Author Salman Rushdie at a book reading.
The Golden House is a work of fiction,” the novel assures us. “Apart from the well-known actual people… any resemblance to current events or locales, or to living persons, is entirely coincidental.” This standard disclaimer becomes especially slippery in Salman Rushdie’s 13th novel: The Golden House is his over-the-top take on the 2010s, the Obama and Trump White Houses, inequality, xenophobia, transphobia, racism, ever-present entertainment, life on the internet and American decline.
The patriarchal head of The Golden House, and its main character, is Nero Golden. His name tells you everything you need to know, both about the plot and about Rushdie’s opinion of our new Gilded Age. Nero, like his namesake, plays the violin from his nest of relative security in his golden New York City penthouse, while the rest of the country loses its mind down on the pavement many stories below. Golden has three hapless, motherless sons. He gets remarried to a mysterious Eastern European woman. He made his fortune in real estate (allegedly). He is bombastic and cruel and arrogant and grandiose. But is he meant to be Rushdie’s brutally on-the-nose caricature of America’s 45th president? The truth is complicated. Golden and his family also immigrated from Mumbai, India.
This is generally not a novel that shies away from its targets: bigotry and xenophobia are called the “necessary ethics” of “savages,” Americans are skewered as, “make-believe people, frauds, reinventions, shapeshifters” and the internet is mocked as making “philosophers of us all.” But, in spite of this, The Golden House never actually collides directly with the White House, merely alluding to the topsy-turvy 2016 election between “Batwoman, who owned her dark side,” and “The Joker” with his stadiums full of “crazy clowns.” For a novel so focused on taking on the big issues of our time, it seems odd that the living avatars of those issues are conspicuously absent.
If that was not crass enough, consider the narrator: René, the novel’s self-proclaimed Nick Carraway to Nero’s Gatsby. René is a pretentious young director, and so, in the maximalist world of Rushdie’s fiction, he inevitably relays entire scenes as screenplays. He spits wildly verbose sentences: “In these our cowardly times, we deny the grandeur of the Universal,” or repeatedly asks deep questions like, “What is a good life?” or “What was the point of poetry, cinema, art”? All this amounts to a novel so intent on cutting the powerful down to size that the narration ends up inflating itself, with its endless targets, references and hyperboles.
Plot is a tricky thing in this novel. It is the story of immigrants with a dream of self-reinvention running into social barriers that prevent it. Though Nero is a Muslim who lived in Mumbai, the ethnicity of the Golden children is a mystery, and questions about their mother’s death and their father’s past drift in and out of the plot as the U.S. political climate is slowly upended by rank bigotry. It is also the story of the Golden children each trying to find themselves. Sons Petronius, Lucius Apuleius, and Dionysius grapple, respectively, with isolation and video games, romance and painting, and gender identity.
On top of all this, Rushdie, in his signature fashion, filters all of the events of the novel through the prism of myth, including allusions to the stories of Greece, Rome, Japan, China and more. Not just ancient myths: film is a recurring conceit, as the Golden family is compared to a laundry list of mythic American fictional families. One minute the characters are straight from The Godfather, the next they’re from the works of Ovid. This mirrors Rushdie’s suspicion throughout the book that we’re drowning in entertainment, and in information. Unfortunately, it also somewhat waters down our access to the characters, leaving them inaccessible, on the other side of a wall of metaphor and analogy.
To be sure, all of Rushdie’s endearing writing tricks, his digressions and his witticisms, are here, and his talent for bare-bones emotion remains intact. But The Golden House still sits in the clouds, in the world of loud New York City penthouse parties where everything is exaggerated and embroidered. Even though Rushdie is parodying that world, it would be nice if, every once in awhile, he turned down the volume.
PC: Navdeep Hillon/Wikipedia