The Golden House: A Novel
By Salman Rushdie
380 pages, $28.99
The night Donald Trump was elected president, Salman Rushdie turned off his social media and began writing this novel beginning with Obama’s election and ending with Trump’s. It contends that Obama’s election created a bubble of racism in high places that burst with the election of a green-haired monster called the Joker. Publicly Rushdie claims the Joker is not Trump. One fatwa in a lifetime is apparently all one man can take.
Rushdie blames the romanticizing of the mafias all over the world for our trouble. The professional, graceful, cultured world he once knew has been uprooted. He sees the same rotting process Cicero wrote about as autocrats took over the Roman Empire. But Rushdie and the protagonist of his new novel, Nero Golden, discover what Cicero did — that they too have rotted.
Nero Golden is the new name of a fictional businessman who moved from Mumbai to New York City after his wife was killed in the 2008 terrorist attack. He felt guilty because they’d argued and she went to the hotel where she was killed. The real reason we learn later was that his illegal activities there had soured.
The Golden House is in a real place in New York City called the Gardens. A hundred years ago the owners of a block of houses near Washington Square connected their back yards and created a kind of Garden of Eden. The Golden House is the largest building in this complex.
Even in the Garden, Golden no longer enjoys his wealth. In India criminal activity was his specialty. The U.S. Congress legalized his scam in 1990. Powerful foreigners with ill-gotten gains are issued EB-5 visas if they invest in US projects. Golden is involved in the huge, legitimate Hudson Yards project in Brooklyn. Being legal takes the fun out Golden’s life.
Golden loses control of his family, and our attention turns to his three sons. They have taken Greek and Roman names. A clumsy recluse on the spectrum, Petya doesn’t get out much and when he does, it doesn’t end well. Apu is a dangerously attractive artist. D (for Dionysus) is a bit of a mystery to himself and others, compounded by his growing gender confusion. A Russian beauty, Vasilia, enters their life and marries Nero who is old enough to be her grandfather. His inability to father a child brings a young neighbor into the family.
René is a young filmmaker who thinks he’s found the perfect subject for his epic in Nero Golden. He is also Rushdie’s narrator in the tradition of Nick Caraway in “The Great Gatsby.” At first René uses Rushdie’s rich language filled with great learning. Reading vintage Rushdie is an education in itself. The reader is forced to look up words and references. But after the only interesting characters in the book — René’s parents — are introduced and killed off, the language deteriorates.
René’s parents are history professors, specializing in the history of New York City. The father speaks in his native accent and the mother makes a running commentary on his statements including expletives she can’t remember saying. They are the best products of a liberal education. The knowledge they’ve gained from a lifetime of study is passed along to their son. They love the city that is unlike any other (“dis is not de United Status of America. Dis iss New York.”) They keep a stash of concentrated hashish on their mantel that would open their third eye but they do not use it because “a world vissout mystery is like a picture vith no shadows… By seeing too much it shows you nossing.” At the local bookstore they point out that the nonfiction shelf is much more adventuresome than the fiction shelf. Everyday lies trump the truth of the imagination.
But cultured people and conversations that once engaged Rushdie’s mind only remind him now of what he has lost. Rushdie kills René’s parents in a horrific car accident. Then René abandons Rushdie’s flamboyant style and takes full control of the narration. A visual thinker, René is incapable of writing well. He writes treatments or scenes for future movies or sometimes just random notes. The learned references evaporate and episodes are compared to scenes from classic films. This works only if the reader is a connoisseur of classic films. Even then it is a lazy way of describing something. The rest of the novel is grim, dealing with rich people whose idea of fun is not fun. The world that was fair and reasonable is left behind and we enter a world of betrayal and deceit that runs on “bribaryandcorruption.” By removing the mystery from Golden’s world Rushdie shows us “nossing.”
Rushdie’s personal life resembles Golden’s. It started well but has fallen off drastically. After his brilliant novel, “The Satanic Verses,” Ayatollah Khomeini condemned Rushdie to death. Rushdie survived the fatwa and became the darling of liberal thinkers. He was knighted and moved to New York where he became a favorite in New York’s literary society. But lately things have not gone well. Rushdie’s fourth marriage to the actress and writer Padma Lakshmi ended badly and she published a memoir that was unflattering about Rushdie’s attitude toward women.
Edward Said, the scholar who coined the term Orientalism, was a fan of Rushdie’s early works. Said, who spent his entire adult life trying to stop Western thinkers from issuing patronizing statements about Muslim countries that implied the culture of the Orient was permanently flawed due to the unrelenting teachings of Islam, watched sadly as Rushdie started speaking like an Orientalist. He blamed his friend's changing attitudes on the fatwa. But Said, who died in 2003, would be disappointed by his friend’s recent failure to fight the growing Islamophobia in the world.
But why Nero? Common knowledge has it that Nero was one of the worst emperors ever. He killed his mother, fiddled while Rome burned and persecuted Christians. But looked at closely even good emperors like Marcus Aurelius did bad things. They were the most powerful men in the world and, as we know, the most powerful men — even in a democracy — are capable of doing terrible things and getting away with them.
Nero wasn’t in Rome when it burned. He rushed home to help the survivors. In only four years he built on the site of the fire the greatest palace — the Golden House — Rome ever knew. In his palace he gathered much of the art of his empire and employed musicians to play while he negotiated important matters of state in a room that revolved. The next emperor dismantled the Golden House and spread fake news about Nero. Part of the Golden House was buried under the Baths of Caracalla. Raphael dug his way into it and its art was a major influence on the Renaissance.
By choosing Golden as his alter ego and René as his narrator, Rushdie negates his accomplishments. Like the original Nero, the good Golden has done is overwhelmed by the evil. His family comes unraveled. His past catches up with him “just in time to share in the unmasking — the unmaking — of America.” Just as Gatsby’s death foreshadowed the Great Depression, Nero’s death foreshadows “the America I love, gone with the wind.”
William L. Morris is a co-founder of the News Poetry pages and a poet and critic now living and writing in Florida.