SEPTEMBER 13, 2017
A YOUTUBE SEARCH of Salman Rushdie seemingly returns fresh hits by the week, of some new lecture, interview, or panel discussion. It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate that this indispensable writer, who spent an earlier decade under a state-sanctioned death threat, is able to share his literary and cultural preoccupations as openly and frequently as he does. But ubiquity in public life can be risky for a novelist. In Rushdie’s latest, The Golden House, we encounter so many of those preoccupations that it often reads like the eponymous Goldens are less a family than an extension of a conversation we’ve been having with the author for years.
Nero Golden and his three sons flee to the United States after losing Nero’s wife to the November 2008 Bombay (or Mumbai) terrorist attacks by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, which claimed hundreds of lives. They arrive in Manhattan on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration. We learn early that Nero had more dubious reasons for leaving India, where he clearly kept shady company. Classic noir, where the forces threatening the protagonist’s existence at home ultimately reappear and continue to do so in his new life. In this case, the protagonist hides not in an obscure town but in the world’s capital. Where better to dissolve and reinvent oneself than in this melting pot (a theme Rushdie also visited in 2001’s Fury)? “They would,” the narrator René says,
escape from the historical into the personal, and in the New World the personal would be all they sought and all they expected, to be detached and individual and alone, each of them to make his own agreement with the everyday, outside history, outside time, in private.
But as every Rushdie reader knows, there is no such thing as the purely personal or private. Events intervene; the past is inescapable.
René is the Goldens’ young neighbor and a Zuckerman-like recorder of their stormy lives for a movie he’s writing titled “The Golden House.” The cast is big, typical for a Rushdie novel: Nero and his three sons, Petya, Apu, and D. (for Dionysus), the last being the offspring of Nero’s affair with another woman; these young men’s lovers; Nero’s new wife, a manipulative Russian named Vasilisa; Indian gangsters and several minor characters who shake the story from the margins. And then there’s the United States, whose promise to hiders and seekers, frauds and victims alike, is the opportunity of reinvention. Gatsby is evoked explicitly and implicitly throughout, but an important difference in Fitzgerald’s great book is that the American Dream itself is a corruption. In The Golden House, that ideal is only contaminated by circumstance. The United States is changing, banks and guns are deforming the everyday, and the far right is in heat again.
Alongside this is René’s own life, also marked by suffering — his parents’ death in a car crash — and betrayed love. He’s taken in by the Goldens and continues to live by their residential Gardens in the West Village even after later moving on. With girlfriend Suchitra, he makes documentaries and ads, but his primary task is to witness the Golden story, following each of the sons on his path from supposed freedom to disaster, which loosely springs from Nero’s original sin of capitulating to the criminal and corrupt back home. The death angel’s wings from Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton flutter here, too.
The perennial Rushdie themes are all present: historical decline, for these are “cowardly times,” much like the “fag-end of an age” in The Moor’s Last Sigh, or the “pygmies” taking over the stage in Shame; migration and metamorphosis; the question of how new ideas come into the world, which is one of the central questions of The Satanic Verses; and the inexorable grip of history. Character is not destiny (Midnight’s Children’s Saleem observed that most of what matters in a person’s life happens in his or her absence), the ground beneath one’s feet is always fragile, a “forthcoming doom” foreshadows everything.
Since Rushdie’s books hand so much down to later ones, comparisons are inevitable. This book represents a small shift in that it’s closer to the realist tradition than the books that made his name. So, whereas the Indian Saladin Chamcha grew horns as he crashed to British ground in The Satanic Verses, a novel about migration, D. embraces a new gender, donning his stepmother’s clothes, believing in the possibility of being whatever you want to be in the New World. The times are different, too, and what bears down on the characters’ fate is not the state oppression of earlier Rushdie but the violence of non-state actors.
The way this kind of violence circumscribes the Goldens’ destiny is too neat. Mother Golden happened to be in the Bombay hotel that the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba hit, but, as we learn, Nero would have fled India whether or not she was killed, as the Bombay underworld, including those who played a part in the siege, reentered his life. Her death seems simply a way to justify the novel’s interest in that event before its deeper schematic is revealed. One can sense Rushdie’s eagerness to make good use of India’s worst terrorist attack in recent memory, but an event like Bombay will quickly consume a story’s oxygen unless there’s something new to say.
