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'The Golden House' is Salman Rushdie's failed attempt to capture America in the Trump era

Rushdie's twelfth novel feels like a rehash of old themes with a 21st-century gloss.

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The Golden House
By Salman Rushdie
Random House
400 pp.

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The Golden House, the latest of Salman Rushdie’s twelve novels, is an ambitious attempt to capture the inception of Trump’s America through the Golden family, a wealthy father living with three grown sons, newly arrived to New York. A blend of "Godfather" and "Gatsby," with mystery surrounding his family’s origins and source of wealth, the patriarch Nero adopts as a confidante his young neighbor, René, who narrates the story like a more antic version of "Gatsby"s Nick.

René’s drive to be a filmmaker leads to his obsession with the Goldens, whom he deems a perfect subject. Each son is psychologically burdened – the eldest, Petya, by autism and a rivalry with his bohemian middle brother, Apu; the youngest, Dionysus, or “D,” by his transgender leanings. Into this picture waltzes Vasilisa, a 28-year-old former Russian gymnast, bent on ensnaring Nero and his vast fortune. The sons move out one by one, while René moves in (figuratively and literally) following the unexpected death of his complacently liberal Belgian professor parents.

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Trouble ensues. Betrayals occur. Secrets are revealed. Allusions to movies grow thick and tangled. 

The signatures of Rushdie’s fiction all appear – motifs of migration and reinvention, tortured father-son relationships, mythology, an intrusive, philosophizing narrator – yet tend to fall flat because while times have changed, Rushdie’s writing has not, making "The Golden House" feel like a rehash of old themes with a 21st-century gloss. 

When Rushdie’s groundbreaking novels "Midnight’s Children" and "The Satanic Verses" appeared in the 1980s, his playful skepticism towards universal “Truth” felt edgy and postmodern, especially coming from an Indian writer grappling with the legacy of British colonialism. These days, however, suggesting truth is malleable, as Rushdie-via-René does, raises the specter of Holocaust deniers, climate change skeptics, and “alternative facts." It feels less playfully irreverent than irresponsible. This misfire is disappointing in light of the brilliance of "The Satanic Verses," which offers a savage indictment of fundamentalisms through a wholly original and moving story – this was the book that provoked Ayatolla Khomeini’s fatwa in 1989 and sent Rushdie into a decade of hiding, ironically catapulting him to greater fame. 

Rushdie has made Manhattan his home since 2000, yet New York is unrecognizable in "The Golden House," a playground only artists and the super-rich inhabit, along with an occasional vagrant who wanders through saying prophetic things. Rushdie's attempt to recreate the current political climate founders, as well. The swell of hope at Obama’s election, frustration and devastation at the mounting police killings of black civilians, widespread bewilderment at politicians’ refusal to adopt even the mildest gun-control measures in response to mass shootings – these are all subjects Rushdie tackles, but with an earnest sloppiness, through lists rather than his characters. When René’s parents die, for instance, it spurs René to a diatribe on the tragic shootings of Tamir Rice and Akai Gurley, since to René’s hyper-privileged mind, his parents’ death is on a par with that of these “unjustly dead” black men. Ugh.  

The Goldens, like their names, tend to work as vehicles for themes, rather than fully realized human beings. D, for instance, is mostly a variation on Rushdie’s perennial theme of metamorphosis, his conflictedness limited to a terror of physical transitioning rather than a genuine struggle to realize gender identity.

Unearned pardons abound, at least for the men. René betrays his girlfriend and the Goldens (spoilers ahead), fathering a son with Vasilisa. She, of course, is punished with a dramatic death – spider-woman and manipulator that she is – while René rides off in the sunset with his implausibly forgiving girlfriend and four-year old son (who, were this real life, might well end up in therapy for life).  

I hadn’t much followed Rushdie’s post-fatwa life, so I had to wonder, what provoked this ire towards Vasilisa, who he casts as far more sinister than her aged mobster husband? Also, what to make of the parallels between this Russian beauty wed to a wealthy septuagenarian and our First Lady?  

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After falling down a rabbit-hole of Googled interviews with Rushdie’s fourth ex-wife, the former model and "Top Chef" star Padma Lakshmi, I learned the two met when she was 28, Vasilisa’s age. Rushdie was 51, having left his third wife, the mother of his two-year-old, in London. His divorce led to Lakshmi’s memoir, a theme of which is the fragility of Rushdie’s ego. 

Vasilisa made more sense in this light, as a fiction writer’s revenge – and Golden, too, as a version of Rushdie himself, another man who moved across an ocean to take up a new life and wife. Parallels between authors and their characters are generally dull stuff but here are a bit more intriguing since Nero/Rushdie also resembles the president Rushdie disparagingly dubs “the Joker,” another septuagenarian who loves models, money, and cultivating his celebrity. 

The true moral of "The Golden House" is that there’s a price to pay for fame. It was once a literal price on Rushdie’s life, intended to curtail the power and freedom of his writing.  His tragedy now is no longer the threat of a career cut short, but the more banal one of a creative vision narrowed by the blinders of his own success.

Elizabeth Toohey teaches at Queensborough Community College, CUNY, and contributes regularly to the Monitor.