Review: The Golden House

Salman Rushdie (The Satanic Verses) is a writer who takes the spirit of the age and splays it in a million dazzling ways. In his novel The Golden House, the zeitgeist is terrifyingly familiar. Americans, their bigotries, their horrors, as well as their aspirations and humanity, are deconstructed and reconstructed in this grand and sweeping tragedy.

Rushdie is both an obsessive hoarder and astute critic of culture. His style, though pointed at times, resembles a maximalism in which everything within the reach of experience and culture is manifested on the page. The narrator of The Golden House, René, is an aspiring filmmaker who theorizes on history, art, cinema, literature and the nature of the auteur. This self-referential intellectualism includes entire narrative scenes in screenplay and monologue forms. In a modern nod to The Great Gatsby, René relays the story of his neighbor Nero Golden, an Indian immigrant and widower with a mysterious past and ostentatious amount of wealth. René earns the man's trust, befriends his three sons--Petya, Apu and D--but becomes dangerously entangled in family affairs when Nero's new wife, Vasilisa, makes an offer he can't refuse.

Throughout the novel, René is making a probing film about the Golden family. At the heart of his endeavor is the question of identity, particularly American identity. Rushdie asks whether the American notion of a self-made person is possible, whether one can step out of the historical and create something new, detached from the past. Nero Golden builds a new persona for himself in America, a new empire, but his past life and business dealings with the criminal underground in India catch up to him in a series of tragic reckonings. His story unfolds against the 2016 presidential election, which Rushdie satirizes to devastating effect. The comic-book villain the Joker, clearly a caricature of Donald Trump, unleashes a ghastly "national ugliness" across the land as "the weakness of the just was revealed by the wrath of the unjust."

Though Rushdie targets the Trumpian alt-right with his most acerbic critiques, he doesn't let the American left off the hook. Much of the novel revolves around Nero's son D, who struggles with gender identity, and his girlfriend Riya, who works for the Museum of Identity. Realizing the detrimental pressure some activists put on people struggling with gender and sexuality issues, Riya concludes, "To be forced into narrow definitions is a falsehood.... The Museum of Identity is too engaged with that lie."

The closet Rushdie gets to an answer to these questions of identity--of reality versus caricature--is a refreshing humanism found in the story's final moments. "Humanity was the only answer to the cartoon," René surmises. "I had no plan except love." The Golden House is a literary and philosophical tour de force. It is a new classic born of troubled times. --Scott Neuffer, writer, poet, editor of trampset

Shelf Talker: Legendary writer Salman Rushdie takes on American identity and politics in this tragic novel that reads like a postmodern update of The Great Gatsby.

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