One of the many surprises of Salman Rushdie’s beguiling 14th work of fiction, The Golden House, is that it marks his return to realism.
“My previous novel [Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (2015)] had been so elaborately fabulist that I thought I had probably pushed that stuff as far as it can go. So the idea was to go in a completely different direction,” Rushdie explains during a call to his home not far from New York City’s Gramercy Park.
Rushdie, who turned 70 in June, has lived in New York for more than 20 years. Since his divorce from television personality Padma Lakshmi in 2007, he has lived alone. His two adult sons live in London, where Rushdie spent much of his early career, and he sees them frequently. He describes his in-home writing studio, where he is taking the call from BookPage, as having floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a working but fragile Remington Rand typewriter (he actually writes in notebooks and on a computer), a very old photograph of the house where he grew up in Bombay and a window that looks out on “big New York trees.”
It was not only the desire to move in a new direction that led Rushdie to a realistic approach to the novel, it was the material itself—the story of the violent, tragic demise of the Golden family, headed by the mysterious, aging patriarch Nero Golden.
“There’s a place for flying carpets,” Rushdie says, laughing, “but, I thought, not in this book. Very often what happens is that I’ll get a kernel of an idea; bits and pieces of a storyline will sit with me for quite a long time. The more I understood Nero’s history and his world, the more I thought this just needs to be told straight.”
Realism, Rushdie notes, is a “broad church,” big enough to include at one end the abstemious prose of Raymond Carver and at the other end the lyricism of James Joyce. In this novel, Rushdie’s own realistic pew seems to be situated in a stylistically inventive aisle where satire and tragedy sit arm in arm.
The action of the novel mostly unfolds in the MacDougal-Sullivan Gardens, a place Rushdie describes as “a private, magic little place in the middle of downtown New York.” The houses around the Gardens share an open, communal backyard. “There is something wonderfully theatrical about it as a kind of stage for the action. It has a pleasingly Rear Window echo, where everybody could look out at everybody else’s lives.”
Rushdie’s reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic is hardly casual, as his passion for film is well-known. As a young man he reportedly seriously considered a career in the movies before determining to become a novelist. And he did write the screenplay for the movie of his Booker Prize-winning novel, Midnight’s Children.
In The Golden House, the narrator is René Unterlinden, a young filmmaker and a resident of the Gardens. René decides to make the Goldens the subject of a documentary and becomes dangerously close to Nero, his three sons—Petronius, Apuleius and Dionysus—and to Nero’s second wife, Vasilisa, a young, calculatingly ambitious Russian émigré, whose entry into the household is a catalyst for the tragic events that ensue.
“The story of New York is the story of . . . people coming from elsewhere, and I thought that’s a story that I can tell.”
“The moment I realized that René was going to be a young filmmaker, that released me into a whole lot of stuff that I am pleased to get into the book,” Rushdie says. “The fiddling around with form and allowing bits of it to shape into little screenplays, for example. It’s the first time in my fiction that I found a way of doing that. When I was first thinking about the book, I thought René would just be a kind of I Am a Camera point of view. But he gradually became more and more central to the story. In a strange way it became as much his book as the Goldens’.”
Readers of Rushdie’s other novels know how stylistically playful he can be and how wide the range of knowledge and references he incorporates into the subflooring of his novels. Here, in addition to film references, he manages to work in literature (of course!), popular and classical music, art, identity politics and ancient Roman history.
“I’m afraid this is just the way my mind works. This is just the garbage in my head,” he says, laughing. “It comes out like this because it’s me doing the writing. But I actually do have a lifelong interest in ancient Rome. Certainly not now, but at better moments in America’s recent past, New York has felt like a kind of incarnation of Rome.”
Rushdie, who has spent his life in three gigantic metropolises—Bombay, London and New York—clearly loves the city where he now lives. He became a United States citizen and voted in his first presidential election in 2016. He talks about his pleasure in walking widely in Manhattan. The New York he portrays in The Golden House is a city of immigrants. “People who are born-and-raised New Yorkers are very proud of the fact. And rightly so,” he says. “That’s the kind of New York novel that is not mine to write. But I know that most of us who live here were not born here. So much of the story of New York is the story of arrival, the story of people coming from elsewhere, and I thought that’s a story that I can tell. This was a very, very deliberate attempt to write a sort of immigrant novel of New York.”
Rushdie says one of the biggest risks he took in writing the novel was to place the action at a contemporaneous moment in American life. “The physical background is the Gardens, but the social background is America in these last eight years or so. There is something aesthetically, formally satisfying to move from a moment of optimism and hope of eight years ago to a moment that seems to me the very opposite. And there is something dangerous about writing very close to the contemporary moment. If you get it right, it gives people a kind of recognition that yes, the world is like that now.”
The contemporary world—at least, the contemporary social/political world Rushdie satirically portrays—is cartoonish. Contrasted with the sonorous tragedy of the Goldens is the buffoonery of national politics. Rushdie writes of Hillary Clinton as a Batwoman character and Donald Trump as a green-haired cackler—the Joker.
“What I was trying to say is that there’s a deterioration. Many people have talked about the reality show aspect of our current politics. I see that. And I also see that the movies have been taken over by cartoons, by Marvel and Dell. It struck me that one way to describe what is going on is to say that America has succumbed to a comic book vision of itself.”
Rushdie continues: “One thing that I think anyone who is a reader of fiction knows is that human nature is complex. Human nature is not homogeneous. It’s heterogeneous and contains many contradictory, even irreconcilable, elements. In that way, the more broadly we understand human nature, the easier it is to find common ground with other people.”
Asked then about a recurrent question in the novel—can people be both good and bad at the same time?—Rushdie says, “The obvious answer is yes. Most of us do things which at some point people in our lives would describe as bad things to have done. And many of us do things that people will see as good things to have done. We’re all broken and confused and contradictory. This ought to be a no-brainer. But we live in a cartoon universe. I quite openly wanted to reopen the subject about the complexity of human nature. People are not cartoons.”
Author photo credit © Randall Slavin.