The Golden House
Salman Rushdie

The Golden House is an interesting mix of contemporary history and Salman Rushdie’s story of the Goldens, a rich immigrant family from India. The book is broad in its subject matter, incorporating modern concerns of cultural and sexual identity, the problematic notion of truth and the social challenges that have beset America, from gun violence to the rise of Donald Trump. To some extent one might argue that Rushdie’s canvas is a little too large, since he struggles, at points in the story, to gather these unwieldy issues into a coherent thesis, yet at other times the disparate elements seem to achieve a seamless and synthetic whole.

Nero Golden, the patriarch of the family, has brought his three sons to America after his wife was killed in a terrorist attack in India. Nero Golden is not his real name. We never discover his real name, since he and his sons have adopted new identities in America. Nero’s eldest boy is now Petronius (known as Petya), his second born has become Lucius Apuleius (known as Apu) and his youngest son has adopted Dionysus as his name, although he chooses to be known as D. Mystery surrounds the family. At first René, the narrator who hopes to make a feature documentary about the Goldens, does not know their origins. They are from the city that cannot be named and from the country that cannot be named, because the Goldens have not just immigrated, but have left their old world and identity behind: They would wipe the slate clean, take on new identities, cross the world and be other than what they were. The presence of the Goldens in New York is not just mysterious, as is the source of their wealth and the reasons for choosing to leave India after their tragedy, but they represent a choice to leave their culture behind and assume new identities. The names they choose suggest a level of self-aggrandisement, since they all derive from the late Julio-Claudian era of Rome. Nero Golden is the king, the emperor, not just of his family but of his construction empire. But none of his sons’ names are quite as propitious. Petronius’ diminutive, Petya, sounds more Russian than Roman to René, recalling Dostoevsky and Checkov, and his autistic tendencies and agoraphobia mark him as a broken man. Apu, René notes, sounds Bengali, and it turns out he is the only one of the family who eventually returns to India. Dionysus, a name that René claims has an androgynous etymology, shortens his name to the even more ambiguous ‘D’, and struggles to define his sexuality throughout his life.

The story follows the fortunes of the Golden family in America, including the marriage of Nero Golden to a much younger woman, Vasilisa, and the disruption and threat felt by the three sons as a result. Added to this is the story of René, the narrator, who ingratiates himself with the family in the hope of making them the subject for his film. Naturally, René cannot remain aloof from his subjects and becomes a part of their story.

But this is also the story of America during the years of Obama’s presidency, through to the campaign of Donald Trump and the beginning of his presidency. The book begins with Obama’s inauguration, and its final chapters recount the rise of the Trump-character. Donald Trump is never named in the novel. Instead, he is represented by the Joker, a suitably comic-book villain, but everything we know about him is taken from some of the most notorious aspects of Trump’s public image. Under the Joker America has become a country of two bubbles. In one bubble:

… gun murderers were exercising their constitutional rights but the parents of murdered children were un-American … the president of the neighbouring country to the south which was sending rapists and killers to America would be forced to pay for a wall dividing the two nations … parents of dead war heroes would be revealed to be working for radical Islam … Russia would be a friend and that would have nothing whatsoever to do with the Russian oligarchs propping up the Joker’s shady enterprises … multiple bankruptcies would be understood to prove great business expertise … knowledge was ignorance, up was down, and the right person to hold the nuclear codes in his hand was the green-haired white-skinned red-slash-mouthed giggler who asked a military briefing team four times why using nuclear weapons was so bad …

America’s other bubble is primarily New York, represented as Gotham, but includes liberal elites who see the Joker for what he is. In Rushdie’s imagining of modern America, a DC comic villain has taken over Washington DC.

The problem of identity is what primarily links the main plot and the story of modern America. Under Obama, America’s liberal elites believe the country is evolving into an image of them, but seething underneath that is the resentment of middle-America, represented by issues like the birther movement that question Obama’s legitimacy:

We became lazy … For eight years we persuaded ourselves that the progressive, tolerant, adult America embodied by the president was what America had become, that it would just go on being like that. And that America is still there but the dark side was still there too, and it roared out of its cage and swallowed us. America’s secret identity wasn’t a superhero. Turns out it was a supervillain.

