Novel Ideas: Salman Rushdie’s The Golden House

Salman Rushdie —The Golden House. Jonathan Cape. September 2017

Salman Rushdie’s thirteenth novel, The Golden House, begins by introducing the Golden family to readers as a family of emperors. It quickly clarifies that the family’s patriarch, Nero Golden, “[isn’t] really a king”, and subsequently none of his three sons are in line for an actual throne. Nonetheless, on the night of President Obama’s inauguration, as the family moves into a secluded neighbourhood in New York’s Greenwich Village (from Mumbai, which remains a mystery for about the first 20 pages) their decadence, their wickedness, and their ultimate downfall — the latter taking place as Trump becomes victorious — is illuminated. After all, “a man who [takes] the name of the last of the Julio-Claudian monarchs of Rome…[is] publicly acknowledging his…forthcoming doom” while simultaneously “laughing in…[its] face.”

Our narrator is the family’s neighbour, René, a young aspiring filmmaker, attempting to create his cinematic masterpiece on the Golden family. Many comparisons have been drawn between Rushdie’s new novel and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: a narrator reports on the glimmering world of a mysterious man (in this case, a man and his sons), and inadvertently provides insights into his own character. Unlike Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, however, René clues his readers into this. The novel is written as a chronicle of René’s acquaintance with the Golden family, as well as the progresses made on his film. And so, the two merge at points, as René closes scenes with “Cut” or “Black out”, includes directions or set descriptions, sometimes even excerpts of his scripts, thus shifting the form of the novel. Through these points – through inevitably bringing his readers’ attention to his ongoing script and the fact that there are moments in which he embellishes, edits, and adjusts the Goldens’ narratives – René indicates his centrality in the novel and his influence over what is shared and how it is shared.

René’s political contemplations woven into the narrative, from his excitement at Obama’s triumph to his dread and anger at Trump’s, provide the most explicit insights into his character. René stands as one of many figures Trump supporters oppose: an elite liberal intellectual (as they would say) someone who cites Greek mythology and classic cinema, art history and literature, out of touch with most things beyond his fancy New York City bubble. Which is something he openly admits. Discourse following Trump’s election is concerned with (among others) how American went from President Obama to Trump — how it went from electing its first black President to electing a shamelessly bigoted racist. But “all the daily death of black America” and “the fury of white America at having to put up with a black man in a white house”,  “[the] discontent of a furiously divided country, everyone believing [themselves to be] right, their cause [to be] just” were bubbling up during Obama’s terms. They were pulled up to the surface and detonated when Trump entered the presidential race.

While the American political backdrop is written as René’s observations and examinations, the Indian political backdrop is intertwined closer to the plot line. The discrepancy is perhaps a result of the ways in which the respective characters, Nero Golden, his sons, and René, are affected by said political ongoings. René is a figure least affected in Trump’s America: a white, straight man from a wealthy family. So Trump’s reign, rooted in hatred towards immigrants, people of colour, the LGBTQ community, and women hardly weaves into his own narrative. And as such, the politics remains a form of contemplation. Nero Golden, on the other hand, profits off of political and economic fraudulence in India, hence his narrative’s connection to the larger Hindu-Muslim conflicts, as well as to the pervading corruption. It is, after all, Nero’s role in a Muslim terrorist attack in Mumbai that sparks his family’s move to America. Though initially I’d found Rushdie’s incorporation of Indian politics more engaging than that of American politics, revisiting the novel allowed for a new reading.

Two weeks after Trump’s victory last November, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote the following in a New Yorker piece: “Now is the time to call things what they actually are, because language can illuminate truth as much as it can obfuscate it… Now is the time to talk about what we are actually talking about.”

Adichie’s call for action is simple: to name the problem honestly, to leave behind the seemingly optimistic words used to describe the critical, at times fatal, subjects — “alt-right” for “white supremacist”, “climate contrarian” for “climate change denier”, etc. She asks that we be clear about the severity of an issue by making our language as reflective of it as possible — only then can we begin to tackle it. In many ways, René’s contemplation — in addition to creating room for political reflection for readers — does what Adichie asks for: he is clear with the turmoil America faces. From “the frothing hatred of the homophobes” to “the blue collar anger of everyone who had been Fannie Mae’d and Freddie Mac’d by the housing calamity” to “the young men shot for walking in a stairwell while black”, René’s political observations and examinations face America’s grave, historically-rooted problems with honesty and sharpness. In other words, with a willingness to talk about what he’s actually talking about. And in that, Rushdie does what political fiction often aims to: he illuminates the injustices and the confusion, prompting readers to think critically about the political sphere in which they live.

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