Michele Magwood finds Salman Rushdie on fine and furious form in his latest novel. The Golden House is a glorious fusion of knowing social commentary and compelling mystery, packed with wit and cultural references. She spoke to him in New York.
The Golden House
Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Cape
In Salman Rushdie’s previous novel, the antic, phantasmagorical Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, the city of New York is overcome by “strangenesses” – lightning crackles from fingers, a gentle old gardener begins to levitate, an abandoned baby causes boils to erupt on the faces of anyone who is corrupt. In his new novel, however, there is none of his trademark supernatural fancies or magical realism. Instead he has written an up-to-the-minute, drenched-in-zeitgeist panorama of New York and America. This time, the strangeness is real.
“When I finished writing Two Years I thought this probably pushes this kind of writing as far as it can go, so I thought I’d try to write a very different novel, a realist social novel about the last decade or so.”
Rushdie is speaking from his home in New York, where he has lived for the last 17 years, the city that has enabled him to live what he calls “a perfectly normal life”, after the many years of hiding in the UK with a fatwa hanging over him. He said he chose New York because it reminded him of his hometown Bombay with its noise and bustle, but also because it is a place of re-invention. “Everybody comes from somewhere else.”
In The Golden House a man arrives in the city with his three grown sons. They arrive on the day that Barack Obama is elected, a time of optimism, “when Isis was still an Egyptian mother-goddess”.
They seem to come from nowhere, or anywhere. There is no sign of a wife or mother, but it is clear they are stupefyingly wealthy. The men take outlandish new names for themselves. The father is Nero Julius Golden, the eldest son Petronius, known as Petya, the second Lucius Apuleius, or Apu, and the youngest Dionysus, or simply “D”. “Who should we say we are?” the boys ask their father. “Tell them nothing. Tell them we are snakes who shed our skins,” Nero says.
The novel may be sharply contemporary, but there is something ancient to the story. “In Greek and Roman tragic plays we know from the beginning that some terrible calamity is about to befall these characters and then it hits them. In this book the reader quite rapidly understands that this family is hiding something serious, and you know that secret is going to blow up in their faces. So in that sense it has the shape of a classical tragedy.”
Notes of foreboding are sounded early on by the narrator, a young filmmaker named René who lives in the same moneyed, sylvan enclave as the Goldens and who decides to make a film about them. Buried in the narrative, a clever mise en abyme, is his script for the documentary.
The fuse is lit when the septuagenarian Nero takes a young Russian bride, Vasilisa. Beautiful of course, just 28 years old, but with a preternatural cunning. This being Rushdie, he has her harbouring, Alien-like, the rapacious witch Baba Yaga. Nero’s sons are dismayed.
The doomed Golden sons channel the dark materials of Rushdie’s current preoccupations: Petya is a lumpen alcoholic, a shut-in savant who designs video games. Apu is a gifted artist, handsome, priapic and fashionable with the Manhattan élite, “famous on 20 blocks.” And then there is D, painfully gender-confused.
Here’s Apu loose on the town: “He followed a Canal Street Kabbalist named Idel, who was adept in the ways of the forbidden Practical Kabbalah, which sought through the use of white magic to affect and change the sphere of the divine itself… he also went eagerly… into the world of Buddhist Judaism, and meditated along with the city’s growing cohorts of ‘BuJus’ – classical composers, movies stars, yogis.”
This is Rushdie at his Dickensian best: keen-eyed, plucking shining observations from the streets like a magpie. His treatment of the troubled D is more sober, however, as he assays the field of gender identity. “The more I dug into it and talked to people I realised how much hair-splitting hostility there is between people who 99% of the time would be on the same side.”
D is depressed by the choices he is being forced to make: “You could be TG, TS, TV, CD. Whatever feels right to you.” Transgender, transsexual, transvestite, cross-dresser. None feels right to him and on they go. If he doesn’t identify as male or female, there is ze, ey, hir, xe, hen, ve, ne, per, thon or Mx. As one gender worker says regretfully, “My field should be a safe, soft space for understanding and instead it’s a warzone.”
Rushdie is at his most damning, though, at the end of the book when a new president is elected. This is the age of fake news, truthiness, bawling rhetoric. It is the age of grotesques and comic characters in power – a green-haired cartoon Joker is in charge. The times are toxic.
As René says: “What does one do when the world one believes in turns out to be a paper moon and a dark planet rises and says, No, I am the world… when your fellow Americans tell you that knowing things is elitist and they hate elites, and all you have ever had is your mind and you were brought up to believe in the loveliness of knowledge… and then all of that, education, art, music, film becomes a reason for being loathed, and the creature out of Spiritus Mundi rises up and slouches toward Washington DC, to be born.”
Yes, this time Rushdie’s strangenesses are real.
“The story of the Goldens is a private tragedy surrounded by what is turning into a national tragedy,” he sighs. “I think that’s really in a way what the book is trying to say.”
Listen to Michele and Salman’s conversation here