REVIEW: Salman Rushdie's 'Golden House' is Tragedy, Odyssey, and Fairy Tale

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The Golden House

By Salman Rushdie

Random House, 380 pages

By Robert Allen Papinchak

The Golden House is Salman Rushdie’s latest tragic family saga wrapped in an odyssey of epic proportions wrapped in a fanciful fairy tale.

The first clue that this massive endeavor envelops all of these story devices is in the clever title. It encourages several interpretations. On one level it refers to both the family and the architecturally extravagant building they live in; in fact, the title is the same as the name of Nero’s palace in ancient Rome, Domus Aurea. It imagines the façade of a gilded life.

On another level it carries echoes of classical Greek and Roman drama and mythology. The cast of characters includes a wicked witch (fashioned after Baba Yaga, the supernatural being of Slavic folklore) and an evil stepmother. It even has cursory suggestions of Edgar Allan Poe’s crumbling House of Usher.

The family of the Goldens is made for America. Their story is made for Hollywood. More accurately, the Goldens are created by an America where they can be “make-believe people, frauds, reinventions, shapeshifters.”  As immigrants from India in a new land, they choose new names and new lives. They create a “secret identity” in a “palace of illusions,” a “grand Beaux-Arts building” in a private enclave of the MacDougal-Sullivan Gardens Historic District in Greenwich Village. Residents of this exclusive community share private use of rear yards combined to form communal gardens.

Another resident of the neighborhood is the narrator of the novel, Rene Underlinden. His heady ambitions and desires provide the framework and perspective towards the Goldens. The Golden House is as much his story as it is theirs. Rene’s passion is making movies. He wants to make a documentary based on his sometimes voyeuristic observations of what he perceives to be the secret history and past lives of the Goldens.

What Rene discovers is a family shrouded in the deepest secrets and the darkest lies. Nero Golden, the patriarch of the family, thinks of himself as a “powerful man.”  He has selected the name of the last of the Julio-Claudian monarchs of Rome in order to "publicly acknowledge his own madness, [his] bespoke English shoes, his way of walking toward closed doors without slowing down, knowing they would open for him; also his suspicious nature, owing to which he held daily separate meetings with his sons to ask them what their brothers were saying about him."

Golden has three sons—Petronius (Petya), Lucius Apuleius (Apu), and Dionysus (D). Like their father, each has chosen his own classical name and Golden always uses those names to identify them. Each vows to respect their father even as each seeks new and separate lives. “Brooding, damaged” Petya is autistic and agoraphobic, an “extraordinary, vulnerable, gifted, incompetent human being.” Apu is “lively, worldly .  . . a man about town,” a “romantic artist,” and an “exceptionally gifted painter, of a technical facility as great as Dali’s . . .figurative in an age of conceptualism.” And D, “whose fate would be the strangest of all,” goes by the “plain, near-anonymous single-letter nickname” as he struggles to sort out an androgynous life doubly encumbered by illegitimacy.

The lives of the father and sons intertwine with Rene’s envisioned “secret movie script” which sometimes becomes part of the novel. He sees them as perfect embodiments of the “downtown community of artists, musicians and writers.” He believes they are natural characters for his investigation of history, politics, cinema, and literature.

Rushdie litters the novel with encyclopedic references to film, books, writers, fables, and other elements of pop culture and history. Directors’ names are dropped like picture credits: Herzog, Moore, Wenders, Bunuel, Lang, Kurosawa, Godard, Bergman, Malle, Hitchcock, Ray.  Movie allusions range from The Purple Rose of Cairo to The Truman Show, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Rain Man, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Tokyo Monogatari, Orfeu negro, Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie, The Godfather, The Seventh Seal, and Pather Panchali.

As one would expect from Rushdie, this is not just gratuitous name-dropping. Each proffers an exact parallel to events in the novel. There is a “gangster movie trope,” which relates specifically to Coppola’s film. A reference to Krysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog correlates to Rene’s concept of a film dealing with “migration, transformation, fear, danger, rationalism, romanticism, sexual change, the city, cowardice, and courage; nothing less than . . . a panoramic [and] fictional portrait” of the entire neighborhood. In short, all the significant themes that the novel explores as a kind of “Operatic Realism.” Rene admits to “sublimat[ing]” his feelings “into movie references.”

Writers and poems like Homer’s Odyssey, T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Marguerite Youncenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, E. M. Forster’s The Longest Journey, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and poets Anna Ahkmatova and Walt Whitman contribute to the literary ballast.

Much of the novel hangs on the clothesline of history and politics. In America, the book opens with the 2009 presidential inauguration of Barack Obama and closes with the 2016 election of an unnamed character, identified only as “the Joker—his hair green and luminous with triumph,” a “cackling cartoon narcissist.” In India, Nero’s scandalous past with celebrity gangsters threatens his “fairyland of dreams” born in his adopted country. Questions of good and evil, ethics and morality temper Rushdie’s imaginings of both nations.

The Golden House is tailor-made for any reader looking for an extravagant, luxuriously written story of immigration and affirmation. It is a story of reinvention imbued with the caustic examination of an ill-fated family.

Robert Allen Papinchak has reviewed fiction for newspapers, magazines, and journals including the New York Times Book Review, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Seattle Times, People, the Writer, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews.