â€œI am as American as April in Arizona,â€ declared Vladimir Nabokov, confounding categories and cliches.
To the bureaucratic mind, it is comforting to classify writers by nationality â€” Jane Austen is English, Anton Chekhov is Russian, Marcel Proust is French, and Emily Dickinson is American.
Although born and schooled in Bombay, Salman Rushdie is often tagged as a British writer.
After graduating from Kings College, Cambridge, he lived in Pakistan, before returning to make his home in England. Rushdie is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, but he has been living in the United States since 2000 and even served two years as president of PEN American Center. His books are variously set in India, Pakistan, Britain, Italy, Spain, Nicaragua and the United States. If Rushdie must have a label, let it be â€œcosmopolitan.â€
Although its backstory takes place in India, Rushdieâ€™s 12th novel, â€œThe Golden House,â€ is as American as January in New York.
The plot begins on Jan. 20, 2009, the day of Barack Obamaâ€™s inauguration, as Nero Golden moves into a mansion in Greenwich Village, on an exclusive block on Macdougal Street called the Gardens.
It ends with the ascendency of the 45th president, a man referred to only as â€œthe Joker.â€ If there is any doubt of his real-life model, it is dispelled when the Joker sneers: â€œI could shoot someone dead in Times Square and I wouldnâ€™t lose any votes!â€ Rushdie is coy but not craven about confronting contemporary political woe.
A seventysomething real estate tycoon, Nero portentously chose the name of the ill-fated Roman emperor for his New World identity. He might seem to have much in common with the Joker, except that, fluent in Greek and Latin, he is not uncouth and crude. He is, in fact, a sophisticated, worldly charmer.
Trailed by a sinister mystery surrounding everything, including his very nationality, he arrives with three sons and no wife, though Vasilisa Arsenyeva, a cunning young Russian golddigger, soon grabs that role. She also contrives to add a fourth son, Vespasian.
A neighbor named RenÃ© Unterlinden is beguiled by the entire Golden clan, especially its seductive, ruthless patriarch, and determines to solve the enigma of their origins.
As the narrator of the story, RenÃ© is to Nero as Nick Carroway is to Jay Gatsby. Rushdie in fact tips his hat â€” but not his hand â€” to F. Scott Fitzgeraldâ€™s classic novel when, to celebrate Halloween, one of the Golden boys dresses up as Trimalchio in Petroniusâ€™ â€œSatyricon.â€
â€œWhen I heard the plan,â€ says RenÃ©, â€œI thought of Gatsby, of course, Gatsby which Fitzgerald came close to calling Trimalchio in West Egg.â€
However, as much as that canonical American novel, Rushdieâ€™s book echoes another sibling struggle, Fyodor Dostoyevskyâ€™s â€œThe Brothers Karamazov.â€
The Golden House
By Salman Rushdie
Random House, $28.99
Like Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov, each of the Golden brothers is a distinct and disturbing personality with whom RenÃ© â€” called by Vasilisa â€œa priest confessor to this familyâ€ â€” ingratiates himself.
Petya, the oldest, is an alcoholic, agoraphobic, autistic polymath â€œcursed with multiple sensory overload.â€ Apu â€” short for Apuleius â€” is a gifted, visionary artist who is intent on devouring all that America has to offer. Much younger than his two half-brothers, D â€” for Dionysus â€” is tormented by his ambiguous gender and sexuality. He fears and fantasizes being â€œa trans woman with a penis.â€
The agonizing soul-searching that each of the characters undergoes is highlighted by the place where Dâ€™s lover, Riya, works. It is a nebulous Manhattan institution called the Museum of Identity, and it is apparently meant to exhibit somehow the various allegiances â€” racial, gender, religious, political, class â€” of contemporary Americans.
The treatment of the museum seems a bit belabored, included so that Riya can resign her job with the banal declaration: â€œI reject the politics of identity and embrace the politics of love.â€
A cinephile and professional filmmaker, RenÃ© gathers material for a theatrical feature about the disastrous House of Golden, and the fictive auteurâ€™s commentary on his screenplay, replete with directions such as â€œcutâ€ and â€œslow dissolve,â€ constitutes Rushdieâ€™s cinematic novel.
RenÃ© uses venerated films such as â€œThe Exterminating Angel,â€ â€œRear Windowâ€ and â€œThe Purple Rose of Cairoâ€ to try to make sense of what he witnesses. He is both observer of and participant in a dynastyâ€™s destruction.
â€œThe Golden Houseâ€ is another American immigrant tale of successful assimilation, in this case to a culture that is destroying itself in a paroxysm of hatred and violence â€” crazed homicidal veterans, psychopathic gangsters and maleficent politicians.
With â€œMidnightâ€™s Children,â€ Rushdie gave lasting literary form to the painful birth of India. â€œThe Golden Houseâ€ is a dirge for the American dream.
It is a Greek tragedy with Indian roots and New York coordinates. The new order in which the resplendent veneer of the Goldens is exposed as pyrite illuminates â€œa kind of radical untruth: phoniness, garishness, bigotry, vulgarity, violence, paranoia.â€
Rushdieâ€™s latest novel is a tonic addition to American â€” no, world! â€” literature.