Salman Rushdie’s grandiose new novel should come with an excess baggage feeby Sarah Churchwell / November 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Golden House, Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, comes with a press release that quotes it being described as a “Great Gatsby for our times.” It’s clear why a publicist was keen to promote such high praise; less easy to understand why anyone who has read both novels would make the comparison. True, their themes are broadly similar: both are about a fabulously wealthy man who acquires an assumed name and tries to remake himself in New York while hiding the criminal sources of his wealth. Both satirise the garishness and vulgarity of America, and feature glamorous parties. Both broadly concern unrequited love—and the resemblance pretty much ends there.
For all its thematic focus on excess, in formal terms Gatsby is marked by restraint. It is lyrical, condensed, even elliptical. The Golden House spills over with surplus, from epigraphs in triplicate, to proliferating adverbs and adjectives, from characters battling across multiple storylines through an avalanche of allusions, which themselves range from Telemachus to Tim Burton, from Leonard Cohen to GK Chesterton, from Moby-Dick to Goethe. Werner Herzog makes a cameo; two-thirds of the way through, Donald Trump pops up like a jack-in-the-box and begins to dominate everything in as abrupt and senseless a way as he has in real life.
Much has been made in the newspapers of Rushdie’s “turn to realism,” but there’s very little that’s realistic about this book in the colloquial sense. It is true that it doesn’t, like much of his earlier work, have recourse to the supernatural, but it does ask us to accept an actual human who was born with lime green hair and so calls himself “The Joker.” It is a deliberately comic-book universe, a comparison that Rushdie makes explicit by the book’s end.
But then Rushdie makes everything explicit, explaining everything from his classical allusions to his own jokes. The book’s caricature is so broad as to amount to grotesquerie; if it is going to be compared to novels of modern New York it is much more akin to 1987’s The Bonfire of the Vanities than to Gatsby—like so much of Tom Wolfe’s fiction, this too is a novel that falls prey to the grandiosity it is attempting to diagnose. It should come with an excess baggage fee.
Of course, extravagance has long been Rushdie’s stock-in-trade. But if inflated mock-epic and family romance was his mode of satire in magical realist works from Midnight’s Children to The Moor’s Last Sigh, this is less mock-epic than mock-tragedy. Mythical flights have devolved into classical inventories, as enchantment gives way to disenchantment, playfulness to affront. When real life seems more berserk than any fable, it is much harder to leverage the comic possibilities of exaggeration.
Rushdie can still write, however, and the novel is driven by a propulsive indignation that keeps the sentences tumbling forward, and that has, at least occasionally, some important points to make. But the exuberance is also exhausting, burying its own ideas under a landslide of the author’s trademark volubility; words and images compete with each other for dominance, as if enacting the hysterical family romance of the book’s plot on the level of its sentences: “We are so divided, so hostile to one another, so driven by sanctimony and scorn, so lost in cynicism, that we call our pomposity idealism, so disenchanted with our rulers, so willing to jeer at the institutions of our state, that the very word goodness has been emptied of meaning and needs, perhaps, to be set aside for a time, like all the other poisoned words, spirituality, for example, final solution, for example, and (at least when applied to skyscrapers and fried potatoes) freedom.”
The echoes of Hemingway’s great rejection of the moral semantics of war from A Farewell to Arms (“abstract words such as glory, honour, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages”) are there, but only serve to underscore the number of empty words in a sentence that would drive Hemingway to distraction. “For example,” for example, buries its point about meaningless words under meaningless words.
Whereas Gatsby is really only about two people, the narrator Nick Carraway, and the subject of his tale, Jay Gatsby, The Golden House can’t decide whether its narrator, René, is the protagonist, or the paterfamilias Nero Golden, or his three sons. The plot is busy, but fundamentally straightforward: a fabulously wealthy tycoon from Asia flees disaster and a dark past, relocating to New York with his three grown sons, where they live in a beautiful brownstone in Greenwich Village, and we await the inevitable tragedy to strike. Thanks to Rushdie’s fondness for hyperbole, the tragedies keep accumulating, too.
In a neighbouring house lives René, an aspiring filmmaker, who becomes fascinated by the Goldens. Part voyeur, part social anthropologist, he is unable to decide if his chronicle of the Goldens should be a novel or a film. Neither can Rushdie, who keeps breaking into screenplay to tell his story. (René is the son of academics, which is meant to explain his constant philosophising and endless stream of cultural references.)
Characterisation is equally intemperate. Nero Golden is an accomplished dancer, ping-pong player, classicist and violinist. The joke registers (Nero, fiddle), but never achieves payoff; it is just there, like so much of the rest of the novel’s detail. Nero’s sons are also, improbably, classicists, spouting fluent Latin and Greek and happy to rename themselves in terms as self-aggrandising as their father’s when the family relocates from Mumbai to New York. None of them rebels and insists on being called, say, Eric. Instead, they acquire their absurd names so that those can in turn become nicknames that point to further allusions. Petronius becomes Petya (Dostoevsky and Chekhov: tick). Apuleius becomes Apu (Satyajit Ray: tick). Dionysus becomes D (Kafka: tick). What all of this is supposed to add up to, apart from a catalogue of culture, is rather less clear. The invocations are to Platonism but the method is pleonasm, the result a kind of prose fatigue.
