BookBrowse Reviews The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

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The Golden House

A Novel

by Salman Rushdie

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie X
The Golden House by Salman Rushdie
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Sep 2017, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2018, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Matt Grant

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In a new world order of alternative truths, Salman Rushdie's uncannily prescient novel is about identity, truth, terror and lies.

Early on in Salman Rushdie's sprawling 13th novel, The Golden House, the book's eponymous anti-hero Nero Golden arrives in the United States with his three sons. Nero forcefully instructs them to keep their origins a secret. When his youngest asks what they should tell people instead, Nero becomes enraged. "Tell them we were born yesterday," he says. "Tell them we materialized by magic, or arrived from the neighborhood of Alpha Centauri in a spaceship hidden in a comet's tail. Say we are from nowhere or anywhere or somewhere, we are make-believe people, frauds, reinventions, shapeshifters, which is to say, Americans."

The remark is a punch in the gut for anyone who still holds delusions about the idealism of the American Dream in the age of Donald Trump. The Goldens come to America not so much for the promise of a better life, but for the promise that they can become anyone they want and get away with it. It's the first of many such diatribes over the course of 400+ pages, as Rushdie's colorful characters explore questions of American identity in the 21st century.

It all starts in 2008, on the day of Barack Obama's inauguration, when Nero, an "uncrowned seventy-something king from a faraway country," lands on America's shores to escape a painful and secretive past. He's accompanied by three troubled and troublesome sons: the autistic Petya, who mostly locks himself in his own room with drink and video games; the playboy Apu, who spends his time chasing girls and enjoys torturing his older brother, and their half-brother Dionysus, an indiscretion from Nero's past, who is starting to question his gender identity.

When Nero meets the cunning and seductive Vasilisa Arsenyeva and brings her into their house on Macdougal Street in New York City, his sons worry about her influence on the old man. But the Golden men are too preoccupied trying to make new lives for themselves in a country slowly spiraling out of control. All of this is told through the eyes of young filmmaker René Unterlinden, the Goldens' neighbor and confidante. René finds the family fascinating and wishes to make them the subject of his first film. But soon enough, René's fate becomes tied to the Goldens' in ways he couldn't expect.

Rushdie, perhaps best known for 1988's The Satanic Verses, which earned him both a Whitbread Award and a fatwa calling for his death from the Ayatollah of Iran, is no stranger to controversy. Here again he shows an unapologetic willingness to shock and agitate. In The Golden House, Rushdie's target is an entire country of over 300 million people, and specifically the bizarre moment of history in which we find ourselves. The events of the novel are firmly rooted in the last decade, with stories like the housing market collapse, the shooting deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers, and the 2016 election all playing out behind the scenes of the Goldens' entanglements. Rushdie is at his most comfortable and gleeful when taking aim at the current Commander-in-Chief, referring only to Trump as "The Joker:" "The Joker himself screaming into a mirror, the molester screaming about molestation, the propagandist accusing the whole world of propaganda, the bully whining about being ganged up on…America's sanity at war with its dementedness."

His characters are exquisitely rendered and his prose is magnificent as he tackles themes no less than the nature of good and evil: "Is it possible for evil to coexist with goodness and if so do those terms mean anything anymore when they are pushed into such an uncomfortable and perhaps irreconcilable alliance?" Unfortunately, such passages are also where Rushdie often becomes completely derailed. If The Golden House has one fatal flaw, it's that it's about 200 pages too long. Rushdie is a man at the full height of his powers as a storyteller, who often comes across as more comfortable on a soapbox than in the narrator's chair.

Even so, I couldn't stop thinking about The Golden House. At its heart, it's a family saga mixed with some good old-fashioned crime drama and intrigue. For anyone watching the news in despair (and how can you not?) and wondering how we got to this moment in our history and where we go from here, it's worth checking out.

Reviewed by Matt Grant

This review was originally published in September 2017, and has been updated for the June 2018 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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