The Golden House, by Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Cape, 380 pp, £18.99, ISBN:978-1787330153
Keeping faith with writing fiction, even magic realist fiction, must be difficult when the story of your own life has been as dramatic and surreal as anything you could possibly make up and your work has become overshadowed by its notoriety. But despite spending a decade in hiding (with a $6 million bounty on his head) following Ayatollah Khomeini’s death sentence in 1989, Salman Rushdie has never backed off; in fact, he has responded with a productivity that is its own answer to the threat of being silenced. And now, aged seventy, he has produced a novel, his twelfth, that, for undaunted verve and invention, if not for satirical bite, is certainly among his most enjoyable since the books that made his name in the 1980s: Midnight’s Children (twice voted the best of all the Booker prize winners), Shame, and the one that got him into all the trouble, the supposedly blasphemous The Satanic Verses.
Perhaps Rushdie finally exorcised the weird ghostliness of his predicament in the writing of his huge post-fatwa memoir, Joseph Anton, published in 2012. Named after his fugitive alias – taken from the first names of Conrad and Chekhov (though his minders simply called him Joe) – the book tells Rushdie’s story in the third person, an effective distancing device that allows some humour and light into an epic tale of high principle and low politics which might otherwise demand unsustainable levels of sympathy.
Framed in this novelistic way, Joseph Anton is an enthralling read, one whose incidental characters and events are as intriguing as the deadly serious conflict of values at its heart. As the book-burnings, diplomatic crises and acts of violence continue, and Rushdie’s friendships and marriage (to the stressed-out, unpredictable Marianne Wiggins) come under increasing strain, the only constant in his life is his ongoing road trip from safe house to safe house (as often as not, a country cottage belonging to one of the London literati), accompanied, in their riskily conspicuous cars, by the Special Branch detail provided for his safety by his unlikely ally, the Thatcher government. This protective entourage, acknowledged and thanked by Rushdie at the end of the book, provide some surprising and entertaining story twists of their own – one of the squad, for example, turns out to have used his undercover role as a way of managing his two bigamous marriages, each involving two children with identical names.
Having packed his six hundred pages of fatwa baggage into the memoir, Rushdie moves on to fresher territory in his new novel, The Golden House, which is set – like his previous one, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (2015) – in New York, the city where he now lives. Opening in a burst of great descriptive energy on Barack Obama’s inauguration day in 2008, The Golden House introduces us immediately to the fiddle-playing Nero, the hugely rich, mysterious, seventy-something patriarch of the Golden clan, arriving “from a faraway country” (it turns out to be India) with his three adult sons following the death of his wife in the Mumbai terrorist attacks. “Behaving as if nothing was wrong with the country or the world or his own story”, Nero and his sons, also sporting freshly minted classical aliases – Petya (from Petronius), Apu (Lucius Apuleius) and D (Dionysus) – set about reinventing themselves among those “make-believe people”, the Americans, a process of laundering the past, of escaping from “the historical into the personal”.
The attempted metamorphosis of the Goldens is observed from the start by the book’s narrator, René, an aspiring but frustrated film-maker, whose home with his much-loved professor parents backs on to the same communal square as the Goldens’ mansion, previously one of those “empty homes [of the super-rich] lying around the planet like discarded shoes”. René quickly realises that the new neighbours, with their secrets and excesses, can be the artistic making of him, and plans a mockumentary about them, the script for which also makes up sections of the novel.
This script device is one of the few formal tricks Rushdie uses in The Golden House, and although many of his familiar themes are in evidence – divided selves, migration, secularism versus fundamentalism – there is little of the magical element that is a distinctive feature of his early novels. What remains, though, is the zest of the language and the taste for exaggeration and hyperbole.
Both of Nero’s eldest sons, for example, straightaway launch into implausibly brilliant careers. Petya, despite being “on the spectrum”, reclusive and occasionally suicidal, becomes, as an effortless sideline, a designer of globally bestselling computer games that earn him hundreds of millions of extra dollars he doesn’t need. Meanwhile, the socialite Apu, whose “greed for America was omnivorous” and whose enthusiasm for the Occupy protests is derided by Nero, becomes, without difficulty, a leading portrait painter and art celebrity. The first cracks in the family’s united front appear when these two brothers fall out over the charismatic Somali sculptor Ubah Tuur, a “serenely elegant” woman who swaps one of them for the other, causing heartbreak and discord.
The third son, D, is eighteen years younger and has a different mother (discarded by Nero) and different issues. Describing himself as “man-womanish”, he feels alienated from his family but is glad to be in America, where he believes he will be able more easily to explore his gender uncertainty. Pushed along the path to transition by his zealously considerate girlfriend, Riya, D – generally referred to in square brackets as “[he]” – has doubts about his transgender future, assailed as he is by an old-style self-disgust, comparing his feelings to those of salesman-turned-beetle Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
“God is dead and identity fills the vacuum,” Riya tells D enthusiastically on their first visit together to “the Museum of Identity”, where she works, but later, after D’s story reaches its melodramatic conclusion, she has a change of heart about her job, writing to her employer: “the truth is that our identities are unclear to us and maybe it’s better that they remain that way, that the self goes on being a jumble and a mess, contradictory and irreconcilable”.
While the treatment of D’s dilemmas can seem overwrought, there is also scope to balk at the cliched, though entertaining, characterisation of Vasilisa, the alluring and cynical Siberian gold-digger, raised in the forest, who quickly seduces Nero, then marries him and makes her plans for his fortune. Although she has a gentle side (protective when she discovers D trying on her clothes in her extensive dressing room), she is generally indomitably self-serving, thereby providing a lot of the novel’s dynamism. At one point her behaviour provokes the jealous Nero into extremes of violence previously only hinted at, and then later, more significantly, she inveigles René himself into the heart of the Goldens’ story.
Gradually, the undertow of Nero’s past in Mumbai (or Bombay? – the book treats this question as another area of disputed identity) begins to drag his dynasty down, just as the undercurrents of rage in Obama’s America are wrecking hopes of a more progressive era. As the election of 2016 approaches, René and his girlfriend, Suchitra, are employed to make short campaign films for the Democrats, in which the candidate of darkness is represented by the clown-like figure of the cackling, white-faced Joker and his opponent is cast as Batwoman. “America,” René muses, “had left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe . . . It was the year of the Joker in Gotham and beyond.” Quickly sensing that his clever formulations are going to make no difference to the election outcome and that something beyond satire is going on, René soon concludes that “the people backed the Joker because he was insane, not in spite of it”. Meanwhile, slowly and inevitably, Nero’s guilty Mumbai past is tracking him down, in the form of the austere gangster-turned-fundamentalist Zamzama Alankar, who warns him that this life is “only a clearing of the throat” before God’s judgment.
As the body count sharply increases and the Goldens’ American dream rapidly unravels, their secrets finally exposed and confessed, it is hard to be sure what the family’s fate is supposed to tell us about the post-truth world that Rushdie is attempting to dissect. But although it is isn’t clear what exactly the fall of Nero symbolises, and how it relates to the rise of the Joker, this uncertainty of aim doesn’t detract from the final clever patterning of the book’s plot. The crumbling of the Golden house at the end may be marginally less engaging than its construction earlier on, along with the vivid and varied world built around it, but the novel as a whole has an urgency and eloquence that show Rushdie’s primary gift as a storyteller has survived intact through the years as a public figure and cultural martyr.
Giles Newington is a journalist and former assistant literary editor of The Irish Times.