The Golden House by Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie turns his trademark style to the age of Twitter, Trump and identity politics in The Golden House
The communal gardens shared by a group of New York apartments form a bubble in which young René is raised, fencing off a small part of the world for him to enjoy a protected, perfect childhood amidst colourful bohemians and harmless oddballs. During this fairytale upbringing, the Golden family move in to the house across from his own. They have the unmistakable aura of wealth and power, rooted in a homeland they refuse to speak of. In place of the personal past they have scrubbed from their identity, they have taken names from Ancient Rome, dressing themselves in the grandeur of antiquity. They quickly become René’s primary fascination, then his obsession, then the very centre of his life.
In the beginning, The Gardens provide a magical counterpart to the harshness of reality. By the end, the barrier between the two has all but disintegrated: news reports across the world take on the flavour of fiction, while his magical bubble is punctured by modernity’s sharp edges.
Each of Salman Rushdie's novels is loudly, thoroughly and unmistakably his work, and The Golden House is no exception. The meta-textual stylings which made him a darling of postmodernity have not diminished with time, and he revels in his role as self-reflexive storyteller as much as ever. Every story is contained within the story of the person telling it; a Rushdie tale is a complex web weaved of different narratives and the narratives of how they were woven. He delights in watching his filmmaker protagonist René drift from seeing-eye to active player, drawn by weakness and desire from the traditional journalist’s stoic objectivity to the Gonzo exploits of a man who is, after all, as much a creature of flesh and blood and bad decisions as those whose lives he chronicles.
Sticking to a tried and tested formula, Rushdie offers a personal tale running parallel to world history set within a comic book artist’s portrayal of reality. It is the world as we know it with all of the key events following the same course, only drawn in slightly bolder colours – the fairytale world of The Gardens, filled with larger than life characters, their strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncracies all inflated to just beyond the proportions of real people. Processed through the cinephile mind of René, everything takes on the glimmer of the silver screen.
Another tale told back from memory – with all of memory’s falsehoods and all the questions it asks of the very idea of a “true story” – René’s narrative is filled with foreboding even as he recalls his happiest days, with every chapter ending in the implied ellipses of impending tragedy. From the very beginning we know that eventually the fairytale lustre will begin to dull, the rich colours to drain away, and The Garden’s dazzling world will be slowly reduced to the greyer pallet of life outside of the comic book’s panels.
Watching Rushdie bring out each of his well-honed techniques one by one is a little like attending the concert of a rock legend and seeing him work steadily through his greatest hits. Years of practice have left his fingers incapable of missing their mark and so each track is played from first note to last with a technical mastery equalling, maybe exceeding, that of the artist in his prime. The performance isn’t charged like it was back when those songs were written, the culture and the time they came out of have passed. What remains is really just an echo, but a very enjoyable echo – Tangled Up In Blue is still a great song, after all.
When Rushdie starts name-dropping Assassin’s Creed and Identity Politics, you worry you’re about to see the aged rocker lose their cool in desperate pursuit of relevance, coming down off the dignified throne their legacy has built for them to flail around and prove they’re still young. That doesn’t happen. The Golden House goes beyond merely namechecking contemporary culture, pushing itself into the middle of the modern day battleground in which identifying 'sides' has become more important than the dialogue between them, and calling for calm. Calling for civility. Calling for the basic ability to hear an opinion without seeking a neatly labelled box to put it in and beat the speaker round the head with.
Rushdie has endured decades of death threats for his willingness to speak truth to power. The Satanic Verses took aim at dogma, at a mindset which sees criticism as an intolerable cruelty and champions unquestioning faith as the highest virtue. In his latest novel, there is the whisper of a suggestion that this attitude has been adopted by many of those who would most readily apply the word 'tolerant' to themselves, who would most aggressively denounce the misogyny of fundamentalist Islam and also phrases like 'fundamentalist Islam' and their latent Islamophobia, and also those who are only denouncing latent Islamophobia as a kind of empty virtue signalling. Mostly, it asks us to be suspicious of those who seem more interested in denouncing others than understanding them. It’s a very old lesson, you’ll find it in a lot of good books.
With Midnight’s Children, Rushdie married his stylistic tics and thematic concerns with the perfect historical moment – his magical retelling of the birth of India as an independent nation served as an enchanting, witty and tragic take on the stories we shape and how they shape us, as people and as entire nations. With The Golden House, he takes those same traits and turns them to the age of Twitter, Trump and a whole new string of identity questions. The modern setting acts like a new organ transplanted into an old body, with the host neither catastrophically rejecting nor fully harmonising with its new acquisition.
Instead, the millennial pop culture references sit on the surface of a thoroughly Rushdie novel, refusing to fully mix into it. Mostly, they just sit. Skim them off and what you’re left with is a novel every bit as compelling as you would expect from one of the greatest living storytellers – no-one spins a yarn like Rushdie, and The Golden House’s tale of bastard sons, mysterious men and submerged pasts is hugely enjoyable.
But when your best novel is one of the best novels, you will always be judged by the highest standards. To say The Golden House is 'only' hugely enjoyable is a little like writing 'only' on a cheque for £1 million. But, with the almost limitless creative wealth we know Salman Rushdie has at his disposal, it’s hard not to feel like it could have been more.