If I were younger, I would be all over this book. If I were slightly older than that, but still younger, then I would probably sneer at this book’s pretentiousness. As it is, having advanced to the ripe old age of 28, I have now acquired enough wisdom neither to gush nor to sneer but simply to shrug. The Golden House is most definitely Salman Rushdie, but it’s also a little bit different. And perhaps one of the marks of a great writer isn’t just the quality of their books but whether or not they are willing to experiment with their style.
Réne Unterlinden is an aspiring filmmaker. He befriends his neighbours, the Goldens, expatriates from an unknown country. The patriarch, Nero Golden, has an imperial presence that would make politicians squirm, and each of this three sons has their own unique hang-ups and personalities. Réne watches it all, takes it all in, taking notes for his eventual film about this enigmatic family. Unfortunately, he also finds himself drawn into their drama, so that the subject becomes a character in his own story….
The somewhat embarrassingly ingratiating jacket copy calls this Rushdie’s “triumphant return to realism”, but I disagree. The Golden House might not be magical realism (aka fantasy) in the same sense as Midnight’s Children or many of Rushdie’s other novels. However, to label it realism in the strictest sense indicates that the marketing department in charge of this book just missed the point. This book is a mirror to the present-day situation in the United States, and it achieves that through a healthy dose of surrealism. This is a modern-day fairy tale.
The surrealist elements of the story actually work well for me. I almost see this as a Wes Anderson kind of film, with characters who are more caricature than people. Rushdie explicitly sets them up this way, with our narrator dressing them up in pseudonyms and assigning them roles as he plans to turn their stories into a film of his very own. These aren’t people. They’re plot points, and the fact that they are plot points is the point.
Réne is totally an unreliable narrator too. I wonder how much of what we see or hear is made up or embellished. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s unhinged, but I definitely get the impression that Réne, in his retelling of the events to us, has started mixing his film with reality. And, of course, that brings us to the whole postmodern question at the centre of this book: who are people, really, except the stories we tell about ourselves and each other?
Unlike my last foray into Rushdie, with the beautiful-but-redundant Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, The Golden House didn’t leave me feeling like I’ve seen this all before. I admit that the last part of the book really dragged for me: Rushdie spends a lot of time following Réne down these rabbit holes of backstory, and at some point I was just ready to call it quits. Nevertheless, I stuck it out … and it was mostly worth it.
There is some interesting commentary here on how we perceive the lives of others, particularly those we call the rich and powerful. There’s some commentary here on taking responsibility for one’s own actions (see how Réne deals with the situation he creates with Vasilisa). For all of the caricaturization happening, at the end of the day, characters like Nero are the ones who seem most real, most human in this book—perhaps because they are the most flawed. Is Nero Golden a mobster at heart? Or is he an exiled emperor? A disgraced kingpin? A dolorous yet doting father? A jealous husband? Is he all of these things? None of them? Same goes for Vasilisa, or any of Nero’s children, or Réne himself. Each of them is all just a story, packaged and presented to us by Réne, and Rushdie goes out of his way to point this out to us. He draws the reader in and reminds us that characterization is a fragile form of narrative. We see this, too, in the events that play out in the background, the constant references to American politics, to Donald Trump (the Joker) running against Hillary Clinton (Batwoman).
The Golden House feels very topical because of how it was written, but the truth is that this is a story that could be told anywhere, of any time. I suspect it will endure long after the current political climate has faded. I really like how Rushdie experiments in this book, even if there are times when that experiment feels too drawn out or errs towards the side of pretentious.