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by Marty Roth
Discussed in this essay: The Golden House. by Salman Rushdie. Alfred A. Knopf, 2017, 389 pages.
WHAT IS THIS NOVEL about? What isn’t this novel — this cross between Wikipedia and Vogue —about? A patriarch, a family, a far-off country, immigration, America; globalization, gender, identity, celebrity; good and evil, truth and lies; the weight of the pas,t of course, and the present in all its glitter and ash. The patriarch is squat, raucous Nero Golden, who displays “a frankly vulgar self-promotional manner which . . . hung around him like a flashy fur coat.” Golden is a fabulously rich Indian developer who lives in New York with his three sons in a mansion in an enchanted garden. The sons are Petronius (Petya), Lucius Apuleius (Apu), and Dionysus (D). The country left behind is India; the other city is Mumbai, once Bombay.
The Goldens have fled India in shock as a result of the death of Golden’s wife in the Bombay “terror” attacks of 2008. But this explanation is continually prodded in the search for a more sinister subtext that takes its cues from The Godfather. In the present, Nero is snagged by Vasilisa Arsenyeva, a beautiful Russian emigré who disposes of the prenup as masterfully as she redecorates his mansion. The Golden dynasty is brought down by the pressure of a hidden past (exposed, finally, “the big reveal” taking us deep into Bombay’s gang wars of the 1980s and 90s) and the miscalculations of the present. Sons die, houses burn, civilizations collapse . . .
Already I may have said too much. Although it is commonly accepted that narrative needs the fuel of questions and dilemmas to drive it, Rushdie’s novel constantly parades the fact that it is full of secrets, things that cannot be told and countries that cannot be named. It is a narrative of laborious hinting and withholding.
RUSHDIE BEGAN his literary career on the theme of migration; now it’s immigration, immigrancy, not as the mere moving of bodies but as mystical transformation, stepping out of national and personal identity to become something new in a new land — “to move beyond memory and roots and language and race into the land of the self-made self, which is another way of saying America” (“Ca-Ca-Caliban, get a new master, be a new man,” as D. H. Lawrence put it).
As Rushdie declared in an earlier novel, Fury, America is “the only game in town.” Malik Solanka, the retired university professor in that novel, “had come to America as so many before him to receive the benison of being Ellis Islanded, of starting over. Give me a name, America, make of me a Buzz or Chip or Spike. Bathe me in your amnesia and clothe me in your powerful unknowing. Enlist me in your J. Crew and hand me my mouse ears!” The meaning of America now belongs to “star” immigrants rather than the old settlers — an America that seems to consist almost entirely of special, beautiful people who occupy the highest cultural and economic niches of the City. The former colonials are now the fabulous glitterati, and Rushdie sets them off in a flurry of allusions to works like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and A Diamond as Big as the Ritz.
The narrator, René Unterlinden, alternates between an individual and a communal voice — his own and that of the admiring but ignorant neighborhood of his exclusive Manhattan gated community. The novel serves as his search for the screenplay that would capture the tantalizing mystery of the Goldens and as that very screenplay. Later, crossing from recorder to actor, René fathers a final Golden child, Vespasian.
THE GOLDENS arrive in New York on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration and the novel continues through the reign of his successor, the Joker (“his hair green and luminous with triumph, his skin white as a Klansman’s hood, his lips dripping anonymous blood”). In one of René’s campaign videos, an animated cartoon, the Joker screeches out “lines his political incarnation had actually used, sneering at his own party, The fools! I could shoot someone dead in Times Square and I wouldn’t lose any votes! Until a female superheroine in bat-gear swooped down to put him in a straitjacket and hand him over to the white-coated men from the funny farm.” The personal drama rolls out against the background of recent American politics, but there is little relationship between the family romance and the political surroundings.
Author/narrator/characters are all inveterate jokers (“My Late Twenties were steaming toward me, and I like a swooning nickelodeon hero lay helpless across the tracks”) like Rushdie’s great hero, Vladimir Nabokov. During a talk at Cornell University, Rushdie said he reveres Nabokov: “One can only hope to be worthy of his shade.” The persistent name and allusion-dropping is both a sign of Rushdie’s cultural insecurity and an attempt to embrace the world of the present in all its multifariousness — the world of gender-bending, for example:
MTF was male to female, FTM was vice versa. Now she was pouring words over him gender fluid, bigender, trans with an asterisk . . . the difference between woman and female, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, nonbinary, and, from Native American culture, two-spirit. The Phrygian goddess Cybele had MTF servitors called gallae. In the Afrian Room [of the Museum of Identity] the MTF okule and the FTM agule of the lugbara tribe.
The filmic allusions in particular never stop coming. “Weddings always make me think of the movies,” René writes, “(Everything makes me think of the movies),” but Bollywood is barely alluded to, although it emerges at the end of the novel as a major player.
Above all, the novel is framed by fairy tales:”There was once a wicked king who made his three sons leave their home and then kept them bottled up in a house of gold . . .” Rushdie’s entire canon gives voice to this delight and obsession, but it is also as if the desire to capture the fabulous simultaneously conjured up the fabled: A Thousand and One Nights, Beauty and the Beast — everything that passes through the author’s mind and the narrator’s lips is sprinkled with fairy dust. Vasilisa channels Baba Yaga, “the witch who ate children, who lived in the heart of the heart of the forest.” This frame also represents a slight displacement to the literal magic of the earlier fiction: of Satanic Verses, for example, where the main actors fall to earth from a height of 29000 feet, one of them sprouting a halo, the other goat hooves and horns.
Perhaps it is not a good novel, but it is a wonderful read. At its best (which is clearly not the best of Midnight’s Children or The Satanic Verses), the novel is an energetic burlesque of culture, a dazzling display of linguistic charm that once upon a time we appreciated, in works like Thomas Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and, of course, Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. But the book also suffers from the defects of these virtues (particularly in its incorporation of what Rushdie describes as “the nonstop jibberjabber of the information multiverse”). Fortunately for this reader, they are also charming.
Marty Roth is an expatriate American who left the U.S. with the installation of George W. Bush (which seems like relatively small potatoes now). For ten years he was part of the editorial collective of Outlook: Canada’s Progressive Jewish Magazine.