Closely Observed Trains on a Sea Coast in Bohemia

Christopher Tayler

  • The Golden House by Salman Rushdie
    Cape, 370 pp, £18.99, September 2017, ISBN 978 1 78733 015 3

Some people don’t like the idea that they may be living in a metropolitan bubble, but René Unterlinden, the narrator of Salman Rushdie’s latest book, has been raised to call the bubble his home. ‘De point is,’ his father – not the only character in the novel with a comic accent – tells him, ‘we like de bubble, and so do you … So dis iss who you are … The boy in the bubble.’ ‘These are days of miracle and wonder,’ his mother adds. René’s parents are Belgian-born New Yorkers, ‘respected scholars’, ‘beloved teachers’ and ‘Americans since forever’, and he has grown up ‘cocooned in liberal downtown silk’ in a place he calls ‘the Gardens’, a block of houses and mansions built round a communal garden in the West Village: ‘At the heart of the bubble were the Gardens and the Gardens gave the bubble a heart.’ He ‘went to school at Little Red and to college on Washington Square’, where he seems to have majored in film studies. When the novel opens, in January 2009, with Barack Obama and ‘his exceptional wife’ about to enter the White House, he is in his mid-twenties and in search of a subject for a screenplay he plans to write.

René’s subject presents itself on the opening page. In the course of Obama’s inauguration, ‘the enigmatic septuagenarian we came to know as Nero Julius Golden’ installs himself and his three adult sons in the Gardens’ biggest mansion. Nero is a man of vast and dubious wealth whom people find hard to place in an American racial category, and who has, it turns out, assumed a preposterous name in order to start a new life. If people ask where we’ve come from, he commands his sons, ‘say we are from nowhere or anywhere or somewhere, we are make-believe people, frauds, reinventions, shapeshifters, which is to say, Americans.’ As for the country and the city they have come from, ‘I do not want to hear those names again.’ Rushdie sustains the mystery for 11 pages before revealing that Nero is a disreputable property tycoon from Mumbai who has left for reasons connected to his wife’s recent death in a terrorist attack. (She was at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, recovering from a marital row, when Lashkar-e-Taiba’s gunmen arrived.) Soon everyone in the Gardens and the wider world seems familiar with Nero’s background, though his sons, and René, continue to refer to India as ‘that faraway country’, ‘the country that could not be named’.

Nero speaks Latin and ancient Greek, plays the violin – he owns a Guadagnini – and will come to grief, we’re told early on, as the result of a big fire. He makes forays into the New York real estate business, in which he shows himself to be a publicity hound with a taste for gilded tat and highmaintenance women, and gives off a ‘smell of crass, despotic danger’. As befits a patriarch in a Rushdie novel, he’s full of tragic flaws but has a rough wisdom. His sons, who have also assumed preposterous names, are similarly outsized characters. Petronius, aka Petya, the eldest, is an agoraphobic, autistic, formidably well-read alcoholic dandy, later the inventor of some of the world’s most popular smartphone games. The middle child, Lucius Apuleius, aka Apu (a nickname that annoys his father: ‘We are not Bengalis!’), is a dissolute, charming man about town, an amateur student of the occult, and ‘an exceptionally gifted painter, of a technical facility as great as Dalí’s’. Dionysus, aka D, the youngest by 18 years, is an unhappy half-brother, the product of a brief affair with a low-status woman. He is a ‘striker of poses, a Dorian Gray type, slender, lissom, bordering on the effeminate’. One night he tells his lesbian best friend the story of Hermaphroditus, making René wonder where all this might be leading.

René, whose ambition is to make a film in a style he thinks of as ‘Operatic Realism’, and who has already tried working up Rear Window-type fantasies about his other neighbours, sees that the Golden family is just what he has been waiting for. He adds a scrim of movie references to the many allusive overlays already in place, to which he keeps drawing the reader’s attention in a series of proleptic asides. René, we’re given to understand, will play Nick Carraway’s part in an Indian-American Gatsby, except that it will be a farcical Gatsby filtered through P.G. Wodehouse. There will be Roman-style dynastic intrigue – murders, rumours of poisonings, suicides, adoptions – and the family’s fallings-out will also reflect the troubles of the American republic, ‘polarising them as America was polarised, the wars of America, external and internal, becoming their wars’. Since the timeframe of the book will encompass the end of Obama’s term in office, you’d guess, too, that René’s bubble of optimistic, well-heeled, somewhat complacent big-city liberalism will come in for a nasty puncturing in 2016. Perhaps the discussion of Goodbye to Berlin with which he introduces himself means he’ll end up depicting his earlier self as a frivolous Weimar cosmopolite.

It doesn’t quite work out that way. What’s more, the high-concept fun that The Golden House has with all these conceits isn’t, in practice, much fun, though not from a lack of incident. Petya and Apu quarrel over the affections of a sculptor called Ubah Tuur – the first in a series of spirited, creative, attractive young women, each hard to distinguish from the next – causing Petya to lock himself in his bedroom for a hundred pages or so, while Apu becomes a famous artist and flirts briefly with the Occupy movement. D begins to question his gender identity after falling in love with Riya Z, a spirited etc yet androgynous woman who inducts him into the mysteries of trans nomenclature and also says things like: ‘I do not choose what I read any more. I am wandering through the discarded stories of the city.’ In the meantime, Nero has been ensnared by the sexual skills of Vasilisa Arsenyeva, a Russian gold-digger and former gymnast whose body is described as being ‘exceptional’. Vasilisa brings another allusive overlay: inside she is Baba Yaga. In time, she becomes Nero’s wife and gives birth to a son, Vespasian: ‘Little Vespa, they called him, as if he were a motor scooter they could both ride back to happiness.’

