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Salman Rushdie tackles our Trumpian era head-on in The Golden House

Salman Rushdie: a savage lament that’s exhilarating. Photo/Alamy

Salman Rushdie’s richly entertaining epic novel, set in New York, is laden with ironies of the era.

If a writer had invented Donald and Melania Trump, they would be cliché and bad art: the grotesque billionaire with his unbelievable hair, the inscrutable, super-glamorous wife with her airport-thriller looks. Can you not picture her with a knife in her teeth, swinging down on a silk rope in her six-inch heels and swiftly finishing off the Donald? An alternative script, a comedy, would reveal that she’s his bored and long-suffering Kremlin handler.

Crass, banal, morally bankrupt, they are the ultimate reality-TV product, and their reign colours everything. How are serious fiction writers reacting to this era of anti-intellectualism? In Salman Rushdie’s case, by treating it all as material and confronting it exuberantly, head-on.

The Golden House is a large social novel as extravagant, full of tarnished opulence, chaotic and laden with ironies as the age. It’s set in New York during Barack Obama’s presidency, when the forces that allowed Trump to prevail are gathering. Trump isn’t mentioned, but there looms a successor to Obama called The Joker, a green-haired, “cackling cartoon narcissist”.

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The central character, René, is a young film-maker who lives with his parents in the Gardens, a Greenwich Village enclave. René is casting around for subjects to film, and when a mysterious business tycoon and his sons move into a mansion across the square, he takes a keen interest.

Nero Golden has fled Mumbai and established himself under a new name. His three sons, Petronius, Apuleius and Dionysus, are a troubled trio, poignantly dysfunctional and marked by tragedy. The elder sons’ mother has been killed in a Mumbai terror attack, and the younger son has also lost his mother. Feeling lonely on arrival, Nero takes up with an inscrutable, super-glamorous Russian woman, who seduces him into marriage. Vasilisa is a supreme manipulator and sexpot, skilled in seduction, marital brinksmanship and blowjobs. Could such a male fantasy really exist? You wouldn’t have thought so, would you – until now?

As a family story, this is not subtle, not a series of quiet encounters or telling small moments or sly, oblique revelations. It’s all grand scale, gold-plated and big. The characters are lively and detailed and yet somewhat thin, at times more believable as representations than actual humans. One Golden son is autistic and agoraphobic, another is an artist and the third has gender issues that allow for an examination of identity and the tortuous ways we attempt to deal with it. Rushdie has even dreamed up the New York Museum of Identity to illustrate his point.

It’s a dense, absorbing portrayal, packed with pop culture, literary references, insider knowledge of New York, allusions to film, art, politics and all the insanity of society now. The Goldens employ a bouffanted Australian hypnotherapist whose accent Rushdie mocks in cruel, unworthy and funny passages, his terrible vowels more Kiwi than Australian. The plot is sprawling and undisciplined, but the prose is so richly entertaining, so skilful and blackly comic that he gets away with it all. Towards the end, when the cackling narcissist has triumphed, the tone intensifies to a savage lament that’s exhilarating.

“America torn in half, its defining myth of city-on-the-hill exceptionalism lying trampled in the gutters of bigotry and racial and male supremacism, Americans’ masks ripped off to reveal the Joker faces beneath.”

It’s the urgent, anguished question, after all the jokes. How on earth has America come to this?

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape, $37)

This article was first published in the September 30, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.