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Rushdie’s New York Bubble

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Salman Rushdie, New York City, 2005; photograph by Bruce Davidson

Whether by design, chance, or oracular divination, Salman Rushdie has managed, within a year of the 2016 election, to publish the first novel of the Trumpian Era. On purely technical merits this is an astounding achievement, the literary equivalent of Katie Ledecky lapping the Olympic field in the 1500-meter freestyle. The publishing industry still operates at an aristocratic pace; Egypt built the new Suez Canal in less time than it typically takes to convert a finished manuscript into a hardcover. As a point of comparison, the first novel to appear about September 11, Windows on the World, by the French author Frédéric Beigbeder, was not published until August 2003. Yet less than eight months into the administration, Rushdie has produced a novel that, if not explicitly about the president, is tinged a toxic shade of orange.

Trump poses a risky temptation for novelists, especially those writing amid the shit torrent of his presidency. As political journalists have discovered, the volume of revelations erupting from the White House and the presidential Twitter feed threatens to undermine the reliability of even daily news reports by the time they appear in print. It would seem masochistic to attempt to write a book about such a swiftly moving target, when events could at any time be hijacked by a new revelation of collusion with the enemy, impeachment charges, a nuclear war, a race war. In a nod to the futility of this enterprise, Rushdie uses as an epigraph a line from François Truffaut: “La vie a beaucoup plus d’imagination que nous.”

Far more perilous to a novelist, however, is the prospect of writing about a public figure whose name, in the decades before his ascension to the presidency, has carried a fixed set of cultural associations, has been a brand, a trademark, a cliché, appearing in the consciousness if not on the page in boldface type, a textual black hole that threatens to vacuum into itself any gesture toward nuance, complexity, or original thought. Rushdie parries this hazard by omitting Donald Trump’s name and distributing his signature qualities among several characters. The abstraction allows him to scrutinize in turn various aspects of the presidential character, and ours, without succumbing to the familiar catechisms of contemporary political debate.

The Golden House is not about Trump himself as much as it is about the conditions that produced him—the conditions, we can now say, with the dawning confidence of retrospect, that made him inevitable. It reads as if Rushdie sought to write a novel of a specific place (Lower Manhattan) at a singular time (the last days of the Obama administration), was overtaken by events, and concluded that the same logic that demanded his fictional narrative end in tragedy also governed our reality. The alternative is that Rushdie possesses the powers of the seer in Midnight’s Children, Shri Ramram Seth, who tells the mother of the unborn narrator that her son will have “two heads—but you shall see only one.”

The Golden House recounts the fall of the house of Nero Golden, a rich septuagenarian businessman and egoist, famous for being famous, “a man deeply in love with the idea of himself as powerful.” He is the kind of man who walks “toward closed doors without slowing down, knowing they would open for him” (for all his narrative fireworks, Rushdie is a master of isolating the behavioral tic that reveals a character). A veteran of the downtown scene of the 1970s and 1980s, Golden got his start in the construction business and trafficked in a wide range of legal and semilegal schemes, including popular entertainment, before leveraging his fame into a valuable branding operation. His name is itself another scheme, a pseudonym invented to sound as American as Jay Gatsby and to conceal a criminal past (and Indian nationality) behind a scrim of Roman imperial grandeur. He licenses it to office towers, for-profit universities, and hot dogs, the word GOLDEN written in capital letters, illuminated in gold neon. His customers don’t seem to mind that his businesses are plagued by persistent rumors of pyramid schemes, bankruptcies, and ties to organized crime.

With his three grown sons, from two women, he has a “strangely authoritarian relationship,” holding separate daily meetings with each of them in which he demands to know what their brothers are saying about him behind his back. For Golden, loyalty is “the only virtue worth caring about,” apart from strength. “Once he decides you’re a weakling,” says one of his sons, “you’re dead to him.” During the 2012 presidential election, Golden develops an obsession with national politics, supporting Romney and loathing Obama with a rage animated by racial bigotry. Nearing the end of his eighth decade, he begins to show signs of mental deterioration. Yet despite his advancing senility—or perhaps because of it—he is able to land a Soviet-bloc third wife, a former nude model, several decades his junior.

Yet Golden possesses qualities that Trump does not: introspection, historical perspective, remorse. Fiction, unlike reality, makes certain inflexible demands on its author. Chief among these is credibility. For a character to hold the attention of a reader over the course of an entire novel, he must possess some semblance of an inner self, capable of complex and contradicting emotions, fear as well as bombast, shame as well as pride. He must, that is, appear to be human.

