Book review: The Golden House, by Salman Rushdie

If someone wanted to write a cruel parody of a Salman Rushdie novel, they might very well come up with Salman Rushdie's new novel, The Golden House. It takes every one of his tropes and tricks and twitches, adds in a healthy dose of liberal smugness, and then preens itself for good measure. I have had a great deal of suspicion about Rushdie's oeuvre since around the time of Haroun And The Sea Of Stories or The Moor's Last Sigh '“ and I write this as someone who once thrilled to his earlier work. His autobiographical book about the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini '“ Joseph Anton: A Memoir '“ had moments of brilliance, but was fundamentally hamstrung by his craven pining, his need for approval from the glitterati. This is that without the flashes of what once made him interesting.

Salman Rushdie PIC: Ben Pruchnie
Salman Rushdie PIC: Ben Pruchnie

The Golden House is narrated by René Unterlinden – or so he tells us to call him, though whether he is named that or not is only one of the novel’s swirling irrelevances. He is a New York-based film-maker, and the unfortunate orphan of Belgian academics. He is profoundly attached to “the Gardens” and becomes fascinated with their new neighbours. Nero Golden has arrived from India with his children, Petronius, Apuleius and Dionysius. These names, of course, are self-chosen, and the wealth that Nero has acquired is mired in the need for new names. I don’t care if readers think this is a spoiler but guess what – by the end Nero plays the fiddle and Rome burns. The three sons are variously an autistic games producer with agoraphobia, a flibbertigibbet artist who wows the city and steals the woman his brother loves, and a transgender charmer who can’t make up his mind what he is. Into this already toxic household comes Nero’s new wife, the glamorous Russian former gymnast Vasilisa. René thinks his masterpiece is going to be an account of the Goldens and their gilded age – Rushdie is never anything but obvious – and, of course, he becomes embroiled in their own Greek tragedy – again, signalled with something like a literary siren from the outset.

The novel has everything one would expect. Reference to Tales Of 1001 Nights? Check. Reference to The Wizard Of Oz? Check. Pop culture and high culture mish-mash? Check. The dreary narrator, being something of a film buff, litters the text with film references, to no narrative point whatsoever except to reveal he is a bore. The sentences are languorously long – one comes close to a thousand words of unspooling, which Marcel Proust can get away with but Rushdie assuredly can’t. The book frequently makes references to PG Wodehouse, as if he is the comic godparent to Rushdie himself, but Wodehouse would never allow himself the clumsiness of a sentence like this – and I could have chosen many others – “They worried about political correctness, about their colleague on TV with a twenty-year-old female student screaming abuse into her face from a distance of three inches because of a disagreement over campus journalism, their colleague in another TV show news story abused for not wanting to ban Pocahontas costumes on Halloween, their colleague forced to take a seminar’s sabbatical because he had not sufficiently defended a student’s ‘safe space’ from the intrusion of ideas that student deemed too ‘unsafe’ for her young mind to encounter…” – I shall spare the reader the rest. It goes on for the rest of the page.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Rushdie never uses one word when eleventy-twelve will do. But his verbosity, his magniloquence, his logorrhoea, his superabundance of synonyms as he might say pales into insignificance given the novel’s political problems. Poor René is rather upset that “The Joker” is campaigning for the White House, and even more upset that some people support him. Like Howard Jacobson, the outrage at a Trump victory is shrill and sour. If the novel can do anything, it can make us understand what we are not. Instead of attempting to comprehend the Trump victory, Rushdie blows a raspberry and runs away. The “Russian Wife Pulling The Strings” part of the Goldens’ narrative is equally simplistic. Yes, we are in an age of fake news and deliberate lying, but fiction ought to be stronger than this. And, by the way, satire ought to be funny. Leave it to Saturday Night Live.

In terms of all the other issues it attempts to cover, from politics to Gamergate to “identity”, the novel’s jacket flap claims it is “hitting every beat”. Banging every drum would be an alternative. Instead of analysing, it postures; instead of struggling to make sense, it slaps in another reference to Cronenberg or Campion or Coppola. If you are even considering parting with your money for this I would recommend picking the book up and trying to read pages 153-154, and if you think that is worth nearly 20 quid, then be my guest.

Rushdie was a writer I once defended and admired. Now, with his gauche name-dropping, his silly transcriptions of accents and above all his de haut en bas attitude, the book is a mere embarrassment. Rushdie has become a self-plagiarist, making a mockery of himself.

*The Golden House, by Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Cape, £18.99