In the past year, artists of every medium have had to face the challenge of how to address, creatively, the era of Trump. One would imagine that there would be no paucity of material to work with. But the difficult question is how to package it, which angle to take, and how to make art that is both elegant and incisive out of a phenomenon whose vulgarity and appeals to the basest intellectual instincts complicates such sophisticated treatment. Even South Park, a show whose entire edifice is built on vulgarity and parody, said last February that they would avoid directly satirising Trump because the parody which was real and occupying the Oval Office was already such that no satirist could hope to improve upon it.
In Salman Rushdie’s thirteenth novel, The Golden House, published in September, Trump looms large in the background. He is imagined as a sort of grotesque comic book character named the Joker, “his hair green with luminous triumph, his skin white as a Klansman’s hood, his lips dripping with anonymous blood”, leader of a leering army of clowns and trolls who wreak havoc on the American landscape, which seems to have been turned upside down: truth is fiction, good is evil, knowledge is lies. But all of this takes place in the background. In the foreground, the novel tells the story of the Golden family, who have recently uprooted themselves from their home country, later revealed to be India, but also, it seems, from their past identities, and transplanted themselves to Obama-era New York. Here they come to inhabit a large house in Greenwich Village, which naturally comes to be known as the Golden House. The family, composed of the patriarch Nero, a construction tycoon, and his three sons, have all raided the storehouses of Greek mythology and Roman history for their new adopted names. All of them, furthermore, in a concerted effort to erase the past, refuse to speak of the country they have left and of who they may have been before coming to America. It becomes the mission of one of their neighbours in the gardens which the Golden House overlook, the aspiring young Belgian filmmaker René Unterlinden, to discover the mystifying story behind the Goldens’ transformation.
For any reader relatively well acquainted with Rushdie’s work, this latest novel treads some familiar territory. The theme of migration from East to West occupies the central position that has come to be reserved for it. The bustling plenitude and overcrowding of characters and stories that is Rushdie’s characteristic method for capturing the atmosphere of big cities within the pages of a novel is present too. But the theme that takes centre-stage in this novel is that of re-invention, transformation, or, if Kafka-fans prefer, metamorphosis. All of the members of the Golden family undergo a transformation when they come to America but one in particular is worked through and explored more extensively than the others. The subject is one that one might be forgiven for thinking it could be tricky for a septuagenarian heterosexual cis-gender male novelist of a different generation to adequately address. The youngest son, Dionysus, it emerges is transgender.
Arriving in Obama-era America where the identity wars are raging, Dionysus is positively encouraged by his girlfriend Riya, an employee at the Museum of Identity, and others to explore this rapidly expanding vista of identity, to find where within its proliferating lexicon of different word-combinations, he might accurately fit. The possibilities, it seems, are almost endless and made no easier by the highly politicised nature of every position one might adopt. It is through Dionysus’ story and his struggle to come to a clear understanding of what he is and what that might mean that Rushdie explores the gender debate that is currently raging.
A historian by training, he naturally begins his exploration of the gender-identity question with a tour of the pantheons of ancient gods and mythologies. He reminds his readers that the question of gender-identity is by no means new, but in fact is very ancient indeed. Perhaps, the reader is led to intuit, there are some lessons to be learned by considering how the subject was treated by the scribes and stories of the distant past. Despite the fact that I am no adequate judge of Rushdie’s treatment of this debate or at what level his education in the matter stands, I can say that what I found most touching about Rushdie’s attempt to deal with this difficult subject matter is his portrayal of Dionysus’ vulnerability and confusion. Coming to terms with one’s gender identity is an intensely personal process and something which cannot be decided by anybody but the individual concerned. What Dionysus’ tragic character shows is that in the midst of the identity wars, with people tugging this way and that, and with every position being fiercely politicised, this can be a very difficult thing to do.
Admiration is a poor place from which to begin a critique but I have to admit that I do admire Rushdie’s writing. The simple reason is that his work is rich with the kinds of things that readers of literary fiction like to find in a novel. His writing is filled with erudition and speckled with an abundance of allusions, from gaudy 80s Hollywood films to Hindu mythology, ancient history to modernist poetry, 60s folk music and modern linguistics. His tickling wordplay, his audacious story-telling acrobatics, and his formal hybridity all make for rather delightful and engaging literature. This novel, while still inferior in my view to his first three novels (not counting his debut Grimus which hardly anyone reads), is filled with all of the above qualities and on these grounds I would give it my recommendation.
We are on shakier grounds when it comes the novel’s treatment of modern topical issues, specifically the state of the American nation, or perhaps even the world, the question of truth in the present day, and the gender-identity debate. I cannot consider myself an expert in any of these questions but I can record my impressions as a reader of a novelist’s attempt to address them. The false equivalence of knowledge with elitism is dealt several contemptuous blows and the nobility of the truth-seeking enterprise – “knowledge is beauty” – is given welcome affirmation. Regarding the state of the nation, The Golden House makes an admirable attempt to chronicle the deviations and disjunctures that have brought America to such a perplexing state of affairs, but its diagnoses are neither revelatory nor particularly dramatic. The issue of race in Trump’s election, for example, which has been amply brought forth by writers and journalists like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Mehdi Hasan, is hardly explored. I might also have wished for more of this analytical forensic work on our recent history to have occurred in the foreground and in tandem with the plot. As it stands, the novel is composed of two tragedies, the sickness of American politics in the background, and the Golden family story in the novel’s action, and the two do not meet.
It is always challenging to attempt to understand and give an objective representation of the very recent past and the present that is still unfolding. In The Golden House, Rushdie applies the keen eye of the historian with the descriptive and imaginative powers of the magical realist novelist to present a picture of our fraught, tumultuous and confusing times. It will be left to readers present and future to judge the veracity of this image.