Petya, Apu and D each represents various social syndromes. Petya is alcoholic, autistic and agoraphobic, as if psychological trouble must always come in alliterative threes. Apu, an artist graced with “a technical facility as great as Dalí’s,” represents the folly and fraudulence of the New York art scene (that hardly under-examined subject). D is intersex, enabling Rushdie to offer some tirades against current ideas of sexual identity, as he dives (intrepidly, or recklessly, depending on your point of view) into heated debates over gender identity and biological essentialism.
The women, meanwhile—love interests all—are less caricatures than stereotypes, variously rapacious or compassionate. There is Nero’s gold-digging Russian wife Vasilisa, the latest in a long line of fabulously beautiful black widow seductresses in Rushdie’s fiction. This time Rushdie decides to name her inner demon (“Baba Yaga”) and ventriloquise it, lest we miss that she is a femme fatale. Balancing out the whore are a couple of madonnas: René’s tender, magnanimous Indian girlfriend Suchitra, and D’s tender, magnanimous American girlfriend Riya, whose abusive past emerges briefly for a page or so before she puts it firmly away, because only men in this novel have traumas to explore. René’s parents are similarly idealised, and similarly dispensed with. And that’s all before even mentioning the plot—or rather, plots. René ends up moving in with the Goldens, the better to spy on them (Rear Window: tick), before being inveigled by Vasilisa into a sexual spiderweb that is as predictable on the page as it would be absurd in real life.
René calls himself not narrator, but “chronicler—and perhaps their imagineer, a term invented for the devisers of rides in Disney theme parks.” It’s an apt metaphor for what follows, which is indeed a kind of theme park version of Henry James’s famous house of fiction. Instead of the dark domestic nightmare of the gothic, it is the garish carnivalesque, “amusement rides” that are anything but amusing, all of it engineered and manufactured, with the machinery often visible, the fakery deliberately on show. It’s a fun house of a novel: and as everyone knows, there’s precious little fun about a fun house.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see. Rushdie helpfully explains his title at the start. “A ‘golden story,’ in the time of Lucius Apuleius,” René informs us (he is prone to lectures), “was a figure of speech that denoted a tall tale, a wild conceit, something that was obviously untrue. A fairy tale. A lie.” Rushdie’s intention, in other words, is to offer a wild caricature of America today, a fable and a lie that exposes deeper truths.
Halfway through, he introduces the Joker, a crooked real estate developer with lime green hair, who is “utterly and certifiably insane” and enters politics because “America had left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe,” so that Washington DC is “under attack by DC comics.” And as Rushdie swerves abruptly into lavish outrage about Trump’s America, the novel becomes worth reading.
“What was astonishing, what made this an election year like no other, was that people backed him because he was insane, not in spite of it. What would have disqualified any other candidate made him his followers’ hero.” The Joker and his followers inhabit “the bubble [in which] the climate was not changing and the end of the Arctic ice cap was just a new real estate opportunity. In that bubble, gun murderers were exercising their constitutional rights but the parents of murdered children were un-American… and wishing you could have sex with your daughter was funny… and lying was funny, and hatred was funny, and bigotry was funny, and bullying was funny, and the date was, or almost was, or might soon be, if the jokes worked out as they should, nineteen eighty-four.” The Joker is only unpopular in his native New York, because “New Yorkers could identify a con man when they saw one.”
John Updike once questioned the need “to cover the world in fiction,” and ultimately it’s not clear that a novel is the most effective form for this peroration; a blistering essay that dealt directly with reality might have achieved more. “Why even try to understand the human condition if humanity revealed itself as grotesque, dark, not worth it,” René wonders as the Joker takes the White House. What if America would go on being “embodied” by its new president, if the “progressive, tolerant, adult America” endured “but the dark side was still there too, and it roared out of its cage and swallowed us. America’s secret identity wasn’t a superhero. Turns out it was a supervillain. We’re in the Bizarro universe.”
The problem is that when reality enters a comic book universe, caricature becomes redundant, even tautological. It presents itself in the guise of analysis, while merely redescribing the predicament in which we find ourselves. That said, in such bizarre times, maybe only the allegorical grotesque will do.
What seems meant as grand tragedy plays more like farce—perhaps in a knowing recapitulation of Engels’s famous formulation about history replaying tragedy as farce that just failed to register. Or maybe it was simply a failure in tone, as if the Joker overpowered the novel too, turning what was supposed to be serious into something funny, and what was supposed to be funny into something not funny at all. At the end Rushdie acknowledges his exaggerations and calls them his own: “sometimes the world is more heightened, more exaggerated, more hyperbolically infernal than even a hyperbolist-infernalist could ever, at his wildest, have dreamed.” Indeed.