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10 September 2017

The Golden House is Salman Rushdie’s not-so-great American novel

It seems little more than an exercise in googling, an attempt to sell the listicle as literature.

By Leo Robson

Salman Rushdie’s new novel has been billed as a return to realism, which in relative terms is true enough. His last two works of fiction, Luka and the Fire of Life and Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, were fantastical, or meta-fantastical, exercises in the revival of mythological tropes.

The Golden House, by contrast, follows the exploits and ill fortune of an Indian family during Barack Obama’s two terms as president. The laws of gravity are continuously obeyed. Nobody grows a pair of horns mid-sentence. But the result is closer to Rushdie at his splashiest than to anything written by such excavators of Manhattan opulence and bad blood as the love-drunk Jay McInerney or the hype-prone Tom Wolfe, let alone the sober, hair-shirted William Dean Howells, who more or less invented the New York novel – and American literary realism – in the late 1880s and 1890s.

The star attraction is the squat, raucous, violin- and ping-pong-playing Mumbai businessman who calls himself Nero Golden, keeper of secrets, lover of fine things and father of three grown sons: the autistic Petya, the bohemian Apu and the hermaphrodite D. Our guide to Nero’s speedy conquest of Manhattan – and would-be guide to his murky past – is the film-maker René, 25 when the story begins and resident in the MacDougal-Sullivan Gardens historic district, where the Goldens appear as if from nowhere one day in 2008 – “in the aftermath of the bursting of the mortgage bubble”, as Rushdie puts it, “when Isis was still an Egyptian mother-goddess”.

René’s role in the action is one of observer-turned-participant. He starts off as just another nosy neighbour but soon becomes a friend of the Golden boys and the secret sperm donor to Nero’s new Russian wife, Vasilisa. His duties as a narrator are altogether more strenuous. He must serve as the courier for that riffing, streaming, bubbling voice, halfway between Greek chorus and Twitter feed, that (with due credit to Nabokov, Joyce, Grass, Marquez, Calvino and Pynchon) is easily identified as Rushdiesque.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, in its sheer extremity, seemed to mark the culmination of this aesthetic, but The Golden House offers the weary, ever-hopeful Rushdie reader a Dexedrine-fuelled hotchpotch of place names, brand names, sort-of-puns (the “trumped-up birth certificate crap”, “the anachronistic weakness of the American electoral college; the stupidity of non-electoral college students”), mothballed observations (“If you owed the bank a buck you were a deadbeat with an overdraft. If you owed a billion you were rich and the bank was working for you”), failed phrase-making (“the mournful apparatus of security”), outmoded film theory, WTF quotations (an entire paragraph of Maugham’s play Sheppey), offhand highbrowism (“We murmured to one another some words of Primo Levi’s”), plugs for micro-memes and quasi-crazes (such as the Cronut), cameos for Werner Herzog (passing an eccentric, he cries, “That guy is fabulous… Maybe I will interview him”), bewildering suppressions of the words “Spike Lee” (“celebrated superstar-African-American-movie-director-in-a-red-baseball-cap”), cogitations on phenomena including satirists and sitarists, shoehorned references to King’s College, Cambridge, and, to facilitate most of the above, the rhetorical device known as amplification, as in: “We remembered the fearfulness that made taxi drivers put little flags on their dashboards… We saw the young men in their Don’t Blame Me I’m Hindu T-shirts… We had read the books about the prophet and the Taliban and so on.” (Almost every sentence that Rushdie has typed since about 1995 might have had recourse to those last three words.)

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Aversion to choice is the governing principle. Adjectives come in twos – in the novel’s first page and a half, we read, among many other pairings, “thick and strong”, “large, dangerous”, “huge, clumsy”, “sociable and neighbourly”. And the tendency towards excess is replicated on a larger scale; for example, when the spry reference to Nero Golden’s “way of walking toward closed doors without slowing down” is spoiled by the explanatory “knowing they would open for him”.

As a rule, Rushdie deploys language without concision or precision. One chapter opening takes a swift dive from mock-epigram into polysyllabic sludge: “Funerals happen quickly in the tropics, but murder investigations inevitably force delays.” “Inevitably”? So do they happen quickly or not? In Rushdieland, the answer is always both. Although film history is the same for René as for the reader – of that we’re left in no doubt – he doesn’t double-take when learning about gangsters called Antonioni and Bertolucci. In a whimsical touch, Donald Trump is represented only as the Joker, with Hillary Clinton as Batwoman, yet Rushdie cannot resist comparing Vasilisa to Melania Knauss. Things that aren’t amusing on their own are rendered nonsensical into the bargain.

Even when René’s thoughts return to his relationship with the Goldens, even when a trajectory hovers into view (“So in the fall of 2012 I went to live in the Golden house”), holding forth is deemed the best way of transmitting narrative information. The earliest formal dialogue scene begins on page 156. Yet it’s never clear why René is telling us all this stuff. What is The Golden House actually about? The models invoked – Nero as Captain Ahab, as Jay Gatsby, as Lucius in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass – suggest a study of hubris, with America as an all-too-willing home, but the relationship between subject and backdrop is lost amid so much verbal noise.

As in Two Years and the earlier New York panorama Fury, it’s possible to detect an assault on the whole tarnished age – the 21st century as a gigantic, hydra-headed betrayal of the Enlightenment inheritance. Besides his other duties, René is an author mouthpiece, burdened with articulating Rushdie’s anger that “spiritualism” in its many forms is thriving, that freedom of speech is curtailed by gender warriors and shrinking-violet sophomores – and that the perceived solution to this wimpy leftism is the Joker, a consumer-capitalist vulgarian with contempt for empirical truth.

René’s narration – and, by extension, Rushdie’s novel – is offered as an alternative mode of engagement. Referring to his academic parents, René asks the reader: “Do you note, in their son, an inherited note of the professorial?” The answer is a resounding yes, if “professorial” means “anorakish”, but in the novel’s scheme it’s far more virtue than vice. René’s erudition marks a stand against the general culture of amnesia, represented at one point by the Occupier in the Guy Fawkes mask who doesn’t “remember, remember the fifth of November”.

Rushdie’s belief in the written record or catalogue is palpable, glaring at the reader from every headline-crowded, ephemera-laden page, but is knowledge an end in itself? Stacked high enough, can it set you free? Surely information overload is one of the era’s blights, an enemy of rational thought at least as fierce as yoga, yet here we have Salman Rushdie – who, as the author of Midnight’s Children as much as The Satanic Verses, embodies the novel’s powers of resistance – offering a book that seems little more than an exercise in googling, an attempt to sell the listicle as literature. 

The Golden House
Salman Rushdie
Jonathan Cape, 370pp, £18.99

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This article appears in the 06 Sep 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move