and con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments, Gamer­gate, the In­ter­net-gen­er­ated rise of con­spir­acy the­o­ries, and riffs on the na­ture of “truth” and “free­dom,” Rushdie’s dis­in­ter­est in New York City’s most con­tentious so­cial is­sue— ac­cel­er­at­ing eco­nomic in­equal­ity and the forced re­lo­ca­tion of its work­ing and mid­dle classes—is as con­spic­u­ous as an out-of-scale condo de­vel­op­ment blot­ting out the sun. He comes clos­est to the is­sue when Apu Golden, Nero’s melan­cholic mid­dle son, takes a field trip to the Oc­cupy Wall Street protest, dress­ing down to blend in, and mar­vels at the pro­test­ers cos­tumed as Gandhi and Henry Ford. “So won­der­ful,” says Apu, “to see Goethe ly­ing down among the sleep­ing bags, G.K. Ch­ester­ton stand­ing in line for soup.” His sketches of the scene are ex­hib­ited at an art gallery on the Bow­ery.

No writer, even in a novel so heav­ily en­gaged with so­cial is­sues, need weigh in on any par­tic­u­lar sub­ject; as Rushdie knows bet­ter than any other liv­ing nov­el­ist, the author’s only blood al­le­giance is to his reader. Yet amid his sharp re­frains about “our age of bit­terly con­tested re­al­i­ties,” “the preva­lence of the un­real over the real” (a line cred­ited to Primo Levi), and fears that a “cloud of ig­no­rance has blinded us,” one won­ders whether life among the Gar­den peo­ple might not im­pose at least a cir­rus cloud of ig­no­rance over their view of the world.

The Golden fam­ily, we are as­sured from the novel’s open­ing pages, will suf­fer a tragic fate. But the world that Rushdie de­scribes—the pri­vate is­land par­ties, the Madi­son Av­enue shop­ping sprees, the film fes­ti­val cir­cuit, the celebrity cameos, the fetishiza­tion of mul­ti­cul­tural artists (a Faroese singer, a blind ac­cor­dion­ist from Ecuador, a So­mali metal sculp­tor), the ladies’ lunches at Sant Am­broeus, the bil­lion­aires jok­ing about their “units” (one unit=$100 mil­lion), the pub­li­cists hired to sup­press in­stead of gen­er­ate pub­lic­ity, the flaw­less taste in cinema and rugs, the end­less down­time—is im­mune from real dan­ger. This is not a po­lit­i­cal fault, but a dra­matic one; it means the stakes are never es­pe­cially high. Just like the Joker’s sup­port­ers, René and his neigh­bors live in a world in which the un­real pre­vails over the real. It is the same world, in fact, that cre­ated the Joker.

By the end of the novel Rushdie has trav­eled into the fu­ture, more than a year af­ter the Joker’s vic­tory. The world has not ended but René and his co­terie re­main in shock and grief. Their only re­sponse—their best re­sponse—to “the mon­strous forces that faced us” is to live with­out fear, cher­ish­ing love and beauty and friend­ship. “Hu­man­ity,” writes Rushdie, “was the only an­swer to the car­toon.” This may not prove an ef­fec­tive cam­paign slo­gan in 2020, but it has the virtue of be­ing true. And the nov­el­ist’s sub­ject, af­ter all, is hu­man­ity—the in­ner life, with its mad­den­ing con­tra­dic­tions and in­ad­e­qua­cies. For all of The Golden House’s folk­loric ar­chi­tec­ture and twin­kling prose, for all its imp­ish car­toon­ery and ex­u­ber­ant sto­ry­telling, the novel is at its heart an un­set­tling por­trait of the state of hu­man­ity in the United States of 2017. It cel­e­brates our mea­ger glories and ex­poses our flaws, par­tic­u­larly our in­abil­ity to see out­side of our own lit­tle co­coons, whether they be con­structed of silk or some coarser ma­te­rial.

Sal­man Rushdie, New York City, 2005; pho­to­graph by Bruce David­son

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