Magazine | October 30, 2017, Issue

Sterile Cleverness

The Golden House, by Salman Rushdie (Random House, 400 pp., $28.99)

When a novel buttresses itself with not one but three A-list epigraphs (Pliny, D. H. Lawrence, Truffaut); when it opens, with references to the mortgage bubble, ISIS, and assassination fears, on the day of Obama’s inauguration; and when it bears the mythically grandiose title, “The Golden House” it has set itself a herculean feat not to be at best a letdown and at worst an embarrassment. When it borrows its template from The Great Gatsby and then, as a sop to discussion groups, mentions Jay Gatz by page twelve, it has charted a course toward the sun on wings of Kleenex. Make that Semtex.

The term for this in tragedy is “hubris,” which is the sort of thing that Salman Rushdie’s narrator, a young aspiring auteur named René (“Call me René,” he says, before trying to justify this superfluous Melvillean allusion), shouldn’t spend so much time explaining to the reader.

Rushdie’s Gatsby is a mysterious, fabulously wealthy man named Nero Golden, which is not his real name and which, here on Planet Earth if not in Rushdie’s imagination, nobody smart enough to amass fabulous wealth would ever use while trying to give his past criminal associates the slip. Nero’s fiddle, we learn on page one, is a 1745 Guadagnini violin. (Reading about Golden’s infinity-times-a-million wealth is like being trapped in a Christie’s catalogue when it’s not like being trapped in a Skymall one.) We also learn that The Golden House will end in a “large — and, metaphorically speaking, apocalyptic” — fire, and that Rushdie has never heard of a spoiler alert.

Nero has fled his home city, Mumbai, in the wake of his wife’s death in the November 2008 terrorist attacks there. Like a king in a fairy tale, as Rushdie reminds us, or a Mafia don, as the book’s heavy debt to The Godfather reminds us, Nero has three sons, Petronius, Apuleius, and Dionysus — or Petya, Apu (which bathetically recalls not the author of The Golden Ass but the convenience-store owner from The Simpsons), and D. Their names, too, are assumed, but their identities are very much their own. It is their love affairs, betrayals, breakdowns, and transformations that make up The Golden House’s most successful and affecting material.

The least successful of these sub-narratives, treating D’s gender confusion, feels as if it has been snatched from recent headlines and pressed into the service of the novel’s heaviest-handed mythological overtones.

Even less imaginative, and frankly not especially affecting, is the role of Vasilisa, a central-casting femme fatale who is diabolically bent on giving birth to a Golden child and heir. (Vasilisa is both a Greek name meaning “queen” and a character from Russian folklore; alas, in context, it just sounds like a blue-movie portmanteau of Vaseline and Lisa.) The manner in which she betrays her fabulously wealthy husband, with the assistance of our narrator, René, is in keeping with the demands of tragedy but out of step with anything the reader has learned about René’s bookish, morally anxious temperament. This may be the book’s fatal flaw.

No, the truly fatal flaw of The Golden House is René’s narrative voice. “Both my parents,” he tells the reader, “were college professors (do you note, in their son, an inherited note of the professorial?) who bought our house near the corner of Sullivan and Houston back in the Jurassic era when things were cheap.” This backstory explains the proximity of René, who has been orphaned by his parents’ car accident, to the illustrious Goldens — but it doesn’t excuse the way René sounds. One detects not a note of the professorial but a novelist whose gifts of ventriloquism are lacking, a novelist who can only sound like himself.

Of the Golden house, René tells us that it “always felt to us like a sort of beautiful fake. We murmured to one another some words of Primo Levi’s: ‘This is the most immediate fruit of exile, of uprooting: the prevalence of the unreal over the real.’” To imagine one character portentously “murmuring” a verbatim Primo Levi quotation is difficult enough; to imagine a chorus of neighbors doing so should produce snorts of derision. There is an awful lot of this stuff on offer. The book is a thicket of quotations, allusions, and name-drops, at times more of a curriculum or a crossword puzzle than a genuinely organic narrative. Perhaps Rushdie intended The Golden House as a paean to the arts and to storytelling. What has sprung from his head is, unfortunately, an interminable boast.

The novel’s most memorable attempt to deviate from this program underscores the problem. Here René imagines the car accident that took his parents’ lives and that grants his character something of a tragic dimension. His professorial parents are listening to an audiobook of Homer, of course, which allows René to wax rhapsodic about Helen “reaching up and caressing the wooden belly of the [Trojan horse] erotically as she spoke.” Then Rushdie switches his register:

Yes, maybe that immortal moment rang in their ears, when the metal pipe lying in the road just lying there metal f***ing pipe fell off some f***ing truck did the truck driver stop no he didn’t did he even know no he probably didn’t did he secure his load properly no he absolutely f***ing didn’t because there in the road the metal pipe in the HOV lane because these were my parents my beloved my only and they weren’t speedsters no sir they preferred to trundle along safely in the no entry no exit multiple occupancy sensible road use lane marked with a diamond because why who cares why but on this occasion not so f***ing safe because the metal pipe rolling

Etc. This abrupt shift to what sounds like slam poetry feels sincere neither on Rushdie’s part nor on René’s. This is doubly the case because both the novelist and the filmmaker are so preoccupied with artifice. There is no place in a novel so eager to be a well-wrought urn for this kind of fragmented, furious language. It is a reminder of how, as in some Nabokov, a surfeit of cleverness can lead to emotional sterility just at the moment when real feeling is needed most. In too much of The Golden House the characters are puzzle pieces, and puzzle pieces are usually cardboard.

That is why, in the end, the book both works and doesn’t work as a comment on the other larger-than-life but smaller-than-life character who looms over it: Donald Trump. The ascendancy of Trump — herein, with high-school-newspaper subtlety, referred to only as “The Joker” — is described in parallel with Nero Golden’s rise and fall. But the “Trump era,” as people were fond of calling it before it had even begun, is not defined in the popular imagination, as the 1980s were, primarily by widespread rapine. The two men have nothing but money in common: They are boring in different ways, Trump in his ignorance and Golden in his educated but somehow content-free pomposity. Their ambitions tell us nothing about our own.

So what? The Golden House deals not with titans but with men and women whose money can’t hide the fact that they take themselves far too seriously. Their spectacular and even pyrotechnic downfalls — the last writer who could get away with so many “everyone got run over by a truck” climaxes died in 1616 — are underwhelming because they happen to grotesques and not to people. The rich, Rushdie seems to tell us, are different from you and me — utterly and completely insufferable.

– Mr. Beck is a writer living in Hudson, N.Y.

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