Is there a writer living in America today who more seamlessly blends high brow with low brow or who more prodigiously — no, make that promiscuously — infuses his novels with pop culture references, literary allusions, word play, jokes, rock lyrics, and hipster slang than Salman Rushdie? In his latest novel, “The Golden House’’ he flits from the Romans to the Beatles, from “The Odyssey’’ to Obamacare, from Sophocles to Michael Jackson, with the same ease that his protagonist, Nero Golden, moves from Bombay to New York.
Part detective novel, part social commentary, part movie-inside-a-novel, part homage to “The Great Gatsby,’’ Rushdie’s new novel opens with the optimism of Obama’s historic 2008 inauguration and ends with the flat-lining of hope after another election eight years later. It features some of Rushdie’s most direct and anguished writing, as René, the young, intellectual narrator of “The Golden House’’ faces the grim reality that, “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.”
Like Saleem Sinai, the narrator of Rushdie’s classic, “Midnight’s Children,’’ René is buffeted by large, seismic events. But where Saleem, with his improbable birth at the moment of India’s independence and his magical gifts, is a child of history, René, an aspiring film maker, is a mostly passive spectator. In this he bears more than a passing resemblance to Nick Carraway from “Gatsby.’’
In the novel’s opening scene, Barack and Michelle Obama are walking along the inaugural parade route even as mysterious millionaire Golden and his three adult sons arrive in New York to move into a home in a secluded part of Greenwich Village known as the Gardens. Their neighbor, René, the sheltered son of Belgian immigrants, soon becomes a confidant to the sons — the autistic Petya, the artistic Apu, and the sexually confused D.
As tragedy befalls the wealthy but unhappy family, René makes it his life’s work to dig into the heart of darkness at its core. The Goldens are not the “careless people” of Carraway’s biting critique, but much like his literary predecessor, René, too, gets disillusioned as he discovers their secrets and lies.
Indeed, “The Golden House’’ reads like the work of an older, more jaded novelist, and the work itself often muses on the nexus between public and personal corruptions. The real-life rise of a politician Rushdie nicknames The Joker (much as he had once called a certain Indian female politician The Widow), has clearly rattled him.
And yet, this is a recognizably Rushdie novel in its playfulness, its verbal jousting, its audacious bravado, its unapologetic erudition, and its sheer, dazzling brilliance. Brimming with manic energy, there are detours into the hawala system of money laundering in India, into the bewildering alphabet-soup of sexual identities in contemporary America, and the even more bewildering iterations of the Communist Party in India (I stopped counting after 17 breakaway parties).
One doesn’t, after all, read a Rushdie novel for the main melody line. One reads it for the improv, the riffs, the heady references to movies, to art, to other literary works. Part of the conceit of “The Golden House’’ is that René is writing his movie script even as he tells us the story of Golden’s bloody past, so that imagination and reality, fiction and fact, blend until one cannot tell the two apart. The characters of the novel are also characters in René’s movie, which forces us to examine the nature of reality itself. Add to this, Rushdie’s meditations on the rise of identity politics (one of the characters works at the Museum of Identity), the American obsession with self-invention, the workings of the Bollywood film industry, and one is left with a montage, a mish-mashed Cubist painting.
Paradoxically, the novel’s weak spot is in its recounting of the 2016 election and its aftermath. Rushdie’s journalistic narration cannot match the period’s surrealness and rather than rising to the level of myth or allegory, his reportage occasionally resembles the language of countless Facebook posts. Ultimately, the rise of The Joker does not tie in to the fall of the Goldens, so that the personal and the political remain on parallel paths.
Or, if there is a tie-in, it is merely this: “Humanity was the only answer to the cartoon. I had no plan except love. . . [T]here was only the holding of hands and slowly learning not to be afraid of the dark.”
It’s not exactly a battle cry or a road map for these dark times. But the humble, humanistic simplicity of these lines may itself be a kind of clarion call.
THE GOLDEN HOUSE
By Salman Rushdie
Random House, 400 pp., $28.99Thrity Umrigar is the author of “The Space Between Us’’ and the recent, “Everybody’s Son.’’ She lives in Cleveland.