There are no heroes in The Golden House. It is a story — mostly complicated, occasionally disorienting, ultimately tragic — of a decay ongoing and a demise foretold. It is the account of an emperor as flawed as he is self-assured: the dark past he has inhabited, the desperate choices he makes, and the ignominious end he meets.
The arrival of the eponymous Golden family in New York coincides with the inauguration of Barack Obama. The widowed sire has renamed himself Nero. From his domus aurea in downtown Manhattan that he has owned for decades but never before inhabited, Nero launches his new life in the comfort of untraceable wealth and the company of three sons. A new wife and a son follow.
Nero’s neighbors, owners and renters of prime real estate since before it became prime, confounded by the tellingly cosmopolitan and curiously imperial Goldens, invent stories about the tycoon in their midst, including about the missing Poppaea Sabina — presumably banished for betrayal of trust. But Nero is not our hero. Like the last Julio-Claudian monarch, he is ultimately a most tragic figure: an impotent philanderer, a rootless aristocrat, an emperor who is nothing more than an errand boy for the higher masters.
Manhattan is Nero’s escape; it is Mumbai part deux. Nero has committed the unspeakable and can never return whence he came. Manhattan is physically distant but redolent of the charm, the hustle, the odor of Mumbai, just another ancient, gritty, overcrowded city. Manhattan, its towers struck down, and Mumbai, its crown jewel defiled. Manhattan, with the splendor money can buy but the anonymity it can’t in Mumbai. Manhattan, where millionaires are dime a dozen and foreigners welcome if they have the address or the accent to show for it.
Nero’s progenies are equally curious: Petya, the recluse polymath destroyed by the fear he thinks he has finally overcome; Apu, the cosmopolitan artist whose naïve optimism becomes a fatal flaw; D, the androgynous mystery who has never belonged; and Vespa, the accidental sole heir to a dynasty he lays no legitimate claim to.
Perhaps the most vulgar of Rushdie’s characters is the narrator, René Unterlinden, a neighbor and an aspiring filmmaker whose script abounds in the Golden characters. “The Goldens were my story, and others could steal it” goes the twisted claim. René is the collective voyeur of our times, his shameless prying guised as artistic endeavor.
That Nero’s life would become a screenplay is poetically tragic, for it was the glitzy world of Hindi movies that had marked Nero’s entrée into the Mumbai underworld. Infatuated by the sirens of the day, Nero the realtor had been lured into helping the Mumbai crime syndicate turn black money into white. The money-laundering gig would earn Nero the epithet dhobi among the Mumbai dons, endearing and indenturing him to the bhais (cue, winks and nudges, Short Fingers and the Z-Company). What began with financing blockbusters with underworld money ended with smuggling terrorists, drugs, and explosives into the country that would kill his wife and force him to flee.
Back to René, who more than just obsesses about the Goldens — he impregnates the family, inserting himself figuratively into the daily lives of the Golden men and literally into the Russian émigré who is Nero’s wife. Perhaps it is only the wife, Vasilisa, who approximates René’s naked ambition and depravity. Vasilisa either is hostage to Baba Yaga, that fearsome figure of Slavic folklore, or is Baba Yaga herself. That makes her at once the clueless girl with big dreams who is manipulated by her darker self into scheming for the security afforded by Nero’s bottomless pockets and an astute conspirator who will lie and cheat her way to that very security.
In fact, the profusion of stereotypes in The Golden House is so copious as to be almost unremarkable. Rushdie so exploits the tired trope of grossly simplistic characterizations that even the indecent becomes acceptable. And there is a certain genius to that — the story is not Rushdie’s strong suit but the telling certainly is.
Histories of empires are misleadingly romantic, because they obscure the inglorious end for too long. The Golden story opens in Obama’s America of hope and change; by the time it ends, suspicion and hatred has enveloped everything. The dynastic decay unfolds front stage; off stage, New York transforms into Gotham — Donald Trump is the Joker and Hillary Clinton the Batwoman. Nero is not Trump, the harbinger of decay; he is decay itself. The poison tree that Nero nurtured with cunning, immorality, and criminality has borne fruit in Mumbai; the unanswered question is who watered the Trump tree in America.
THE GOLDEN HOUSE
By Salman Rushdie
380 pp. Random House. $28.99.
Sumit Poudyal is assistant editor, publishing, at the Council on Foreign Relations.