Like Nero Golden, who assumes a new identity and eschews his past, America under the Joker will eschew the liberal promise of its revolution represented by the statue in New York Harbour, and devalue facts and knowledge.

The problem of identity is represented, also, in the story of D., who struggles to define himself. If he wears a dress, does that make him a gay, a transvestite or a woman trapped in a man’s body? This is where Rushdie comes closest to offending liberal attitudes. Rushdie appropriates the LGBTQIA cause to represent problematised identity. But in doing so he comes close to undermining the legitimacy of LGBTQIA people. Rushdie conflates sexual identity with Nero’s choice to come to America (If you choose to be an American and become a citizen you don’t have to give up everything about who you were before … If you choose to be a woman the same liberty exists) and adopt a new identity.

You can be what you choose to be.

Sexual identity is not a given. It’s a choice.

D has remained silent up to now. Finally, he speaks. Didn’t the argument used to be the other way around? Being gay wasn’t a choice, it was a biological necessity? So now we’re saying it’s a choice after all?

Choosing an identity, Ivy Manuel says, is not like choosing cereal at the supermarket.

To say choosing can also be a way of saying being chosen.

But it’s a choice now?

For this there is professional help. With help, your choice will become clear to you.

Yet D finds professional help most unhelpful. Arguments his therapist makes seem to present contradictory or impossible scenarios outside the purview of personal choice. That a man can identify as a woman is acceptable, but the reality of that in the real world is something D struggles to logically accommodate in the real-world scenarios he imagines. He repeats to his therapist the logical flaw in this argument of choice: I identify as a billionaire and so now I’m rich. Instead, D imagines identity not as choice but an exploration:

What if I propose that my identity is just difficult, and painful, and confusing, and I don’t know how to choose or even if choosing is what has to happen, what if I need to just stagger blindly forward finding out what I am and not what I choose to be. What if I believe there is an I am and that I need to find that. What if this is about discovery not choice, about finding out who I have always been, not picking a flavour from the gender ice-cream display.

Rushdie seems to use gender politics as a counterweight to his portrayal of the Joker and middle-America. And just as a person can be fluid and complex – many things, not one – it seems America can be, too. It’s a point Rushdie has made in several interviews about this book, suggesting, I think, that Rushdie sees political extremes, tribalism and the labelling of the ‘other’ as more problematic to liberal progression than the diverseness of the American people. But all this has left me somewhat uncertain about how Rushdie feels about America’s future. Most characters in this book are estranged from their own essential selves, and none of them do very well.

The novel is stylistically similar to other Rushdie works. His novels tend to have sprawling narratives with many divergences, multiple characters and a mythological quality to the characters, based on the model of the Arabian Nights. In The Golden House the characters mythologise themselves through their own re-imaginings in America. Less prominent in this novel is magical realism, which characterises a number of Rushdie’s novels. Rushdie’s narrator, René, says, My preferred manner would be something I privately called Operatic Realism, my subject the conflict between the Self and the Other.Maybe that’s what Rushdie would call it, too, since René often feels like his mouthpiece. There is a scene in which René imagines he sees the ghosts of Nero’s dead wives swirl into form from the mist at his feet, but this is an expression of Nero’s grief, and the novel is resolved in the reality of the Joker’s somewhat distorted America.

The Golden House is likely to offend some people, whether they are from the LGBTQIA community or rusted on Trump supporters. But aside from that it is an interesting story that delves into the problem of identity, and the fractured nature of modern America. It’s also a good story, of which I have revealed very little, so it’s worth a read.

This interview covers the gender issue I have discussed in this review
This issue discusses issues of free speech and Trump's America
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Salman Rushdie

How does one live among one's fellow countrymen and countrywomen when you don't know which of them is numbered among the sixty-million-plus who brought the horror to power, when you can't tell who should be counted among the ninety-million-plus who shrugged and stayed home, or when your fellow Americans tell you that knowing things is eleitist and they hate elites, and all you have ever had is your mind and you were brought up to believe in the loveliness of knowledge, not that knowledge-is-power nonsense but knowledge is beauty, and then all of that, education, art, music, film, becomes a reason for being loathed, and the creature out of Spiritus Mundi rises up and slouches towards Washington DC, to be born.