I don’t see what all the fuss is about.
–Attributed to Truman Capote commenting at a celebratory literary party for his friend, Harper Lee.
Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, The Golden House, set in both India and America, seems undecided on several levels. Is it an Old World story–a classic tragedy after the Greek model–or a New World story–a defiance of the Past (i.e., the Old World) for an adventure in the Present? Is it an immigrant novel? Is it a Gothic crime story about the Indian version of organized crime (Rushdie’s Evil One herein is referred to as “Don Corleone”)? King Lear visits the House of Atreus carrying a copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?
The Golden House labors on and on with an exhausting display–a narrative landscape of elaborate bogs–of encyclopedic knowledge about dozens of events, art movements, political figures and election ploys, etc. etc. as it tells the story of a criminal Indian billionaire entrepreneur, now an old man, named Nero Golden who runs from the wolfish lords of Bombay organized crime whom he needed to accommodate in his gaining of enormous wealth, an attempted escape to begin anew Over Here with his adult sons, Petya, Apu and D(ionysus) in a huge mansion somewhere in the vicinity of Greenwich Village, ending up with a beautiful gold-digging Cordelia-like Russian wife who, so to speak, conceals a sharpened dagger. And no surprise: Everything goes wrong for Nero: his three sons each die tragically in a context of Today’s issues: autism and the “spectrum”; transgender dilemmas; racist tendencies; terror-group violence; and numerous others. The narrator is René Unterlinden, a filmmaker who stops at nearly every point of the story and unleashes a Graduate Seminar on the subject at hand, often going back to ancient times. At nearly every point Rushdie can’t seem to resist dredging up reams of knowledge that only specialists might want to ponder in lonely academic research; an especially mountainous example is a huge pile of inside stuff about Bollywood. This is the curse of Old World storytellers–they find it hard to step along in the Present without creating allegorical parallels to the Overwhelming Past being repeated: Joyce’s Leopold Bloom in twentieth century Dublin in Ulysses paralleling at every point the long-ago adventures of Homer’s ancient hero; and Dante’s intricate multi-level allegory in The Divine Comedy. Needless to say, I do not place Rushdie on such levels. And needless to say, Rene, who sounds like awed film students of the Fifties endlessly analyzing Ingmar Bergman’s well-advertised excesses of symbolism, wants to film the story of the Goldens.
One especially tell-tale problem in The Golden House is the seeming absence of any sense that in today’s novel–still and ever a dramatic search for the self just as in older novels–you must come to terms with the historical discovery of natural selection, even if not explicitly. Apropos: The transgender drama Rushdie portrays in the sad story of one of Nero’s three sad sons fails on every level to invoke any idea of the randomness, the genetic happenstance, of finding oneself to be “transgender.” That the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons is a theme arising out of the Old World and remains, of course, most valid and of a sorrowful grand wisdom. But we now know of the Selfish Gene. Ian McEwan is probably the best model now for creating in novels a modern context of the tragic consequences therefrom: he has powerfully incorporated Darwin. And Gillian Flynn in Gone Girl shows a marvelous literary, not formal, sense of the modern outlook on the human identity. And neither has surrendered drama. In particular, when you think about the transgender theme, you might reason that in modern contexts–natural selection and what it may entail–it might well be treated not only without superstition let alone melodrama but with compelling realistic force in the search for the self–it becomes ironically a gripping story of that fundamental adventure we should expect to find in the best of novels.
Rushdie is a writer of enormous knowledge and experience, but perhaps here it is a disadvantage for the dramatist. I found The Golden House to be confused, bloated, slow and finally a slog. I found myself wondering what all the fuss is about.