The source of Golden’s shame and fear is a mystery that Rushdie’s narrator, a twenty-five-year-old neighbor of the Goldens named René Unterlinden, endeavors to solve. The Golden House is primarily a character study, not only of Golden but of his three sons, his viperish young wife, and René. Rushdie is too devoted a storyteller to rely entirely on characterization, however. He turns to a trio of narrative conceits to enliven the action, one for each of the novel’s three acts. In the first, we learn that René, an aspiring filmmaker with a lot of time on his hands, sees in the Goldens a subject for his début: “I felt the excitement of the young artist whose subject has arrived like a gift in the holiday mail.”

René’s cinematic ambition justifies his nosy efforts to insinuate himself into the Goldens’ cloistered lives; from his apartment’s rear window he spies on his neighbors in the common garden below. It also allows Rushdie to make frequent use of film references, to render scenes in a screenwriter’s shorthand (ending chapters with “Cut,” “Slow dissolve,” “Blackout”), and the license, when convenient, to shift promiscuously, if inconsistently, between René’s first-person narrative and an omniscient perspective.

Rushdie is a restless presence on the page, with a deep bag of tricks, and unconcerned with breaking his own rules in service of a narrative jolt. So while there are scenes written in the form of a screenplay, consistent with the premise, there are also chapters rendered as inner monologues, written and imagined correspondence, stream-of-consciousness, parables, an interrogation, and a word collage. Lest the reader’s attention flag during the expositional first act, Rushdie makes frequent asides portending juicy developments to come: “As we will see…” “Patience: I will not reveal all my secrets at once.” “By the time I’m done, much will be said, much of it horrifying.” “Many years later, when we knew everything…” “Now that everything is known…” “Now that I know the family secrets…”

One personal rule Rushdie does not break, however: the intervention of a femme fatale. Vasilisa, with her shadowy connections to the Russian petrocracy, sylphlike figure (“she is striking…astonishing…she runs marathons, and is a fine gymnast”), and calculating, Siberian affect is a descendant of Rushdie vixens like Fury’s Mila Milo (“The queen webspyder…had him in her net”); the incarnation of Padma Lakshmi that appears in the memoir Joseph Anton, “who had grand ambitions and secret plans that had nothing to do with the fulfillment of his deepest needs”; and Teresa Saca in Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, “a notorious libertine and fisher-for-rich-men” who electrocutes a lover with lightning bolts shot from her fingertips.

Vasilisa too is a sexual sorcerer with “the wisdom of the spider” who casts “the web of her words and deeds around the little fly, the old fool.” She is a fisher-for-rich-men with grand ambitions and secret plans that have nothing to do with the fulfillment of Golden’s deepest needs. Nero’s sons are not fooled. They predict she will marry their declining father and attempt to seize their inheritances. Nero is not fooled either, however. Vasilisa understands that the four Golden men are not fooled. Yet she manages to prevail nevertheless, with an unlikely assist from our compromised narrator.

Though the film René ultimately ends up making about the Golden family is a prestige drama, the novel assumes, in Part II, the narrative velocity of a telenovela. A horrific car crash is followed by an adulterous pact leading to a falsified parentage, the appearance of a male hypnotist with a blond bouffant, the first of two major acts of arson, a cameo by Werner Herzog, a sex change, a double assassination, a prison escape, a suicide, and a mass shooting, all against the backdrop of the 2016 election. In Rushdie’s comic-book parallel universe, which varies only by a degree from our own comic-book universe, “Batwoman” runs for president against a building magnate named Gary “Green” Gwynplaine, who apart from his inexplicable lime-green hair and purple coat, has much in common with Golden. The offices of Golden Enterprises are even located in Gwynplaine’s Midtown skyscraper, though Nero considers his rival a vulgarian and refuses to utter his name. Rushdie follows his character’s example. Once introduced, the villain Gwynplaine is exclusively invoked by his nickname, the Joker. (Gwynplaine is the name of the deformed hero of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, a model for Batman’s Joker.)

The novel’s final act plays out in the manner of a gangster film, with the appearance of a dandy international assassin, a crime boss known as Don Corleone, and a quartet of epitheticized heavies, one of whom is known as “Short Fingers with the orange hair.” Meanwhile, amid litanies of mass shootings and racial violence, the bitter presidential campaign endures its final anarchic convulsions. The contest is not between right and left (political parties are not named) but between morality and savagery. It is a battle for modern civilization. “I began to wonder,” writes Rushdie, “if we were moral beings at all or simply savages who defined their private bigotries as necessary ethics.”