Towards the end of the book, Nero details his past in an all-night confession that he makes, for some reason, to Riya. He was involved, he reveals, in the Mumbai criminal underworld and the Hindu-Muslim conflicts that Rushdie looked at in The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995). It’s an effective sequence thanks in part to being set in India, in part to having a self-contained story, and in part to being staged in a way that accounts for the storyteller’s reliance on précis. But that reliance is in evidence everywhere else. Characters are either put into holding patterns or killed off when they’ve served their immediate purpose: having explained his presence in the Gardens, for instance, René’s parents die in a car crash. René says he feels ‘a blind rage’ about this, and lists all the things that America is also filled with rage about, but like many feelings in the book the rage is simply asserted. Catalogues of his favourite movies, and acres of mindless riffing (‘They … look like a conspiracy of Czech intellectuals standing on a sea coast in Bohemia, closely observed, like trains’), take up more space than dramatic development does.

René’s girlfriend, Suchitra Roy, a filmmaker who, like Riya, has an intense relationship with New York City, suggests he has fixated on the Goldens because they represent ‘aspects of your own nature’, and he admits that he sublimates his feelings ‘into movie references’. These gestures would be more convincing if René had any sort of personality beyond the hyperbolic ways of a Rushdie novel’s typical narrator, along with the need to come across as being simultaneously wide-eyed and disabused. The device of setting him to work on a screenplay inspired by the central characters brings as many problems as it solves. It lets him make up dialogue he can’t have heard, and it gets around Rushdie’s impatience with straight narrative by allowing René to write stylised versions of scenes in script format. At the same time, René’s Nick Carraway duties mean that the suspicious, secretive Goldens, in spite of knowing all about his movie project, have to bring him along on a family trip to Florida, let him move into their house, treat him as a personal confessor, tell him he’s ‘like an honorary brother’ and so on, all on pretexts that boil down to little more than a notion that he is, in Nero’s words, ‘kind of a good guy’.

As a character his duties are less extensive. He performs one action, which is to impregnate Vasilisa as part of her plan for further ensnaring Nero, who doesn’t know that his own sperm motility isn’t what it was. (Later, having seemingly forgotten the ‘dear departed Belgians’, René agonises over seeing Little Vespa, his secret son, raised by ‘people who don’t even speak English as a first language’.) His main function is to be a wry interlocutor in the debate about the politics of identity occasioned by the Goldens’ change of address. The story directs unmistakable admonitions at the ethno-religious chauvinism that comes back to bite Nero, but also at the weightless, mutable, postmodern selves he and his sons try on for size in New York. Riya brings D up to speed on gender theory, and Rushdie tries to let her give a fair account of it. But he doesn’t try very hard. D, feeling pressured to become a woman, abruptly kills himself, causing Riya to have second thoughts about the whole trans thing. In the face of vicious attacks on social media, she redeems herself, in the novel’s scheme of things, by writing: ‘I reject the politics of identity and embrace the politics of love.’

Intergenerational puzzlement is the dominant note of the novel’s take on the American scene. ‘A bubble is a fragile thing,’ and in 2009 it’s brought to René’s attention that young people are threatening to burst it by going on about safe spaces, no-platforming and the like. A young person himself, he nonetheless feels distant from his own generation ‘and the one immediately following’. He is ‘internet-illiterate’, which doesn’t prevent him from making popular online videos for the Hillary Clinton campaign, and though he says he got the burn-it-down mood of the 2016 election cycle – ‘I understood the alienation and anger, because much of it was mine as well’ – he took a ‘more cautious, gradualist’ stance than his impulsive peers. As a chronicler he has a lounge lizard’s view of the developments leading up to Trump’s presidency, mulling over news of discontent in the hinterlands and then going to the Russian Tea Room or a Matthew Barney opening. It turns out that there’s another bubble out there, but at least in his one ‘reality still persevered, and New Yorkers could identify a con man.’ After the election, a retreat to the personal strikes him as being the wisest course: ‘Our little lives are perhaps as much as we are able to comprehend.’

Rushdie started writing The Golden House before Trump’s candidacy became something more than a joke, which seems to have raised the problem of fitting him in to a story that already contained a symbolically charged dodgy businessman with troublesome children and a wife born east of the Iron Curtain. He gets Trump into the identity debate pretty neatly: Riya is last seen redeeming herself some more by studying the identitarian aspects of right-wing backlash. His main solution, however, is to turn Trump into a comic-book villain: the Joker, ‘a vulgarian … born with inexplicably lime-green hair’, in a scary, Heath Ledgerish incarnation. The news about this figure, delivered at length in impassioned sentence fragments, is that he’s a nihilistic goon who tells lies all the time, preys on people’s worst instincts, and is ‘certifiably insane’. It’s hard to argue with that, but it’s strange to read a novel that can only accommodate Trump by making him a bit more over the top.