Salman Rushdie is one of the greatest living writers in the world and few authors have his standing, not just as an author, but as a symbol of the vital importance of art and authorship. Perhaps because of his stature, he seems to feel obligated to tackle the big questions of society in many of his books. The Golden House is no different. Looking at the meaning of truth, identity, its reinvention, and family in the New York of Obama and Trump, this is another wide-ranging, all-encompassing novel.
The story is narrated by René, the son of Belgian academics who moved to New York, teach, and live in a house that backs up to a communal garden made by opening all the back yards into one shared space, a private park for the privileged few who live there. On the day Obama won the election, a family of mysterious origin, a father with three sons who have immigrated to America with great wealth and new names taken from the Roman emperors move into the grandest house in the garden. Their surname is Golden.
René wants to be a filmmaker and thinks this family is the stuff of cinema. He befriends them and is often at their home, even going on vacation with them to Florida. He learns their secrets. Their story is the stuff of Greek tragedy as their losses mount up and the father is ensnared by a Russian gold digger of mythological proportions.
The Goldens are a tragic family and as we learn their secrets, none of them are terribly surprising. There’s a lot of unnecessary obscurities. The secret country of origin, the terror attack that killed Nero Golden’s wife. They are real events so the elaborate not-naming of the country and the attack seems a waste of words. Even the grand reveal near the end is not a surprise as it’s been foreshadowed several times and anyone paying attention will have figured out the broad outline without the specifics.
I confess I am was disappointed in The Golden House. I expected it to become one of my favorite books of the year like Shalimar, the Clown or Midnight’s Children. Instead, I frequently found myself checking my progress, like a child in the back seat asking “Are we there yet?” I wanted the book to be over. It’s not that I wanted to quit unfinished, I just wanted to be done. I wanted to find out what happened, but it was such a chore to wade through it all. René could not seem to describe an event without dredging up every book and film that had some comparable or contrasting scene to compare with it. This could go on for pages and, too often, it did.
Through it all, there is this running commentary about society, some of it very curmudgeonly. As though René were a querulous old man shaking his cane and snarling about “Kids nowadays.” It sounds so odd as he is a youthful filmmaker. It seems as though René fades and Rushdie speaks through him because he often sounds like a grumpy, old fart.
The middle son is questioning his identity and his place on the gender spectrum. While the idea that people must not always be assigned a label is a liberating one, there seemed to be this grudge in Rushdie’s writing about the trans community and genderqueer activism. D sees a therapist who is a bad caricature of a dogmatic ideological enforcer culled from twitter rants. There’s a contemptible joke about a transbillionaire that gets trotted out twice.
On the other hand, his raging indictment of our national aversion to education, facts, news, truth, and integrity made my blood sing. If you love rants condemning the stupidity, the racism, the anti-Americanism of the people who voted for the Joker, as Donald Trump is called in the book, you will love that part. I sure did.
Don’t get me wrong, a disappointing Rushdie book is still better than the average book by a mile. I still think Rushdie is a great writer whose prose can have the rushing, headlong power of a raging river. He creates characters who are unique and intriguing and stories that are complex. He has important ideas to write about and interesting stories to tell. But he gets in his own way.
I can’t tell you how many times I was reading another never-ending list of literary and cinematic allusions while wondering if it would ever end. Some went on for pages. I read just one example to a friend, a short one at that, where René runs through a list of first names of directors and before I got to the end, my friend said “Stop! Stop! I can’t take it.” It was torturous. But why? Why is so much of the book flooded with literary listicles?
Rushdie rages against the anti-elitism that poisons America, that made so many of us so stupid as to vote for the Joker when we knew he was corrupt, racist, and rapacious. Is he shoving his cultural literacy in our faces to remind us that the elite are elite because they know things? I don’t think the people who despise intellect and expertise are likely to pick up Rushdie’s books in the first place. I don’t think Rushdie’s readers need a reminder that he is culturally literate. Familiarity with his work is part of being culturally literate, so what’s the point?
It feels like blasphemy to not like Rushdie’s book – especially since I have loved his others so much. It took me nearly ten days to read The Golden House because I constantly had to take a break, not to stop and think about the story, but because I was frustrated by the artifice of the unnamed country and the tedium of the constant cultural references. I wish I had liked it more. Instead, with such disappointment, I feel downright curmudgeonly.
The Golden House will be released September 5th. I received an e-galley in advance from the publisher through NetGalley.