Salman Rushdie turns to realism with Trumpian subtext in The Golden House

The author's 12th novel begins on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration and ends as Donald Trump becomes the 2016 Republican presidential candidate

THE GOLDEN HOUSE by Salman Rushdie (Knopf Canada), 380 pages, $34.95. Rating: NNNN 

Salman Rushdie has said goodbye to magic realism, for the time being, anyway. His new novel The Golden House, the story of an aspiring filmmaker obsessed with the impossibly rich family that has just moved into his wealthy enclave, comments on pop culture, ambition and the ease with which personal values can be compromised. 

Oh, and it begins on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2008 and ends as Donald Trump becomes the 2016 Republican presidential candidate. It’s a rich area – in more ways than one – and Rushdie mines it expertly.

The aptly named Golden family has come to New York City laden with riches mysteriously gained by patriarch Nero, whose named himself after a Roman emperor – there’s no shortage of delusions of grandeur here. He has three sons: Petya, a brilliant reclusive lummox on the autism spectrum, playboy artist and activist Apu, and sensitive D, who likes to dress in women’s clothing.

Wholly fascinated, neighbour René soon insinuates himself into the Golden household. His plan? To find out how real estate tycoon Golden really made his money and the reasons he and his children say nothing about why they left wherever it is they came from. René also wants to base his first film on the family’s story. 

But before he gets too far with the project, he’s seriously compromised by Nero’s new gold-digging wife. Will the maybe dangerous Nero find out? Will René’s girlfriend and artistic collaborator learn the truth about her suddenly morally debased boyfriend? 

Rushdie lets the story unspool in elegantly rhythmic prose laced with irony and sometimes laugh-out-loud humour. And he uses the clever device of embedding into the narrative, told from René’s point of view, the script he’s developing, which embellishes the facts in ways that subtly comment on the idea of the unreliable narrator. 

All that in itself would make The Golden House a fantastic read. But there are other pleasures. 

Rushdie lays on the pop culture references almost gleefully, touching on everything from Candy Crush, David Bowie and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Kurosawa, Gloria Swanson and Spamalot. 

And his empathy for people with experiences outside his own is inspiring. In a section where Nero’s youngest son talks to a therapist about his gender issues, Rushdie reveals not only deep compassion but an awareness of marginally related events, like the (now-defunct) Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival’s controversial rejection of trans women. 

And the Trump subtext is handled so deftly, there are sections devoted to it that you’ll want to go back to more than once. I’ve already read a sequence about Trump (called The Joker by Rushdie) aloud to other people three times. It’s not that Rushdie says anything we don’t already know. It’s that he synthesizes information in ways that somehow manage to increase our already intense outrage. 

As far as this novel goes, forget about magic and appreciate Rushdie’s take on reality.

Salman Rushdie appears at the Toronto Reference Library’s Bram & Bluma Appel Salon on September 21. See listing. | @susangcole

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