The Golden family comes by its wealth, and accrues its menacing enemies, via long and labyrinthine subplots that are hard to follow.
The Golden House by Salman Rushdie. Random House, 400 pages, $28.99.
By Matt Hanson
As contemporary writers go, Salman Rushdie is one of the few who have a reasonable claim to greatness. Susan Sontag said that all a writer was required to do to attain significanace was to create at least one great work and it’s not claiming too much to say that Rushdie has written three great novels. When he’s on, as in Midnight’s Children, Shame, and the infamous The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s scathing wit and flights of fancy are richly subversive, charismatic, and engaging. When his acrobatic imagination misses the mark, as with his previous novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, his flights of fancy fall sadly flat.
The Golden House, his recently published thirteenth novel, has been referred to as Rushdie’s return to realism, a term which is slightly misleading. He has never written journalistically — his vision of verisimilitude is firmly of the magical variety. In some ways, this puts him in the perfect position to satirize the way we live now — with Trump in charge, American life feels more surreal by the minute. The catch is that attempts to comprehend our current dive into Dada are bound to fail. Rushdie’s hyper-referential novel does its best, but the author’s mania for cultural name-dropping eventually grinds out the magic.
The Golden House is set during the upheavals of the past few years and has a jittery, ripped-from-the-headlines feel. Rene is a young New Yorker of Belgian extraction who aspires to be a filmmaker. As a neighbor to the elite, sequestered “The Gardens” community of Greenwich Village, he is on the periphery of the mysterious and insanely wealthy Golden family. The patriarch is Nero Golden, a stormy and ruthless individual who can walk “toward closed doors without stopping, knowing they would open for him.” Nero brings his three motherless sons to America, saying “We are snakes who shed our skins”; he demands that they re-name themselves after classical Roman figures: Petroinus (aka “Petya”), Lucius Apuleius (aka “Apu”), and Dionysius (aka “D”).This slightly improbable move is part of the family gambit of “shedding their Gatz origins to become shirt-owning Gatsbys and pursue dreams called Daisy or perhaps simply America.”
The density of references in the last paragraph is no accident. Rushdie’s narrator is an ambitious filmmaker who wants to make a documentary about the Golden family, so it makes sense that the novel is packed with film references. As a movie geek, I kind of enjoyed them — but, more crucially, it slows down the flow of the narrative. No matter what he’s doing, whether he is introducing himself or pondering the nuances of familial anguish, Rene can’t seem to stop going off on talky tangents about literature and history, film and pop culture that bogs the narrative down. It makes sense that he uses the language of scriptwriting to begin and end some chapters, but Rene’s eagerness to endlessly gab about the significance of his story’s themes makes them harder to take seriously.
What’s more, the Golden family comes by its wealth, and accrues its menacing enemies, via long and labyrinthine subplots that are hard to follow. In yet another subplot, Rene is awkwardly involved in the elderly Nero’s desire for a new heir with a glamorous Russian expat. This attempt at whipping up a love story amid the glamorous danger of New York high life is neither convincing or deeply felt. Rene’s lusty romance with his own cinematic erudition is more vivid than the character’s emotional life. It might be that Rushdie is making the point that Rene represents the feverish state of mind of a media-saturated generation, but this is something that has already been done better, i.e. more subtly, by plenty of other novelists.
The 2016 election is clearly intended to be the backdrop for the decline and fall of the eccentric, tormented Golden clan. But Rushdie’s searingly satiric reimagining of the real continually forces its way to the forefront of the novel. The author’s drama about the fictional 1% isn’t nearly as viscerally compelling as when he looks at what really happened, which is put through the appropriate rhetorical ringer. Rushdie doesn’t give Trump the satisfaction of mentioning him by name, but there is the sharply described, deeply horrifying Presidential candidacy of one Gary “Green” Gwynplaine, who just happened to be born with thick green hair, pale skin, and long, thin, blood red lips:
To step outside that enchanted — and now tragic — cocoon was to discover that America had left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe; D.C…was under attack by DC. It was the year of the Joker in Gotham and beyond. The Caped Crusader was nowhere to be seen — it was not an age of heroes — but his archrival in the purple frock coat and striped pantaloons was ubiquitous, clearly delighted to have the stage to himself…The Penguin, The Riddler, Two-Face and Poison Ivy lined up behind the Joker in packed arenas, swaying like doo-wop backing singers while their leader spoke of the unrivaled beauty of white skin and red lips to adoring audiences wearing green fright wigs and chanting in unison, Ha! Ha! Ha!
The ring of awful truth in all of that comic book imagery turns my stomach, as does the allusion to the demented German children’s song from Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum. And that’s how you know that Rushdie’s contempt for current affairs working; it’s when his rhetorical pyrotechnics is at its strongest and most deeply felt. As with the best in his earlier work, Rushdie is at his most effective when he alchemizes subjects in the world; what emerges wholesale from his own imagination is often much less potent. Thus the weakness of The Golden House — despite its occasional brilliance, all that glitters isn’t literary gold.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.