I think this kind of effort almost requires a certain amount of distance, some degree of outsider-ness, being surrounded by America while remaining aware of its perplexities. Roth got this by growing up Jewish, Rushdie gets it by immigrating as an adult. Where Roth infamously self-inserts, Rushdie's presence is more diffused and interesting. The narrator René is ethnically Belgian but was born into the Manhattan enclave The Gardens, living the majority of his entire rich life on a few city blocks. He is a filmmaker rather than a novelist, tends towards timidity, and other than his politics I suspect he shares little with the author. The novel is more focused on the Golden clan, who share Rushdie's Indian ancestry but are even further apart from (what I know of) his personality. Incredibly wealthy, infamous, connected, and dramatic, they are completely compelling and mysterious. It's remarkable just how quickly they are absorbed into this particular neighborhood, which in turn shifts slightly to accommodate them. We're constantly reminded that everyone here came from somewhere else, whether that's Italy or Africa or Myanmar or the subcontinent.
While reading this book, I eventually realized that this was the one I heard Salman Rushdie speak about last year at City Arts & Lecture. I've forgotten a lot of that evening, except for the crazy dude who bum-rushed the stage, but do remember that he spent a fair amount of time talking about the 2016 election and his perspective on it while living in New York City. He had a sinking premonition about the outcome in the weeks running up to it, partly due to an unnerving experience he had with a Sikh cabdriver who proved to be an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump. Rushdie, nonplussed, asked why the Sikh would support a man so vocally opposed to him and his culture, only to find that it was this very fact that made Trump so appealing: "Donald Trump, a straight shooter! Says what he means!" American politics has long prized style over substance, but for Rushdie it was a sign that substance had been completely abandoned, and elections would turn solely on a candidate's ability to entertain.
He also recalled his frustration when, weeks later, he joined in an Inauguration Day protest outside of Trump Tower. At first he admired the enthusiasm and vigor of the young twenty-something protestors, but when he began speaking with them he realized that not a single one of them had voted in the November election. This infuriated him, and his anger was still palpable a year later on the San Francisco stage. Especially for someone who grew up in a country that had won independence, then lost democracy during the "Emergency", suffered political assassination, and saw nations around the world experience coups and dictatorships. He eloquently and fervently spoke in defense of democracy, not a luxury that we can choose to admire when it suits us, but a hard-won advancement of the human race that must be diligently defended and exercised. Those of us who have never seriously faced the threat of a totalitarian regime are at far greater risk of discarding our freedoms than someone who has seen the alternative first-hand.
So, with all of those memories fresh in my mind, of course I was thinking a lot about the election and Trump while reading the book. And with good reason: the action begins shortly after Obama's first election, with René recalling the giddy disbelief of victory in 2008. The novel isn't primarily about politics, but as in real life those events provide much of the backdrop, and we mark time as the years go by and the turn draws closer.
Early on I thought that the patriarch, Nero Golden, was intended as a stand-in for Trump. It's especially easy to think this given the cadence of his speech, as in this utterance at one of his first parties.
I think he was using his immense capacity for bravado to stave off the inevitable. "I'm a man of reason," he informed his dinner guests on the night of Petya's meltdown. (He had a weakness for self-praising orations.) "A man of affairs. If I may say so, a great man of affairs. Believe me. Nobody knows affairs better than I do, let me tell you that."
- p. 52
On paper, there are a lot of linkages there. Both men are elderly real estate developers, with a vast array of projects across New York City and beyond. Both have ties to shady financiers and mob-affiliated associates. Golden starts out much more subtle than Trump, but after a few years in America he also yearns to have his name emblazoned in bold letters on the side of the tallest and most prestigious buildings in Manhattan. Both have a weakness for Eastern European women. Both have children from multiple marriages. Both are deeply secular, looking to the dollar as the most real and tangible marker of worth and value. Both have hazy and shallow political ideologies that started in a somewhat cosmopolitan consensus, then grew increasingly reactionary and paranoid as they devoured Fox News during the Obama presidency, and eventually coalesced into a malign misanthropy.
And yet, by the end, I'm almost completely convinced that Nero isn't intended as an analogue to Trump. The end of the book deals a lot with identity, both its importance in itself and its importance in its current perception, and the identity of a Bronx-born "billionaire" and the identity of an Indian émigré are worlds apart. Nero is certainly not a good man, but we come to learn his origins, his dreams, the rational steps that brought him to his present station. I hesitate to call him sympathetic, but I'm sure that Rushdie has far more affection for Nero than he does for Trump.
And his children are far more sympathetic than the Trump clan. Not only that, they're a lot more interesting than the wooden, hollow figures we see on television. Nero is the animating force that drives the plot, but I find myself thinking most of the three sons. Serious, brilliant, damaged Petya, who begins as a fragile manchild and devolves into a dark and obsessive incel. The outgoing, flamboyant, worldly Apu, who dons an ill-deserved political mantle and wears it convincingly for years, caring deeply about whatever he faces at the moment, then leaving it behind. And the tragic, compelling, questioning D, who just wants to be and not to become.
