Title: The Golden House
Author: Salman Rushdie
The Golden House is not a light read, neither is it a straightforward narrative. Then again, a Salman Rushdie novel is rarely expected to be “simple” or linear. It is, however, a chronicle of our times, told as a tragedy: larger-than-life characters, living in a larger-than-life world, brought tumbling down by their faults.
Spanning eight years from Barack Obama’s inauguration, to the eve of an election in which the lead contender refers to himself as “the Joker”, The Golden House delves into the immigrant experience, gun rights and quite bravely, the shifting sands of gender identity. All of this comes to us packaged as the story of Nero Golden (not his real name), and his sons Petronius, Lucius Apuleius and Dionysus (not their real names either), through the voice of their neighbour and aspiring film-maker René (probably his real name).
If the Goldens give René his ultimate subject, René gives Rushdie a convenient narrative element. He is Jeff from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and he is Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby — a constant spectator, close to the action, but not central to it. However, René is different. He sees the Goldens as “passports to (his) cinematic future”, and thus has no qualms about invading their privacy, using them to his own benefit, making up the details to which he is not privy or, eventually, even becoming a part of the narrative itself. This apostrophizing begins with his introduction (“Call me René”) and continues through the novel.
As our narrator decides to make a mockumentary on the Goldens, the book starts to look more like a screenplay-in-the-making than a novel. René does well as Rushdie’s mouthpiece, leaving one to often wonder if René is narrating events as they occur, or if he is narrating what he imagines or hopes had occurred. This might be read as a comment on the difficulty of finding the kernel of truth amid the cacophony in a world bombarded with news and “fake news”. It might also be read as Rushdie gleefully ripping into “the Joker” — who is not once named as Donald Trump.
The classic Rushdie also shines through in the fourth act of the book, where he manages to recreate Bombay’s transition to Mumbai in the span of 20 pages. Anyone familiar with the Hindi film industry before it became Bollywood will find it easy to identify the other players Rushdie almost names. His description of the Mumbai attacks of 2008, and the events that surrounded them, is poignant yet vivid.
Rushdie’s writing follows a jazz-like syncopation, almost playing hopscotch from one point of the story to another. The novel demands patience as the Goldens’ story is coaxed out, almost in wisps, from amidst references to everything from mythology, history and philosophy through Kant, Nietzsche and Spivak to today’s popular culture, via Don Corleone, Lady Gaga and Kangana Ranaut. It is, in a way, an anthology of references.
In a passage from near the end of the novel, René muses about the “two bubbles” America had been split into: “‘In one of those bubbles, the Joker shrieked and the laugh-track crowd laughed right on cue.’ In that bubble, ‘knowledge was ignorance, up was down and the right person to hold the nuclear codes was the green-skinned red-slashed-mouthed giggler’.”
Yet, Nero Golden is the one with the fortune built at least partly on real estate, the Russian wife about the same age as the children, and the shady past he is adamant to keep hidden.
At its core, The Golden House looks at identity. The Goldens arrive in America from an unnamed city (later revealed to be Bombay/Mumbai) in an unnamed country (India, obviously) with assumed names and new identities: Nero, the last Roman emperor; Petrnonius, the “judge of elegance” in the court of the emperor Nero, and author of the Satyricon; Lucius Apuleius, the author of the Latin novel known as The Golden Ass; and Dionysus, the Greek god. Yet, all three sons receive new monikers (Petya, Apu and D, respectively) over the course of the novel.
D’s crisis of sexual identity is the most personal. Yet, it is his girlfriend Riya, who works at the fictional Museum of Identity, who first nudges him towards rediscovering himself. “You can choose who you want to be,” she tells him. “Sexual identity is not a given. It’s a choice.” Apu — the flamboyant artist with “a technical facility as great as Dali’s” — highlights the immigrant longing for the homeland. He even takes a trip back, with disastrous consequences. Petya, the oldest Golden son, is an agoraphobic videogame developer. His journey, especially when compared to those of his brothers, seems to encapsulate the whole outside world. And he alone, of the three, even seems capable of finding redemption.
The ensemble cast of minor players include a Burmese diplomat, Ivy Manuel, Suchitra Roy, Ubah the Somalian artist, an Australian hypnotist, and Nero’s assistants. They act as catalysts to the larger narrative, but are largely portrayed as one-dimensional, given to us entirely from René’s perspective. Nero’s assistants are dehumanized to the point where we never even learn their real names; René merely calls them Fluff and Blather. It would not be too much of a stretch to include even Vasilya, the second Mrs Golden, in this list of secondary players. At best, she is an unfortunate, trying to make her way in the world with whatever she has in her arsenal. At worst, she is a Russian witch.
Despite the novel — with its super-sized narrative, dense plot, massive body count and wide range of themes — taking its name from the Goldens, one cannot shake the feeling that it is, really, René’s story. The Golden House is a story about neighbours, especially new ones — immigrant or otherwise; and about how we take the littlest slivers of their lives that are open to our perception, and see ourselves mirrored there. It is, as René’s girlfriend tells him, “a movie about you… all these Golden boys are aspects of your own nature.”