To New York, in the opening days of the Obama presidency, from a country that for some reason cannot be named but is clearly India, in conditions of considerable secrecy, come the Golden clan. Their number is initially set at four: ageing but sappy potentate Nero (‘he exuded a heavy, cheap odour, the unmistakable smell of crass, despotic danger’); stolid eldest son, Petronius (Petya); sibling Apuleius (Apu); and a much younger half-brother, Dionysius (D), the product of an indiscreet liaison between Nero and a woman who can’t be named either. The original Mrs Golden died in the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008. The classical reimaginings are gamely kept up, to the point where Nero can sometimes be found serenading himself with an antique violin.
Over the Goldens, who immediately establish themselves in a plush Manhattan mansion, hang well-nigh fathomless clouds of mystery. To Nero’s no doubt shady past and the no doubt even shadier nature of his income can be added drink-sodden agoraphobic Petya’s near-permanent sequestration in the bedroom, where he sits devising computer games, Apu’s newfound life as a radical artist and Occupy Movement hanger-on, and Lower East Side girls’ club volunteer and gender-conflicted D’s struggles with his sexuality. The fifth member of the clan is flint-eyed Russian uber-babe Vasilisa, unexpectedly promoted from mistress to wife on the strength of her command of ‘a wordless language only men can understand’.
All this is punctiliously observed by Nero’s young friend René, an aspiring film-maker who lives nearby with his elderly Belgian parents. It would be wrong to mark him down as The Golden House’s raisonneur in the strict, Somerset Maugham sense of the term, as someone who sits demurely on the halfway line commenting and analysing as the game whizzes by, for the longer the novel goes on the greater is his imbrication in it. René, sounding board, drinking chum and late-night confidant, is up to the neck in the Goldens’ affairs, and never more so than when Vasilisa, having got round a prenup agreement that there shall be no offspring, but alarmed by her husband’s inability to clinch the deal, presses him into service (‘I can be a little bit of a naughty girl,’ she confides) as a hands-on sperm donor.
It will scarcely need saying by this point – no more than a quarter of the way through a very long novel – that René’s interest in the Goldens is professional as much as personal (‘these were people worth spying on,’ he reflects) and that the life of the big house is being continuously cannibalised for a screenplay. For here we are, once again, in Rushdie-land, a world that has been periodically opening its doors to the impressionable reader since Midnight’s Children scooped the Booker Prize all of thirty-six years ago (even longer if you count Grimus, an apprentice effort from 1975), that brightly burnished fakir’s bazaar where stories run riot on all sides, where horizon-hugging baroque alternates with finicking close-up rococo, and where the grandeur of the concept is very often compromised by a sense of the effort put into its creation.
In this, Rushdie’s fourteenth piece of fiction, the reader’s appreciation of all that inimitable Rushdie-semaphore will doubtless be sharpened by the thought that there is a second narrative going on, taking in the parlous state of modern America. And so the Goldens’ much-heralded decline, the old man’s incremental crack-up, the three urns of funeral ash that accumulate on his desktop, the birth of an infant named Vespasian and disquieting news from back home alternate with bleak intimations of a nation given over to ‘bitterly contested realities’ and the rise of a presidential candidate known as ‘the Joker’, whose lies and evasions the propaganda films of René’s girlfriend, Suchitra, aim to expose.
The odd thing about the constant attacks on the Tea Party, shock jocks, alternative facts, ‘phoniness, garishness, bigotry, vulgarity, violence, paranoia’ and all the rest of it is how unmediated they seem, and how extraneous to the main show they are – a case of Rushdie grafting his irritation with the Donald and all the smaller fry that sizzle in his slipstream onto an edifice that, despite one or two parallels with Nero’s Mumbai, would probably survive without it. I was particularly struck, for example, by a page or so (some of the digressions really do digress) on the tendency to blame ‘elites’ for the world’s current problems, not because the sentiments expressed are at all original, but because something horribly like them appears in Hanif Kureishi’s recent novel The Nothing.
Meanwhile, the Goldens’ past catches up with them and the last desperate strains of Nero’s 1745 Guadagnini can be heard over the burning rooftops, though there’s an unexpected happy ending for René and his son. But the novel’s real merits lie elsewhere. Rushdie is, as ever, excellent in conveying bitter, personal anger (as when René tries to get to grips with his parents’ unnecessary deaths). The stealthily hilarious (and potentially tragic) scene in which D discusses his gender difficulties with a therapist offers a hint of what Rushdie could have done to Trump with a scalpel instead of carving him up with a chopper. You can’t help thinking that the most effective books about the Trump presidency will be written many years from now, be set miles away from New York, and not so much as refer to him either by name or by alias.