America the Supervillain

Salman Rushdie’s new novel sets out to skewer our political landscape and ends up crushed by the weight of its own hyperbole.

Natalie Matthews-Ramo

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Salman Rushdie’s 13th novel is a dramatic trans-Atlantic tale that marks his swerve from magic realism to realism. While his previous novels were peopled with telepathic children, vengeful jinns, and levitating gardeners, The Golden House is tethered to terra firma. Set largely in New York, Rushdie’s home for the last two decades, the book revolves around a wealthy family of refugees who are fleeing not a war or natural disaster but their own murky past. Geography, however, cannot outrun morality, and the novel exposes the limitations of the seductive but naïve conceit that anyone can escape one’s past crimes and start afresh on foreign soil. “America’s secret identity wasn’t a superhero,” writes Rushdie. “Turns out it was a supervillain.”

The Golden House is part classic immigrant story, part on-the-nose political satire about America today. On the day of Obama’s inauguration, writes Rushdie, while “we worried that he might be murdered as he walked hand in hand with his exceptional wife among the cheering crowds … an uncrowned seventy-something king from a faraway country arrived in New York City with his three motherless sons to take possession of the palace of his exile.”

The “uncrowned seventy-something king” is Nero Julius Golden, a squat, leathery billionaire who exudes “a heavy, cheap odor,” a certain diabolical charm, and the menace of “a man who could order your execution at any moment, if you’re wearing a displeasing shirt.” His flashy mansion in a Manhattan cocoon of “liberal downtown silk” is the Golden House of the novel’s title. Our modern-day Nero is an accomplished thug who quotes Rumi, waltzes beautifully, plays tennis, ping-pong, and—his name is Nero, after all—the fiddle.

Nero’s three motherless sons have also chosen grandiose Roman aliases—Petronius, Lucius Apuleius, and Dionysius. Thankfully, like the Karamazov brothers, they have nicknames: Petya, Apu, and D. Each son is wrestling with inner demons. Petya is alcoholic, agoraphobic, and autistic. He is also a brilliant multimillionaire developer of video games and a brooding genius who can reel off staves of Don Juan and hold forth on black holes, Spinoza, male chest hair, and other arcane subjects to the wonderment of guests at his father’s Gatsby-esque soirées. Apu, the restless middle son who chases after skirts and spiritual fads, is a painter with “a technical facility as great as Dali’s.” The brothers’ dazzling attributes are scarcely surprising. Rushdie’s characters are always the ne plus ultra of their field, whether it is Fury’s Neela with her traffic-stopping beauty or The Ground Beneath Her Feet’s VTO, the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world. This Trumpian obsession with the biggest and the best is more than a little ironic given the impaling the president gets in this novel.

The story is narrated by a well-read, liberal rationalist filmmaker named René, the Nick Carraway to Nero Golden’s Gatsby. Like every other Rushdie narrator, from Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children to Umeed Merchant in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, René is a thinly disguised mouthpiece for the author. Fascinated by the Goldens’ obscene wealth and creepy secrecy, he decides to make a film about them, not knowing he will be sucked into the story in unimaginable ways.

Like Malik Solanka of Fury, who fled to America “to receive the benison of being Ellis Islanded,” the Goldens, too, have come seeking rebirth in the land of reinvention. They have Roman names, fairish skin, Oxbridge accents (Petya, like Jay Gatsby, is fond of saying “old sport”) and implausibly converse in fluent Greek and Latin (Rushdie tends to overegg his narrative pudding), but their ethnicity is a mystery. Nero has forbidden his sons from so much as uttering a word about their origins, and they live in terror of inadvertently breaking the “almost Sicilian force field of omertà. Their paranoia is more than a little absurd since René learns in no time—with a little help from the internet—that Nero is a Muslim real-estate mogul from Mumbai, India, whose wife was killed in the 2008 terrorist attack on the city. But René also instinctively guesses that there’s something deeper to the tragedy, something hidden and poisonous, and his film—and therefore the novel—is structured around that explosive secret. As the cracks grow and the hideous ghosts of Nero’s Mumbai past float toward New York, the family’s counterfeit existence begins to implode. And as the Golden family soap opera moves to its violent climax, so does America’s national soap opera in the form of a fictionalized take on the 2016 presidential election.

