The Golden House
Salman Rushdie began writing The Golden House eight years ago, an undertaking designed to capture the contemporary moment. It’s remarkable just how much he got right. Not factually correct, necessarily, but thematically astute (though it’s no spoiler to reveal that “the Joker” running for office behind the scenes soundly, shockingly defeats his opponent, “Batwoman”). Rushdie was prescient enough to perceive which major themes were circling beneath the surface – fake news, lone shooters, the long-overlooked predation of powerful men – and to release his book just as they broke as news stories.
From the enchanted fortress of a Soho mews, we follow the self-styled Nero Golden and his sons Petronius, Apuleius, and Dionysus, recreating their lives in New York after a mysterious disaster in their home country. Their names are chosen with a dull wink, the first in a series of crafted references from classics to comics. Abetting these allusions is film buff neighbour René (who thinks and therefore is our narrator). As René’s obsession with the Golden boys grows, he decides to make a documentary about them. What follows, instead, is a postmodern pastiche on all five men – by turns bildungsroman, rom-com, Gothic fiction, gangster flick, mythic allegory – spilling over with allusions, into a sort of Sparknotes for meme culture, a literary listicle dressed up as a novel.
Is this dizzying mashup of cultural references deliberately heavy-handed? It might be a brilliant interpretation of the last decade. Certainly René’s increasingly personal documentary echoes the current personalized, newsfeed news cycle. But while insightful, this strategy sacrifices story. Characters often sound alike, or are crassly differentiated by phonetic dialects. Rushdie seems aware of this: Nero reminds René of Frankenstein’s monster, that “simulacrum of the human that entirely failed to express any true humanity.” These layers of postmodern rib-nudging might earn a chuckle, but baseless characters are difficult to root for. Even Frankenstein’s monster strives for a little heart.
The sheer hopefulness inherent in allusion – the idea that inside our most mundane actions lie the seeds of sweeping, collective trends – almost makes up for the flatness of each character. But it all falls down when Rushdie writes women. The women in The Golden House are tropes, from manic pixie dreamgirl Riya (assistant curator of the Museum of Identity, until Dionysus needs personal curatorial assistance) to the monstrous Vasilisa (Baba Yaga in a lithe Russian girl’s body). Figurative, sure, but we’re rarely allowed a look into these womens’ personal lives, except for some humiliating intimate moments. Layers of allusion do not create character depth, particularly in the case of women, who are often already flattened out by the works alluded to.
Rushdie’s writing is witty, lyrical, and frequently funny. As a treatise on aughties issues, The Golden House unflinchingly reveals our best and worst. But as a story, it leaves something to be desired. When the final mysteries unfurl after a fire (to the strains, yes, of Nero’s violin), you might not be alarmed. References, after all, have all been done before. Nothing surprises in The Golden House; it’s just a wonder we didn’t see it all coming in the real world.
Words – Madeleine Saidenberg