So, the Goldens are almost certainly not the Trumps. That said, Rushdie does, once the time come, face Trump head on, and, hoo boy, it is amazing and terrifying. I'm so grateful for the novelist's gift, to make us notice and care about the ordinary things we see each day. Living in the Upside-Down for the last two years, it can be hard to remember that this is not normal, that things used to be different. Rushdie's creative, imaginative, evocative treatment of the campaign crashes through the numb memories we hold and makes the outrage of 2016 fresh again. Apologies for the very long passage quoted here, but this is so ridiculously good that I couldn't help myself.
To step outside that enchanted - and now tragic - cocoon was to discover that America had left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe; D.C., Suchitra said, was under attack by DC. It was the year of the Joker in Gotham and beyond. The Caped Crusader was nowhere to be seen - it was not an age of heroes - but his archrival in the purple frocked coat and striped pantaloons was ubiquitous, clearly delighted to have the stage to himself and hogging the limelight with evident delight. He had seen off the Suicide Squad, his feeble competition, but he permitted a few of his inferiors to think of themselves as future members of a Joker administration. The Penguin, the Riddler, Two-Face and Poison Ivy lined up behind the Joker in packed arenas, swaying like doo-wop backing singers while their leader spoke of the unrivaled beauty of white skin and red lips to adoring audiences wearing green fright wigs and chanting in unison, Ha! Ha! Ha!
The origins of the Joker were disputed, the man himself seemed to enjoy allowing contradictory versions to fight for air space, but on one fact everyone, passionate supporters and bitter antagonists, was agreed: he was utterly and certifiably insane. What was astonishing, what made this an election year like no other, was that people backed him because he was insane, not in spite of it. What would have disqualified any other candidate made him his followers' hero. Sikh taxi drivers and rodeo cowboys, rabid alt-right blondes and black brain surgeons agreed, we love his craziness, no milquetoast euphemisms from him, he shoots straight from the hip, says whatever he fucking wants to say, robs whatever bank he's in the mood to rob, kills whoever he feels like killing, he's our guy. The black bat-knight has flown! It's a new day, and it's going to be a scream! All hail the United States of Joker! U.S.J! U.S.J.! U.S.J.!
It was a year of two bubbles. In one of those bubbles, the Joker shrieked and the laugh-track crowds laughed right on cue. In that bubble the climate was not changing and the end of the Arctic icecap was just a new real estate opportunity. In that bubble, gun murderers were exercising their constitutional rights but the parents of murdered children were un-American. In that bubble, if its inhabitants were victorious, the president of the neighboring country to the south which was sending rapists and killers to America would be forced to pay for a wall dividing the two nations to keep the killers and rapists south of the border where they belonged; and the country's enemies would be defeated instantly and overwhelmingly; and mass deportations would be a good thing; and women reporters would be seen to be unreliable because they had blood coming out of their whatevers; and the parents of dead war heroes would be revealed to be working for radical Islam; and international treaties would not have to be honored; and Russia would be a friend and that would have nothing whatsoever to do with the Russian oligarchs propping up the Joker's shady enterprises; and the meanings of things would change; multiple bankruptcies would be understood to prove great business expertise; and three and a half thousand lawsuits against you would be understood to prove business acumen; and stiffing your contractors would prove your tough-guy business attitude; and a crooked university would prove your commitment to education; and while the Second Amendment would be sacred the First would not be; so those who criticized the leader would suffer consequences; and African Americans would go along with it all because what the hell did they have to lose. In that bubble 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. In that bubble, razor-tipped playing cards were funny, and wishing you could have sex with your daughter was funny, and sarcasm was funny even when what was called sarcasm was not sarcastic, and lying was funny, and hatred was funny, and bigotry was funny, and bullying was funny, and the date was, or almost was, or might soon be, if the jokes worked out as they should, nineteen eighty-four.
[...] In Gotham we knew who the Joker was, and wanted nothing to do with him, or the daughter he lusted after, or the daughter he never mentioned, or the sons who murdered elephants and leopards for sport. "I'll take Manhattan!" the Joker screeched, hanging from the top of a skyscraper, but we laughed at him and not at his bombastic jokery, and he had to take his act on the road to places where people hadn't gotten his number yet, or, worse, knew very well what he was and loved him for it: the segment of the country that was as crazy as he. His people. Too many of them for comfort.
It was the year of the great battle between deranged fantasy and gray reality, between, on the one hand, la chose en soi, the possibly unknowable but probably existing thing in itself, the world as it was independently of what was said about it or how it was seen, the Ding an sich, to use the Kantian term - and, on the other, the cartoon character who had crossed the line between the page and the stage - a sort of illegal immigrant, I thought - whose plan was to turn the whole country, faux-hilariously, into a lurid graphic novel[...] a comic book in which elections were rigged and the media were crooked and everything you hated was a conspiracy against you, but in the end! Yay! You won, the fright wig turned into a crown, and the Joker became the King.
- p. 248-250
Isn't that something?! I'm kind of reminded of the amazing passage about the Widow in Midnight's Children, which is similarly poetic and vivid, with a compelling cadence and rhythm that draws you into the awfulness while illuminating it.
