Writer Salman Rushdie on playing his Trump card in new novel

by James Robins / 30 September, 2017
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Salman Rushdie: “America had left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe.” Photo/Getty Images

Salman Rushdie talks about his new novel, which riffs on the rise of Donald Trump, while pondering identity politics, life in New York and the movies. 

“Every so often,” Salman Rushdie says with laconic precision down the line to the Listener, “I seem to want to press my nose up against the window of the exact present moment and see if I can somehow capture it …”

Thus, Rushdie’s new novel, The Golden House, is a social fantasia of tragic ironies and ironic tragedies that spans the past eight years. It begins in 2009, on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, “when we worried that he might be murdered as he walked hand in hand with his exceptional wife among the cheering crowds”, as the opening lines go.

René, a twentysomething film-maker, observes an enigmatic family move into his wealthy Greenwich Village neighbourhood. They are the Goldens, an émigré clan who flaunt their obscene wealth but keep dark secrets well hidden in the false bottoms of suitcases.

Patriarch Nero Golden holds sway, sweating the odour of a mafioso, “the unmistakable smell of crass, despotic danger”.

Such a character has been in the back of Rushdie’s mind for years now. So have Nero’s sons, who’ve picked up Roman tags to hide their origins: Petronius (Petya), damaged, alcoholic, a savant; Apuleius (Apu), opportunistic, a painter; Dionysus (simply “D”), tender but stretched out on the rack of a contested identity.

René, fancying himself as the Nick Carraway to Nero’s Gatsby, or perhaps Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, enters the family’s orbit so that he can make a film about their outsized lives. And as he gets close to their dark core, the Goldens’ unravelling parallels the unravelling of a nation.

Events of recent cultural and political history echo through the novel: Occupy Wall Street, video games, mass shootings, the rise of acronymised gender identities, contested campuses.

Having René as a camera on this world “liberated” Rushdie to use “certain technical possibilities” to “bring a lifetime of movies into the novel”. The Golden House is littered with thematic jokes and metaphors, references to an endless programme: Mars Attacks!, Pierrot le Fou, The Exterminating Angel, The Princess Bride, The Purple Rose of Cairo.

The text itself reads like a script, at times: “CUT”. “FLASHBACK”. “CIRCULAR WIPE”. “WIDE SHOT. MANHATTAN STREET. NIGHT.”

How dull things might have been if René had only been a writer. Rushdie explains that as he conceived the book, René was going to be just that. “But that was the most boring idea. He could be anything other than a writer. He could be a tax accountant.” He sniggers and pauses. “He could be a dentist.”

Rushdie has an endearing habit when he offers something amusing. He lets out a slight, apprehensive giggle before pausing to judge the depth of your reaction. Only then, when he’s sure the witticism has tickled you, does he let forth a guffaw. He makes you complicit in his humour.

There was a time when he didn’t laugh as much. For a decade, going outside involved men with handguns and armoured limousines. This was, as his departed friend Christopher Hitchens once described it, the “simultaneous life sentence and death sentence” of Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa that marked Rushdie as a wanted man for a perceived insult to Islam contained in The Satanic Verses, his fourth novel.

Even a few years ago, interviews were negotiated through a web of non-disclosure agreements. Today, he merely answers the phone in his New York home with a chirpy “Hello”.  No cone of silence required.

He documented the fatwa years in Joseph Anton, a memoir named for the alias he adopted, a way to clear out the clutter. He has since returned to his rightful place.

The most offensive thing that anyone has said about him recently was that he’s a “veteran novelist”. On reading that in a British newspaper, the 70-year-old bridled. “That was a shock … There’s a slight hint of the gold watch: ‘Here’s your watch, now f--- off.’”

But to where? Rushdie has never been part of any establishment. “I’m not a very good joiner of establishments. I like the Groucho Marx position of not wanting to belong to clubs that would have me as a member.” Nor does he really have a homeland to return to. He once wrote that “our identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures; at other times that we fall between two stools.”

Those stools represent India, where he was born and raised in a liberal Muslim family, and England, the land of Shakespeare and of the former coloniser, which gifted him a language he made his own. His works, including the much-loved Midnight’s Children (1981), to Shame (1983), The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) and Fury (2001), use supple, musical, playful language. As if we needed reminding, Midnight’s Children also won the Best of the Booker prize in 2008, and the Booker of Bookers in 1993, to boot.

Now, “I’ve got three stools,” he says – Bombay, London and New York, where he has lived for the past 20 years. “These three huge metropolises have been the big places in my life. You grow up in Bombay and already you have a sense of a kind of global culture. And that very much continued with my life in London, which is also a very cosmopolitan, very diverse city, and New York even more so. You see stories from everywhere on Earth. In that sense, I’ve always been shaped as a writer by my experiences in big cities. I think that’s the easiest way to get an idea of what I’ve done, this urban metropolitanism. All of those places contribute equally to it.”

The novelist has seen crises before. Indira Gandhi’s period of emergency rule in 1975-77 formed part of the backbone to Midnight’s Children. But his adoptive country has been properly torn asunder. Inevitably, The Golden House has to confront Donald Trump.

Rather than name him, or cast him as a character, Rushdie, cleverly superimposed the present Hollywood obsession with superheroes onto the hysterical campaign. He writes the Republican candidate as The Joker in green and purple, swinging from skyscrapers, inciting his doting followers to misdeeds. Ha! Ha! Ha! The supervillain’s white face paint cracks as he cackles. “America had left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe.” Ha! Ha! Ha!

There’s a touch of despair in the novel. The Joker defies not just conventional morals and norms, but even the idea of reality itself. “Why even try to understand the human condition if humanity revealed itself as grotesque, dark, not worth it?”

 “What was the point of poetry, cinema, art? Let goodness wither on the vine. Let paradise be lost. The America I loved, gone with the wind.”

Down the line, too, Rushdie laments the balefulness of a nation transformed. Outside his window, “It’s absolutely surreal and bizarre,” he observes. “Every day brings with it new horrors and every time you think that it can’t sink any lower, they sink lower. And it’s a bizarre, incredible world to be in, and very hard not to be overwhelmed, very hard to know what to do about it.” But he does have an optimistic, resilient response.

“Maybe this is the place where there is a role for art. I usually resist the idea that art has a utilitarian function, but I do think that in the kind of cultural crisis this country is in, the thing that the arts can do is remind people that there is such a thing as truth and there is such a thing as beauty, and human nature is like this, not like that. My argument has been that what we have to do is simply go on telling our stories, go on creating beautiful things, and remind people of the beauty of the world and let that be the way the literary world offers a contrast to what’s happening in the country.”

THE GOLDEN HOUSE, by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape, $37)

This article was first published in the September 23, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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