Rushdie’s New York Bubble

Whether by design, chance, or oracular divination, Salman Rushdie has managed, within a year of the 2016 election, to publish the first novel of the Trumpian Era. On purely technical merits this is an astounding achievement, the literary equivalent of Katie Ledecky lapping the Olympic field in the 1500-meter freestyle. The publishing industry still operates at an aristocratic pace; Egypt built the new Suez Canal in less time than it typically takes to convert a finished manuscript into a hardcover. As a point of comparison, the first novel to appear about September 11, Windows on the World, by the French author Frédéric Beigbeder, was not published until August 2003. Yet less than eight months into the administration, Rushdie has produced a novel that, if not explicitly about the president, is tinged a toxic shade of orange.

Trump poses a risky temptation for novelists, especially those writing amid the shit torrent of his presidency. As political journalists have discovered, the volume of revelations erupting from the White House and the presidential Twitter feed threatens to undermine the reliability of even daily news reports by the time they appear in print. It would seem masochistic to attempt to write a book about such a swiftly moving target, when events could at any time be hijacked by a new revelation of collusion with the enemy, impeachment charges, a nuclear war, a race war. In a nod to the futility of this enterprise, Rushdie uses as an epigram a line from François Truffaut: “La vie a beaucoup plus d’imagination que nous.”

Far more perilous to a novelist, however, is the prospect of writing about a public figure whose name, in the decades before his ascension to the presidency, has carried a fixed set of cultural associations, has been a brand, a trademark, a cliché, appearing in the consciousness if not on the page in boldface type, a textual black hole that threatens to vacuum into itself any gesture toward nuance, complexity, or original thought. Rushdie parries this hazard by omitting Donald Trump’s name and distributing his signature qualities among several characters. The abstraction allows him to scrutinize in turn various aspects of the presidential character, and ours, without succumbing to the familiar catechisms of contemporary political debate.

The Golden House is not about Trump himself as much as it is about the conditions that produced him—the conditions, we can now say, with the dawning confidence of retrospect, that made him inevitable. It reads as if Rushdie sought to write a novel of a specific place (Lower Manhattan) at a singular time (the last days of the Obama administration), was overtaken by events, and concluded that the same logic that demanded his fictional narrative end in tragedy also governed our reality. The alternative is that Rushdie possesses the powers of the seer in Midnight’s Children, Shri Ramram Seth, who tells the mother of the unborn narrator that her son will have “two heads—but you shall see only one.”

The Golden House recounts the fall of the house of Nero Golden, a rich septuagenarian businessman and egoist, famous for being famous, “a man deeply in love with the idea of himself as powerful.” He is the kind of man who walks “toward closed doors without slowing down, knowing they would open for him” (for all his narrative fireworks, Rushdie is a master of isolating the behavioral tic that reveals a character). A veteran of the downtown scene of the 1970s and 1980s, Golden got his start in the construction business and trafficked in a wide range of legal and semilegal schemes, including popular entertainment, before leveraging his fame into a valuable branding operation. His name is itself another scheme, a pseudonym invented to sound as American as Jay Gatsby and to conceal a criminal past (and Indian nationality) behind a scrim of Roman imperial grandeur. He licenses it to office towers, for-profit universities, and hot dogs, the word GOLDEN written in capital letters, illuminated in gold neon. His customers don’t seem to mind that his businesses are plagued by persistent rumors of pyramid schemes, bankruptcies, and ties to organized crime.

With his three grown sons, from two women, he has a “strangely authoritarian relationship,” holding separate daily meetings with each of them in which he demands to know what their brothers are saying about him behind his back. For Golden, loyalty is “the only virtue worth caring about,” apart from strength. “Once he decides you’re a weakling,” says one of his sons, “you’re dead to him.” During the 2012 presidential election, Golden develops an obsession with national politics, supporting Romney and loathing Obama with a rage animated by racial bigotry. Nearing the end of his eighth decade, he begins to show signs of mental deterioration. Yet despite his advancing senility—or perhaps because of it—he is able to land a Soviet-bloc third wife, a former nude model, several decades his junior.

Yet Golden possesses qualities that Trump does not: introspection, historical perspective, remorse. Fiction, unlike reality, makes certain inflexible demands on its author. Chief among these is credibility. For a character to hold the attention of a reader over the course of an entire novel, he must possess some semblance of an inner self, capable of complex and contradicting emotions, fear as well as bombast, shame as well as pride. He must, that is, appear to be human.

The source of Golden’s shame and fear is a mystery that Rushdie’s narrator, a twenty-five-year-old neighbor of the Goldens named René Unterlinden, endeavors to solve. The Golden House is primarily a character study, not only of Golden but of his three sons, his viperish young wife, and René. Rushdie is too devoted a storyteller to rely entirely on characterization, however. He turns to a trio of narrative conceits to enliven the action, one for each of the novel’s three acts. In the first, we learn that René, an aspiring filmmaker with a lot of time on his hands, sees in the Goldens a subject for his début: “I felt the excitement of the young artist whose subject has arrived like a gift in the holiday mail.”

René’s cinematic ambition justifies his nosy efforts to insinuate himself into the Goldens’ cloistered lives; from his apartment’s rear window he spies on his neighbors in the common garden below. It also allows Rushdie to make frequent use of film references, to render scenes in a screenwriter’s shorthand (ending chapters with “Cut,” “Slow dissolve,” “Blackout”), and the license, when convenient, to shift , if inconsistently, between René’s first-person narrative and an omniscient perspective.

Rushdie is a restless presence on the page, with a deep bag of tricks, and unconcerned with breaking his own rules in service of a narrative jolt. So while there are scenes written in the form of a screenplay, consistent with the premise, there are also chapters rendered as inner monologues, written and imagined correspondence, stream-of-consciousness, parables, an interrogation, and a word collage. Lest the reader’s attention flag during the expositional first act, Rushdie makes frequent asides portending juicy developments to come: “As we will see…” “Patience: I will not reveal all my secrets at once.” “By the time I’m done, much will be said, much of it horrifying.” “Many years later, when we knew everything…” “Now that everything is known…” “Now that I know the family secrets…”

One personal rule Rushdie does not break, however: the intervention of a femme fatale. Vasilisa, with her shadowy connections to the Russian petrocracy, sylphlike figure (“she is striking…astonishing…she runs marathons, and is a fine gymnast”), and calculating, Siberian affect is a descendant of Rushdie vixens like Fury’s Mila Milo (“The queen webspyder…had him in her net”); the incarnation of Padma Lakshmi that appears in the memoir Joseph Anton, “who had grand ambitions and secret plans that had nothing to do with the fulfillment of his deepest needs”; and Teresa Saca in Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, “a notorious libertine and fisher-for-rich-men” who electrocutes a lover with lightning bolts shot from her fingertips.

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