Salman Rushdie’s latest literary offering is a strange beast in that it is wildly entertaining as well as teeth-gnashingly frustrating. The novel opens with the enigmatic Nero Golden who moves to New York, three sons in tow who are likewise loftily named Petronius (Petya), Lucius Apuleius (Apu) and Dionysius (D), in the aftermath of a personal tragedy. The family seeks to rebuild their lives, in style of course, thanks to the ill-gotten gains of the patriarch from dubious business dealings that have not entirely been left behind in the past which he insists they escape.
A nosy parker neighbour, Rene Unterlinden—an aspiring filmmaker—who manages to get up close and personal with the Goldens wants to make something award-winning with the material he can mine from their lives. He obligingly takes the reader for a tantalising scrutiny of these fascinating, highly flawed people who are stripped right down to their bare psyches for the viewing pleasure. This is of course fittingly reflective of the voyeuristic times we live in, where it is impossible to hide.
The book begins with Obama’s inauguration and ends with the ascent of one, Rushdie scathingly refers to as the Joker, a “green-skinned red-slashed-mouthed giggler”. And yet given the incendiary material on hand, it is most disappointing that in place of an explosion, one gets a damp squib. Comparisons are odious but Rushdie was far more devastating when he took on a similarly divisive political figure in his Midnight’s Children.
As the narrative moseys along, a walking, talking cliché of a Russian Enchantress inveighs her way into Nero’s life. The stage is set for a Greek tragedy of truly epic proportions. Except the narrative is so weighed down by gassy conceits, the damn thing is almost farcical.
It doesn’t help that the narrator is the empty vessel filled with Rushdie’s always fascinating mind, sublime wit and compelling voice. A narrator who takes the scenic route via Greek mythology, Russian folklore, Oriental ghost stories, Roman history, assorted philosophy and a billion thoughts.
These thoughts careen in a hundred different directions from politics to sexual identity in order to unearth the bare bones of a meaty story that becomes almost irrelevant along the way. It admittedly makes for an entertaining ride even when there are endless detours into the inevitable self-indulgence of a maestro.
You wouldn’t have known it from the names, but the Goldens are Indian immigrants who are deeply scarred by personal loss and more on account of the heinous terror attacks that rocked their nation on November 23, 2008.
Petya struggles with his debilitating agoraphobia. But since he is a character in a Salman Rushdie literary extravaganza the man also happens to be ridiculously successful videogame maker. Apu is the artist with the towering talent and temperament to match who is most susceptible to the overtures of the ghosts spawned from the sins of the pater familias.
The youngest brother, D born to a different mother naturally has baggage of his own. In some of the book’s bravest portions, he can’t make up his mind as to the precise nature of his sexual orientation given the dizzying plenitude of choices out there, causing him to unravel slowly to devastating effect.
The poor little rich kids with their aged but always deadly Pater at the helm hurtle towards the doom that has been engineered by an act that helped spread terror leaving bloodied hands and a stained soul that cannot be cleansed. The Golden House is dark, deep and at times, delightful. Yet, it could have been more.