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Culture

Salman the Seer, Sort Of

Salman Rushdie gave a public interview at the New York Public Library last night. His latest book, The Golden House, has been getting a lot of attention — not just because he’s Salman Rushdie, but also because the book contains, as a minor character, a buffoonish demagogue of a presidential candidate whose actions, words, and followers bear some similarity to those of Donald Trump (though in the book he is described as resembling the Joker from Batman). Rushdie said he wrote most of the book before Trump declared his candidacy, then did “a little tinkering” after the election. He hadn’t intended to write a satire on American politics, much less one so similar to today’s events, but “the book knew something I didn’t know.”

During the hour-and-a-half discussion, Rushdie and the moderator repeatedly bemoaned the state of American democracy. Trump, the author said, represented a “shift from eight years of optimism to its opposite. . . . Every day it gets worse. You don’t think it can, but it does.” Later he suggested that the key to restoring good government lies in persuading reluctant or occasional voters, along with the unregistered, to come to the polls. (This common prescription relies on the questionable assumption that those who do not vote will be better informed than those who do.)

Rushdie said he had met Donald Trump three times in his life, all well before he started on this book. The first was at a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young concert in 2000, when Rushdie’s and Trump’s parties happened to be seated next to each other. He remembers Trump dancing and shouting the lyrics to “Woodstock.” The second time, a few years later, was at the opera. Trump spotted Rushdie, extended his fingers (which were “very small,” Rushdie recalled) toward him, and shouted, “You da man!” (a popular witticism of the day). Rushdie replied by extending his own fingers and shouting, “No, you da man!” The third time was at a charity event. After hearing that Rushdie was a tennis fan, Trump offered to let the author use his box at the U.S. Open. In typical Trump fashion, he assured Rushdie that “I have the best one,” illustrating this point with his now-familiar air-pinch gesture.

Near the end of the evening, Rushdie lamented that no one memorizes poetry anymore, and at the moderator’s urging, he recited Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” start to finish, from memory. This feat earned him his loudest applause of the night. He quoted other favorite passages from authors such as David Mamet (“before he went mad,” i.e. came out as a conservative) and P. G. Wodehouse. Asked to name a classic novel that he had been unable to finish, he said Middlemarch. (One suspects that a larger fraction of Eliot readers may end up bailing on, say, Daniel Deronda, but fewer pick it up to begin with.)

What of Rushdie’s book? It’s a family saga with soap-opera elements, as sweeping and panoramic as you’d expect, but also preachy at times, and a bit too New York–centric even for someone who has spent four decades in the city. Rushdie loves invoking analogies from pop culture and classical literature and listing people and places and events and movies, American and European and Indian, to the point where the text sometimes turns into a name-check-a-Rama. If you enjoy authors of the that-reminds-me school, this book is certainly worth a look. But you can see why Rushdie was so lukewarm towards George Eliot: She just goes ahead and tells the story.

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