Though Nero Golden has many Trump-like qualities, it was clearly not enough for Rushdie to have only one Trumpian figure in his book. Trump himself is never named, but his most direct stand-in is a character called the Joker, a wealthy, narcissistic and “certifiably insane” New Yorker with “lime-green hair,” a red mouth, and—in a sinister touch—“skin white as a Klansman’s hood.” The Joker defeats his rival, the Batwoman—an incongruous moniker for Hillary Clinton—in a national election to become the improbable king of America, leaving a shocked René to lament how his country has been reduced to “phoniness, garishness, bigotry, vulgarity, violence and paranoia.”

In all three countries to which Rushdie belongs—India, the U.K. and the U.S.—nationalism and religious and racial identitarian politics are on the rise, and the bleak political vision of The Golden House reflects this ascendance. But the political thread does not intersect with the lives of the Goldens and feels tacked on, a flashy backdrop that has little to do with the plot. Moreover, the Trump-as-Joker skewering has a pantomime feel, failing to provide any insight into the reasons for Trump’s triumph and his very real appeal to large swaths of the country. In his earlier novels, Rushdie has used political satire to great effect. In Midnight’s Children, for instance, the Widow is a riff on Indira Gandhi that darkly captures her authoritarian streak, while in Shame, a young and politically driven Benazir Bhutto is deliciously lampooned as the Virgin Ironpants. The Joker lacks the mordant comic bite of these characters (and their nicknames, which is especially disappointing given Trump’s fondness for coming up with some pretty devastating monikers for his opponents).

Thematically, Rushdie covers very little new ground in The Golden House. His old ideas and tropes—hybridism, immigration, reinvention, mythology, nostalgia for Bombay, rationalism—are faithfully paraded, as are his authorial tics: the slew of allusions, the genius attributes and stilted locution of his characters, the authorial narrator, the comedic naming of minor characters. (Nero’s assistants Fuss and Blather recall the prostitutes in The Enchantress of Florence named Skeleton and Mattress.) But his move to realism is a welcome one in that it propels a lucid and cohesive plot—making the narrative of The Golden House a vast improvement on diffuse predecessors such as Fury, The Enchantress of Florence, Shalimar the Clown, and The Ground Beneath Her Feet.

In typical Rushdie fashion, there are plenty of funny lines (a Russian orthodox priest is “a beard in a tent”; a toga is “just a bedsheet with big ideas”), some runny puns (the former pope is called Ex-Benedict), and a sardonic takedown of safe spaces (where “apostate Muslims” are de-platformed because their views offend “non-apostate Muslims”). The topical transgender debate is embodied in the persona of Nero’s youngest son D, who is tormented by gender in the way that Ivan Karamazov is tormented about God. Sketched with a generous empathy, he is the brother with “the darkest darkness in him.”

Since the novel is embedded in the contemporary social, sexual, and political swirl, there is an unceasing torrent of references to pop culture, literature, history, myth, and current affairs: Hamilton, Breitbart, Gamergate, Trump’s small hands, and Black Lives Matter all get name-dropped. But in the end, this omnivorousness proves more exhausting than entertaining. Rushdie seems aware of these excesses, as René winkingly admits, “Yes, I suffer from hyperbole.”

In the end, it is René’s voluble pedantry that undercuts the novel’s emotional power. At moments of joy, grief, love, laughter, intimacy, or pain, his instinct is to reach reflexively for a grand cultural allusion. This tactic comes off as a feint to avoid exploring the messy complexities of the situation at hand. Take, for example, the scene describing the night of Nero Golden’s lavish wedding to his Russian wife, when René happens to come across the new groom on his knees in the garden, weeping and beating his chest. It is a riveting, vulnerable moment, and it leaves you wanting nothing more than to tune into this coarse man’s anguish and the remorseful words escaping his lips. Instead, René chooses to make the moment about himself and dives into a disquisition that name-checks George Clooney, James Joyce, Schopenhauer, metempsychosis, transmigration, Rosemary’s Baby, and the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. By the time he is done with Uncle Boonmee, the intimate link between the reader and the sobbing old man has been destroyed.

Sometimes, though, the moment is allowed to breathe. In stark contrast to the scene above is René’s unadorned account of the late Mrs. Golden, the spectral presence in the novel. She is described as “a small sad woman with her graying hair up in an untidy bun and the memory of self-harm in her eyes.” It’s a brief portrait but lit with pathos. Unlike her charismatic husband, who is dizzyingly compared to everyone from Gatsby and Nero to the Godfather, Frankenstein’s monster, and Nietzsche’s Übermensch, the nameless wife has only her grayness, an untidy bun, and profound despair. And yet she seems more human than all the other characters’ pomp and glitter combined.

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie. Random House.

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