reviewed by Shane Joseph
This was one of my more enjoyable Rushdie books, similar to Shame that I read years ago, where the pomposity of narration, the digressions into classical mythology, the literary allusions—Rushdie hallmarks—were kept to a minimum while the author focussed on a rollicking good story and the central question: Can Good and Evil reside in us?
The denizens of House of Golden reminded me of the Trump family (I’m sure Rushdie didn’t mean it, did he?) on the inside; the Joker who wins the US election in 2016 is Trump on the outside (I think Rushdie definitely meant this one, including labelling Hillary as Batwoman). DC Comics’ Gotham and Metropolis both reside in New York City. The narrator, Rene, is a budding screenplay writer, and so the story is a combination of movie scenes, monologue, dialogue (with and without quotes), first person and third person narration, all wonderfully woven and easy to comprehend, making me now question the traditional form of the novel that we learned in writing school. We pan in and out of scenes as if we are wielding a movie camera: Bombay is initially “the city whose name can’t be mentioned” until we zoom into the Taj Mahal Hotel; Nero Golden, the patriarch, a throwback to a Roman emperor and now exiled in an upscale neighbourhood of New York City’s Greenwich Village, pans into an Indian billionaire who made his money in construction, hobnobbed with Bollywood starlets and laundered money for the mob. Nero’s dysfunctional adult sons (living at home with Daddy) embody all that’s wrong in America: Petya is a ADHD affected video game designer, Apu is a doomed artist living the hedonistic lifestyle, and Dionysius is gender confused and suicidal. Enter the young Russian femme fetale, Vasilia, determined to score a son off Nero, by hook, crook or proxy, and the connection with America’s First Family is complete.
I learned a lot about the movies in this book, for Rene is unable to restrain himself from bringing half a dozen movie metaphors into each scene. And The Golden House itself reminds me of The Great Gatsby crossed with The Rise & Fall of the Roman Empire. Rushdie’s insightful and inciting observations on contemporary society filter unabashedly through his characters:
a) The big bucks are in fantasy and non-fiction (when it came to films and literature).
b) “Post-factual” = “mass market and information age troll-generated.”
c) The reality check for the immigrant is “the day when he accepts that the idea of return is an illusion.”
d) “Guilty secrets make paranoids of us all” (with apologies to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, of course).
e) “Faith dies when you are praying and suddenly realize that no one is listening.”
f) Another way of looking at the elites, hated by Trump supporters: “Knowledge is not power, knowledge is beauty.”
g) Identism is the legacy of the Joker, and the reclamation of America from its super-villain is now the focus, arming oneself with love and humanity for weapons.
Rushdie’s penchant for irony is abundant: Nero the money launderer, the dhobi, receives a pile of dirty Indian clothes on his doorstep one day, heralding his doom; the construction industry that made Nero is also the one contributing to his downfall; Apu goes to India to exorcise his mother’s ghost, only to become one himself; Rene attains stardom with his film on the Goldens only to lose the people he values most in life.
Like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Rene is both observer and participant in the Golden tragedy. The storyline is more movie than novel, including the dramatic ending where the principle characters get their just deserts while others suffer random deaths at the hands of the likes of active shooters and platform pushers. I thought the obvious foreshadowing that bordered on Bollywood could have been toned down, though.
The House of Golden collapses just like Emperor Nero’s did (even fiddle music is heard during the inferno, but is not confirmed!) and I wondered whether this was Rushdie’s warning to The House of Trump? One can’t help but feel sorry for Nero Golden: for all the wealth and hubris he amassed, he also paid dearly for these transient, material gains during his life. He may have been a bastard, but he was a bastard with a conscience—good and evil did reside within him and within most of the principal actors.