A similar tragedy visits the Golden house in New York, with the same reaction chain of large public forces, private action, and personal loss. In this case, the United States’s wars have left a psychological mark on a peripheral and wholly unconvincing character, whose typically American act of violence catches another Golden who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The point is apparent: the times have produced an arbitrary, indiscriminate form of violence, whether by an organization or a lone nut that can catch any of us anywhere. But the book sheds little light on the America that produces that violence or how it shapes human action and interaction.
There are other big events — the housing crisis, Obama, Occupy Wall Street, the 2012 election, Bowie’s and Prince’s and Muhammad Ali’s deaths, La La Land and Manchester by the Sea, the rise of Trump and the shock of 2016 — but these aren’t integrated into the lives of characters the way that events in India, Pakistan, and Britain are in Rushdie’s three big novels of the 1980s. In an information-rich world, a novel that merely transcribes events will fast become obsolete, and no writer has appreciated this more than Rushdie. His portrayal of Indira Gandhi’s two-year Emergency rule (which concluded only four years before Midnight’s Children’s publication), like his admired friend Günter Grass’s portrayal of the rise of fascism and Nazism in Germany, was one of the most evocative of a major national episode and of the inconsequence of the individual — one of the reasons that novel deserves each of the three Bookers it’s won (the actual prize, in 1981, and the “Booker of Bookers” on both the prize’s 25th and 40th anniversaries, in 1993 and 2008, respectively). The nation was going to trample Saleem Sinai underfoot. In The Golden House, Rushdie wants us to see the numbers marching in the United States, too: “a plague of jokers, crazy slashmouthed clowns frightening the children.” But the events just sit and stagnate, and I suspect the Goldens could have been anywhere else and still faced the same personal crises. Even D.’s gender change feels static because the problem it provokes is confronted more in isolation, and largely through one of René’s summaries, than in how she makes her way in the world. The discrepancy between reality and what René chooses to reveal and obscure, for example ending many scenes with the stage direction Cut, is never very interesting.
Strictly speaking, sure, René and Suchitra are involved in current affairs, attending rallies and producing a popular ad campaign framing the Hillary-Trump race as a duel between Batwoman and the Joker. But the Joker/Trump isn’t nearly as scary or dramatic a presence as the Widow/Indira in Midnight’s Children or Mrs. Torture/Thatcher in The Satanic Verses. What we get instead are uninspired observations, like, “What was astonishing, what made this an election year like no other, was that people backed him because he was insane, not in spite of it.” Within the house, it’s Nero who augurs the right-wing tide, with lamely articulated contempt for the president and the so-called liberal agenda, the source of which is never clear.
Rushdie is, as I wrote at the outset, as public an intellectual as one finds, possibly the world’s most famous writer. As such, we’re as familiar with his cultural critiques as his literary fixations (which of course overlap), and so there’s a sense of the familiar when we see commentary here on political correctness and related self and official censorship; rationalism versus religion; imagined community; and the politics of identity, not in the sense of a character’s internal search, but as “a rapidly growing multidisciplinary field,” as D.’s lover Riya says. A remark about the effect of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night is a rehash of a point Rushdie’s made in interviews. All fine in and of themselves, but since Rushdie doesn’t do any more with them as a novelist than he does as a talking head, they let in a draft of monotony.
There is even a disguised cameo by Rushdie’s late friend Christopher Hitchens, in Petya, who loves
everyone who offered him an opinion, and then to bludgeon that individual into submission by using his apparently inexhaustible storehouse of arcane, detailed knowledge. He would have argued with a king over his crown, or a sparrow over a crust of bread. He also drank far too much.
His targets, like Hitchens’s, include the British royal family, Islamic radicalism and the “wishy-washy liberalism” that appeases it, and the Pope; he knows the lyrics of Bob Dylan and finds Margaret Thatcher sexy — Hitch claimed both.
Petya is mildly autistic, the ostensible source of his pathological fluency, limitless knowledge, and video game programming skills. But it’s hard to find someone who isn’t inexhaustibly — and exhaustingly — learned in The Golden House, Rushdie’s erudition flooding page after page, character after character. The high culture references include Edmund Leach, Fritz Lang, Greek mythology, Spivak, Adorno, Calvino, and many, many more, and the dialogue, lacking the comic patterns of Rushdie’s more surreal tales, is both implausible and flat. Riya’s dialogue in particular reads like that of the guy standing in line behind Alvy Singer and Annie Hall talking about Marshall McLuhan, and one wishes, as Alvy would, that Spivak or some other such figure would step in and embarrass them into silence. Even the Russian Vasilisa speaks in fluent essays, with only the occasional grammatical lapse of a non-English speaker.
