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.