When Salman Rushdie began work on his second novel, Midnight’s Children(1981), the one that would make his name, he realised that he could not write his book “in cool Forsterian English. India was not cool. It was hot. It was hot and overcrowded and vulgar and loud and it needed a language to match that,” and he would try to find that language.
Find that language he did, in Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses and several of the excellent novels that followed. Increasingly, however, Rushdie has left cool English so far behind that his fiction has grown bombastic and close to unreadable. His new novel, The Golden House, is his thirteenth.
Each sentence in it is a Cirque du Soleil leap into a net that only he can see. Each sentence seems to be composed of stardust, pixie dust, fairy dust, angel dust, fennel pollen and grisgris powder, poached in single-udder butter, fried and refried, encrusted with gold as if it were a Gustav Klimt painting, and then dotted with rhinestones.
All gestures here are grand gestures; all soirées are glittering soirées; all mirrors are magic mirrors; every ferocity is a genuine ferocity; every grill is a brazier; every regret a bitter one. The effect is exhausting — and deadening. Anything can happen, so nothing matters. Rushdie is obsessed with “characters,” as Alfred Kazin once said of John Irving, yet somehow does not evoke the more difficult thing — character. There is a reason to consider sticking with all 380 pages of The Golden House, however.
It has little to do with the novel’s plot, about a wealthy man from Bombay and his three pretentious sons who move into a pretentious mansion on a semi-private garden in downtown Manhattan. What happens is that, at around its midpoint, Donald Trump puts his head into this novel, as if he were Jack Nicholson hacking into the bathroom with an axe in The Shining. (Here’s Donny!) In Trump, Rushdie finds such a perfect villain that he finds it hard to let him go.
The Trump character is named Gary “Green” Gwynplaine, a wealthy vulgarian, born with green hair, who likes to refer to himself as the Joker. About this Joker, and about the threat he poses to an America this writer loves, it’s a treat to watch Rushdie let fly. The Joker runs for president and packs arenas, the ghouls onstage behind him “swaying like doo-wop backing singers.” Suddenly “lying was funny, and hatred was funny, and bigotry was funny,” and the entire country becomes “a lurid graphic novel.”
The immigrant in Rushdie thinks — Can this really be how the experiment that began with the Mayflower ends? “Why even try to understand the human condition if humanity revealed itself as grotesque, dark, not worth it.” He adds, “America’s secret identity wasn’t a superhero.Turns out it was a supervillain.” These passages are some of the novel’s best, because you sense the author’s heart is in them.
The overstuffed plot of The Golden Housenearly defies summary, but it begins on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, as Nero Golden (not his real name) moves into Greenwich Village with his sons, Petronius, Lucius Apuleius and Dionysus (not their real names either). Despite their wealth and glamour — Petronius is the world’s most successful maker of video games, Lucius is an art-world star with “a technical facility as great as Dalí’s” and Dionysus wrestles nobly with gender identity issues — the family seems to be, in some sense, on the run from dark doings back in Bombay. The narrator, a young filmmaker named René, watches the Goldens in a manner that self-consciously evokes both The Great Gatsby and Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
He’s this novel’s Nick Carraway — neighbour, friend, spy. He hopes to make a film based on the Goldens. René is an odd narrator, one who tells us several times that he’s a sceptic in terms of religion and mysticism. Yet he writes as if he lives in the perfumed stockroom of a Namaste superstore. Nearly every page of this novel has a throwaway reference to (I am flipping through now) dragon ladies or tarot cards or Greek mythology or evil chicken entrail powder or the I Ching or Japanese ghost stories or Kublai Khan or witches or Rumi or Ali Baba’s cave or the Golden Fleece or magic dolls. You believe this is the interior of Rushdie’s mind; you are less sure it is René’s. When these characters open their mouths, they sprout deepities like, “There is a particular kind of sadness that reveals a man’s alienation from his own identity.”
The narrator, similarly, notes “the language of the dance whispering its magic words,” or he states, “I’ve come to believe in the total mutability of the self.” Rushdie’s wit surfaces once in a while, to remind you that a human is driving this machine, that his feet still touch dirt and asphalt. A toga is referred to as “a bedsheet with big ideas.”The phrase “nights of soft rock and lobster roll” conjures a whole universe.
The Golden House has been billed by its publisher as Rushdie’s return to realism. Yet the New York City on offer is so gilded and remote that the novel reads like what one’s impressions would be if all one knew of it came from back issues of Vanity Fair magazine.
As this novel nears its end, it builds toward a kind of gravitas as Nero’s past starts to catch up with him. People around him begin to die —there are murders, suicide attempts, arson. Rushdie writes vividly about the series of terrorist attacks that took place in 2008 in Bombay, at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel and elsewhere.
The aftermath of those attacks touches everyone in this novel, and it providesThe Golden House with moral and political sub-currents that might have been profitably pulled more fully to the surface. The Golden House is a big novel, wide but shallow, so wide it has its own meteorology. The forecast — heavy wind.