Rushdie, more than any of his contemporaries that I can think of, renovated our language in the 1980s. There are glimpses of that legacy here, but they’re overshadowed by the sounds of hard linguistic labor, as when Nero’s “face entered a condition of scarlet vehemence,” or when we’re told that at his wife’s funeral, Nero the emperor (after whom our protagonist is named) “burned ten years’ supply of Arabian incense […] in the case of Nero Golden all the incense in the world couldn’t finally cover up the bad smell.” One character’s “conversation was a series of random bombs falling out of the blue sky of his thought.” Death angels, René says, “keep pouring into what I invent like a ticketless crowd bursting through the gates at a big game.”
It seems, too, that Rushdie isn’t having the fun he used to have with language, much of which he used to save for his Urdu- and Hindi-speaking reader. We get René translating Indian words, explaining that “aadhaar” is a 12-digit social security number, and that “benami” bank accounts are those set up under fake names of proxies. This is a tradeoff, I suppose, of having a Western narrator, but how the Urdu/Hindi-speaker will miss the exclusive pleasure of Dr. Sharabi who treats alcoholics, and the Rann of Kutch Nahin, from Midnight’s Children (okay, let me translate: “sharabi” is the Urdu/Hindi word for “alcoholic” and “kutch nahin” means “nothing,” a play on the Rann of Kutch, a salt marsh on both sides of the Pakistan-India border). Now, for some reason, Rushdie has to explain that a card player’s “tells” are the “involuntary gestures that give away a hand.” When the word “dontyouthinkso” appears in Shame or “sotospeak” in The Satanic Verses, again we’re challenged into recognizing a South Asian way of speech; here, when an Indian character says “briberyandcorruption,” Rushdie has René clarify that “[h]e said it like one word, like electromagnetism.”
To be sure, this novel has some compelling narrative threads, particularly René’s unromantic affair with Nero’s wife Vasilisa, which yields, as is her design, a child who will be heir to the unsuspecting Nero’s wealth. Rushdie likes playing with secrets around birth — the son who is not my son — and the spin on that motif in The Golden House returns some of the old Rushdie vigor, as when René feels “a tide of paternal rage rising in my breast,” or when, learning to please the new Mrs. Golden in bed, he wonders if Suchitra will, “during our less operatic bouts of sex, notice my body beginning to move in different ways, having learned new habits, dumbly asking for different satisfactions?” There’s poignant comedy to the young biological father holding “my son close,” his pleas with Vasilisa that he be allowed to have tea with his son, and his reaction to Vasilisa talking about compromising in her life with Nero because he is the father of her son: “This, to my face, looking me right in the eye! The daring of it was breathtaking.”
The denouement of this plot line is ultimately anticlimactic because it is crowded out by other plot lines, but it does offer a glimpse of what Rushdie can still achieve. As does Nero’s history with the Z-Company — a Bombay crime network based on the real life D-Company, whose boss Dawood Ibrahim is based in Pakistan — reflecting how wealth in a city like Bombay comes with risks as well as privileges. Unsurprisingly, Nero’s old friends have a final message for him. A smaller cast and a smaller canvas could have squeezed significantly more drama from these lives, but Rushdie doesn’t do small — even simple men and women evoke by their very names ancient emperors and heroes, their homes palaces. His intention is to make Nero Golden an allegory of the big human themes, of destruction and creation, of burning Rome to build the domus aurea. But by relying so heavily on accumulating events to reflect the times, Rushdie fails to translate the material into human tragedy.
As I completed the book, my New York Times feed was flashing a state of emergency in Virginia after a far-right demonstration in Charlottesville, flush with confederate flags and Nazi slogans, turned violent. With the news daily showing a changing American condition, how does the novel keep up, how does it do what journalism and the likes of Colbert and John Oliver can’t? By picking its moments, by connecting the world to literature’s perennial subject — the human figure. What can the novel say about Donald Trump? Probably not much at this stage. About the United States, the twenty-first century? Plenty. Does The Golden House do so? Unfortunately not.