As a side note, I was brought up short by the toss-away phrase "the black bat-knight" in the above, which is intriguing if you think about it relating to Obama. It isn't a fully-developed thesis, but is still cool: Obama and Batman are similarly reserved, intelligent, responsible, and viewed by their enemies with respect and fear. Joker and Trump are, as developed at length above, unpredictable, nihilistic, selfish, cruel, and unreliable. Sigh.
I kind of like the idea that 37 years have passed between Midnight's Children and The Golden House, and in that time Salman Rushdie has moved from Marvel Comics to DC Comics. My memory of Midnight's Children is a bit hazy, but I remember the Children as being a quintessentially Marvel-esque collection of heroes, a sort of Indian X-Men who cheerfully team up to face their deadly foes. The Golden House is the darker, less humorous world of DC, and must grapple with the institutional heroes of its universe rather than growing its own.
This observation has been made many times before, but comics seem to have fully supplanted biblical and classical literature as a common cultural touchstone for a society. A hundred years ago, people of culture who had attended university would recognize the Greek or Roman names in a book and had some premonition of what those characters would do, or smile when they recognized a scene from the Old Testament played out in a modern setting. We're now a much more diverse and secular society, so those biblical allusions would go unrecognized in a post-Faulkner world; and the classics are boring and problematic, so fewer people know less of those stories. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, just that it's a transition which has been well under way for a while, which is part of why it's so interesting that The Golden House straddles the old and the new: it opens filled to the brim with classical references, Apollo and Dionysus and Rome and Nero. It's a powerful world, a wealthy world, but one that doesn't quite fit in modern America. Its value diminishes, and we segue into the new argot, the language of film and comics, the new mythology that every American is expected to know.
Everyone knows that Stan Lee has defined a common language for us, but Rushdie knows far more, and I was struck again and again by just how plugged into the zeitgeist he is. The man is a septuagenarian, and yet he writes with authority and conviction about ideas that I'm used to finding in the corners of tumblr. I was mildly shocked when Gamergate entered the story: not just a tossed-off topical reference, but conveying the horror and the vileness of that putrid misogynistic mob. Petya's aloofness in the face of this existential threat damns my perception of him more than almost any other action could have. Or there's the discussion of TERFs, which I doubt the vast majority of Americans have heard but consumes many online communities. Here, too, Rushdie shows that he knows what he's talking about, and it compellingly illuminates a character, in this case the seeking D.
I thought D's story was especially interesting and sad. I was surprised by the directions it moved in, much as Riya must have been. I absolutely love how Rushdie sticks the landing here, which does a great job at articulating some of my own thoughts around identity and labels and dogma.
The truth is that our identities are unclear to us and maybe it's better that they remain that way, that the self goes on being a jumble and a mess, contradictory and irreconcilable. [...] That should be all right. Flexibility should be all right. Love should dominate, not dogmas of the self.
- p. 297
There's enormous pressure to pick a side, to declare what you are, to claim your team and then fight for it. I'm fine with that in sports, and in politics, which are fundamentally about cooperating with a group of people to accomplish goals. But we're being asked to do that in our souls as well, to filter out the stew inside and turn it into a bisque. It should be okay just to be. What happens in an individual's body and heart should belong to them, not be held up to the world, whether for affirmation or ridicule.
There's a lot of sadness in this book, but it's a good kind of sadness, which acknowledges the real pain and loss in the world, and also reminds you that it isn't the only thing in the world. Near the end René grapples, as we all have, with the new world in which he finds himself, and discovers that he's lived here for years without realizing it.
Sometimes the bad guys win and what does one do when the world one believes in turns out to be a paper moon and a dark planet rises and says, No, I am the world. How does one live amongst one's fellow countrymen and countrywomen when you don't know which of them is numbered amongst 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 elitist 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 toward Washington, D. C., to be born.
- p. 359
What's the path forward? We can create comfort for ourselves, in our lives, in our personal relations. And we can build on that to make connections and movements and try to roll back the tide.
It had been more than a year since the Joker's conquest of American and we were all still in shock and going through the stages of grief but now we needed to come together and set love and beauty and solidarity and friendship against the monstrous forces that faced us. Humanity was the only answer to the cartoon. I had no plan except love. I hoped another plan might emerge in time but for now there was only holding each other tightly and passing strength to each other, body to body, mouth to mouth, spirit to spirit, me to you. There was only the holding of hands and slowly learning not to be afraid of the dark.
- p. 365
There's, uh, a lot of politics in this post, which is a bit misleading. Politics has been very much on my mind, in life and in art, and that aspect resonated very strongly with me, but this novel is getting at something deeper and more important. Politics is ultimately people working together and making decisions, and The Golden House is at its most beautiful when it looks at individual people making their own decisions and seeing how those ripple through a community.
I liked this book a lot. It's definitely shot up to be at least my second-favorite Rushdie novel, and by the end I was pretty sure it had dethroned Midnight's Children. It can be a hard book, and I'm not sure if I'll want to revisit it any time soon, but these characters will linger in my memory for a very, very long time.