Is Salman Rushdie the novelist we need to capture America under Trump?

Sir Salman Rushdie in New York City, Aug. 21, 2015 (Writer Pictures via AP Images) Sir Salman Rushdie in New York City, Aug. 21, 2015 (Writer Pictures via AP Images)

“‘Anyway, God is not dead,’ he said. ‘Not in America, anyway.’” So observes a character in Salman Rushdie’s rollicking new novel, The Golden House. Wry and confidently pointed, the statement is well in keeping with two of the defining concerns of Rushdie’s career—his interest (often but not always polemical) in the abiding powers of belief and religion in the modern era, and his interest (often but not always affectionate) in the oversized influence and tumultuous nature of the United States.

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The Golden Houseby Salman Rushdie

Random House. 400p, $28.99
ISBN: 978-0399592805

For readers who are most familiar with Rushdie from his 1989 novel The Satanic Verses, that interest in religious experience is clear enough, and so too the cultural and geopolitical consequences of how he has pursued it. Less immediately obvious, however, may be Rushdie’s longtime interest in the United States, which in fact dates back to his very first novel, Grimus, a postmodern science fiction fable set in Arizona. Since then, and across a dozen novels, American characters, places and events have appeared consistently in Rushdie’s writing. This is particularly so over the past two decades, a period that coincides with his return to public life after years of living under the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, and also with his move from London to New York.

Across a dozen novels, American characters, places and events have appeared consistently in Rushdie’s writing. 

Salman Rushdie is a writer always keen to take on big, messy matters—and few are bigger or messier these days than American life at home and abroad—but he has also been consistently fascinated by something specifically American that generations have pursued: the desire and drive “to move beyond memory and roots and language and race into the land of the self-made self, which is another way of saying, America.”

Gatsby redux? This rendering of one prominent national myth comes to us from René, the narrator of Rushdie’s latest novel. He is a filmmaker living among artists and assorted eccentrics in contemporary Manhattan, and he is here riffing on the rationale for why people come to America as a way of making sense of his mysterious new neighbors, the Goldens, an aging wealthy patriarch and his three sons. From origins initially unknown (and they seem very keen on keeping it that way), the quartet take up residence in a Greenwich Village mansion down the street from René. They do so shortly after Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. The story of their strange and tragic past and equally strange and tragic present—punctuated by Nero’s decision to marry a stunning 28-year-old Russian who swiftly and successfully pursues a hostile takeover of a family life more and more defined by untimely deaths—extends forward eight years to the election of a new president, called simply “the Joker.”

Returning to a method he deployed to famous effect in his 1982 novel Midnight’s Children, set at the founding of India, Rushdie creates analogical relationships between familial and national experience, as a means of both embodying large-scale political effects and revealing the political meanings of seemingly personal pursuits. In the case of the 73-year-old self-named and violin-loving Nero Golden and his sons Petya, Apu and D, such connections have everything to do with the fusing together of ill-gotten wealth, marital and familial breakdowns and terrorism. The novel’s great appeal resides in figuring out exactly how and why this is the case, with René as our stand-in guide and knowledge-seeker. Evoking F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, René is drawn in by the mystery and wealth of the Goldens and eventually compromised by his loyalties to them, which strengthen and fray alongside his ambitions to make a movie out of their lives.

Comic Villains

Rushdie gleefully mashes up René’s efforts to learn and tell the family’s story with a telling of America’s own story over the past eight years, across the two terms of the Obama presidency and with a particular interest in the 2016 race and its outcome. Rushdie treats the latter in ways that elide clear distinctions between comedy and tragedy. This makes sense when one considers that he is tracking the rise of someone who “was, after all, a scary clown,” scary because it seemed so hard to take him seriously and yet impossible to deny his political success: “America had left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe.” As such, to convey the fullness of the national response to Trump, and Trump’s response to everything around him, Rushdie turns to comic book-style storytelling: “Zap! Pow! Bof! — Take that, you giggling loon! — Ow! Unfair! Why is everyone against me? Owww! It’s a fix! Everybody’s a liar! Only the clown tells the truth! — Blam! — Ow.”

As did Tom Wolfe with The Bonfire of the Vanities and other novels, Rushdie is here offering us a real-time take on our present moment.

As did Tom Wolfe with The Bonfire of the Vanities and other novels, Rushdie is here offering us a real-time take on our present moment (where people in New York line up for hours for “cronuts” to accompany their “home-brewed macchiato coffee”), whose sounds and sights are confusing and chaotic. Readers seeking respite from the current political situation will be more drawn to René’s exposition of the Golden family’s many secrets, to which he contributes a very important one, himself. Readers who can think of no one better situated than Salman Rushdie to make sense of how America has gone from President Obama to President Trump will naturally be more drawn to René’s reflections on the presidential race and his own viral-campaign efforts to defeat the Joker. That said, most every reader of this novel will be drawn to its wisdom and wit. A family in a bad way faces a situation that “stinks worse than a plumber’s handkerchief”; Nero’s annoying personal assistants are named Fuss and Blather; a retired Bombay detective offers Nero his services on terms that manage to be magnificently arrogant and pathologically obsequious; as Nero’s wealth insinuates itself throughout his new country, his “name was everywhere in those days, on everything from hot dogs to for-profit universities.”

An Age of Division

Chockablock jokes and fiction-making about crazy-making American life aside, Rushdie is at his finest in drawing us toward higher concerns, as when he balances the novel’s early celebrations of the self-invention made possible by coming to America with more wistful reflections about the irreducible continuities of our lives: “I did it, and here I am, and now I am seeing ghosts, because the trouble with trying to escape yourself,’” one of Nero’s sons tells René, “is that you bring yourself along for the ride.” A comic book villain wants to rule the country, the narrator observes elsewhere, and there is no Caped Crusader to take him down, because ours “is not an age of heroes.” Instead, it is an age of division and violence, one in which the question of the value of human life itself emerges as the question that matters most, both in national life and family life. Rushdie makes as much clear late in the book, with shocking presidential elections matched to shocking family revelations.

But then, with a lovely, light, punning touch, Rushdie points beyond the triumphant political and personal firestorms and nihilisms that otherwise threaten to rule this big brawny novel. “The ace of trumps was Little Vespa himself,” a four-year old boy whose parentage and prospects and historical-political moment in time are all complicated and controversial, yes. But in Rushdie’s assured handling, this child will join and, we can hope, flourish in the “great whirling movement of life.”

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