From dangerously veering towards being anointed The Shah of Blah by his fans in his last few outings, Salman Rushdie is back as the master of Ocean of Notion with The Golden House. The wit is wry (“the emigre billionaire with a big stake in Silicon Valley and a wife with a big stake in silicon as well”), the word-play savage (“That’s what, Z-Company?’ ‘It’s the mafia,’ said D’), the names of characters cratylic (the secretaries Ms Fuss and Ms Blather, the gallerist is Frankie Sottovoce, the furniture seller, William Sloane Coffin), the canvas vast, the plotting taut, and the realism, well, almost magical. The story of the improbably named protagonist Nero Julius Golden is in thriller mode, almost unputdownable, complete with underworld family intrigue, femmes fatale, prodigal sons, double-crossing associates, abductions, shootouts, arson, poisoning, illegitimate children and a Shakespeare-grade denouement. At the end of it, though, there is a vague feeling of familiarity—the feeling that you know a terrain well even if you have never been there before.
The book begins with the first swearing-in of President Obama, that autumnal day when hope is in the air, when the most cynical of voters have a warm tear in their eyes. In a smart parallel between Washington DC and DC Comics, it ends with Batman villain The Joker marching over America with The Penguin, The Riddler, Double Face and Poison Ivy. Through this arc is the story of the Don Corleonesque Nero and his three sons, who suddenly land up at the ‘Gardens’ in the tony district of New York, flashing their wealth and bad taste. Nobody knows who they are or what they do. Old man Nero, part Jay Gatsby, part King Lear, has fled from his past and come to the land of dreams. His sons have chosen classical Roman names before leaving “the city that could not be named”—the eldest, Petronius or Petya, in his forties, agoraphobic and alcoholic, is brilliant and autistic; the second, Lucius Apuleius, or Apu, is flamboyant and gregarious, and an artist. The last, the much younger Dionysus or D, is not a blood brother, and he is struggling with his sexuality.
As in The Great Gatsby, the Nick Carraway figure, the chronicler and sometime participant of the Goldens’ life, is Rene Unterlinden, a budding filmmaker who wants to make his first feature on the Goldens. He becomes Nero’s confidant—the old man opens up to him about his violent past in Bombay, about how he was the Dawood-like Zamazama Alankar’s ‘dhobi’ or money launderer—and that of his new trophy wife, the stunning Russian Vasilisa, who does more than open out to Rene.
Through Rene and his girlfriend Suchitra, also a filmmaker, Rushdie is in full flow about his love of world cinema (one of the epigraphs is by Truffaut: ‘Life has a lot more imagination than we do’). When Rene meets Petya, “autism for me was not much more than Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man” and he wants to make a “Dekalog-style sequence of films” on the Goldens. “Weddings always make me think of the movies. Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate hammering on a glass wall in a church in Santa Barbara to steal Katherine Ross away from the altar. Grannies dancing in New Delhi in the rainy season in Monsoon Wedding. The ominous spilling of wine on the wedding gown in The Deer Hunter. The Bride shot in the head on her wedding day in Kill Bill: Vol 2....” This is a delight for readers who are movie buffs, but those who aren’t may be left cold.
Not just films, Rushdie expounds on Greek mythology, Roman history, Russian cuisine, French renaissance architecture, Italian mafia, Occupy Wall Street, the financial meltdown, Fanny Mae, Freddie Mac, the 2G scam, autism, LGBTQ, Ardhanarishwara, racism, radical Islam, terrorism, Biblical fables, Borsalino hats, French wines, Bombay underworld, the D-Company, New York’s history, chess, baseball, CPI (M), CPI(ML), Emergency, climate change, gun law, therapy, German Expressionism, Somali sculpture, Fitzgerald, Borges, Joyce, Dostoyevsky, Brecht, Nietzsche, Darwin, Ibsen, James, Greene, Auden, Whitman, Milton, the Bard of Avon, Ghalib, pop and rock music, jazz, opera, Aadhaar card, Bollywood, Kangana Ranaut....
Rushdie’s endings are always apocalyptic and things happen in a frenzy (no, this film is not discussed, but there is a lot of Hitchcock). Here, too, everything hurtles towards the climax, the foreboding the reader feels halfway through the book that it will all end badly, comes true. Only Rene comes out unscathed and lives to tell the Goldens’ tale.