The Joker speaks at packed, chanting arenas, where he extols “the unrivaled beauty of white skin and red lips.” He is utterly insane, that is obvious, but his supporters back him “because he was insane, not in spite of it. What would have disqualified any other candidate made him his followers’ hero.” Who cares if he is propped up by Russian oligarchs, proposes that Mexico will be forced to pay for a wall built on its border, assails the First Amendment, and opines that a hostile female reporter has blood coming out of her whatever? Not enough voters to stop him. The Suicide Squad—Two-Face, the Riddler, the Penguin, and Poison Ivy—is swept into the White House on the Joker’s purple coattails.

Yet despite the maelstrom of René’s private life and the public life of the nation, life goes on. “The Republic,” René observes in a tone of wonder, “remained more or less intact.” To a certain extent this reflects a philosophical truth. As Rushdie writes, “I know that after the storm, another storm, and then another. I know that stormy weather is the forecast forever and happy days aren’t here again.” But the note of equanimity also reflects René’s milieu, which is to say the bubble or, in the pronunciation of René’s Belgian professor father Gabe, “de bubble.”

Though “the liberal bubble” is now taken to include most major American cities, college towns, and large swathes of the coasts, Gabe Unterlinden defines his bubble more narrowly. It is a bubble within the bubble. Its geographical boundaries include only Manhattan—below 96th Street, it is implied, and perhaps even below Union Square—and, grudgingly, parts of Brooklyn. Those who live in de bubble share not only progressive political attitudes but financial prosperity. De Bubblians are the guardians of enlightenment thought. In the national contest between morality and savagery, de Bubble is morality’s headquarters, the central command.

“De point is, we like de bubble, and so do you,” René’s father tells him. “We don’t want to live in a red state, and you—you’d be done for in for example Kansas, where dey don’t believe in evolution.… So dis iss who you are…. The boy in the bubble.”

But The Golden House’s milieu is really a bubble within de bubble within the bubble. Most of the action occurs within the Macdougal-Sullivan Gardens in Greenwich Village, a hedge-lined park of maple and sycamore trees that occupies the interior of a full city block, accessible only to the inhabitants of twenty-one brick townhouses that stand along its perimeter. In Rushdie’s novel the Gardens resembles the Grand Hotel in Grand Hotel, a luxurious oasis occupied by a cosmopolitan cast of characters of ambiguous international wealth. Besides the Goldens, who have moved there from Mumbai after a family crisis, there are a pair of Sicilian aristocrats, a solitary Argentine-American, a UN diplomat from Myanmar, and the “post-Belgian” Unterlindens, their membership justified with an aside noting that they bought their townhouse “back in the Jurassic era when things were cheap.” (It is not explained why they haven’t yet sold the property, but we can guess: though they would profit by many millions of dollars, they would be forced to live outside of de bubble.)

The Macdougal-Sullivan Gardens, Rushdie neglects to note, were intended to be cheap. They were designed in 1921 by William Sloane Coffin Sr., later the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as part of a private campaign to preserve affordable homes for middle-class New Yorkers. Coffin had been alarmed that the booming real estate market had ejected artists, actors, tradesmen, and musicians into the outer boroughs and beyond. For the original tenants the communal vegetable garden was a necessity more than a pastime, and the park a protected refuge for their children, who numbered in the dozens.

New Yorkers will not be surprised by how this story ends. In June one of the Macdougal-Sullivan townhouses sold for $14 million. A few artists, actors, and musicians still live in the Gardens, but only those successful enough, and late enough in their careers, to afford it. Others, like the director Baz Luhrmann, rent (the going rate is $40,000 a month). One of the buildings belongs to Vogue’s Anna Wintour, one to the Italian director Francesco Carrozzini (son of the former editor of Italian Vogue), another to Francesco and Alba Clemente, friends of the author, to whom Rushdie dedicates The Golden House. There are fewer children, and when they play soccer it is, according to a resident quoted in a recent New York Times Fashion & Style piece, “much to the dismay of some neighbors.” The old communal garden is kept up by a private landscaping firm.

Last year a rowhouse built during the Civil War on Bleecker Street, at the northern end of the block, was demolished and replaced by the Dolce Greenwich Village, a seven-story “boutique condominium” nearly twice the height of the other buildings, with terraces overlooking the gardens, despite Wintour’s protests that it would block out the sun. The gardens themselves have become a luxury accessory, listed on Dolce’s brochures between the tanned oak hardwood floors and Caesarstone countertops. It would be difficult to find a better metaphor for what Manhattan has become.

Rushdie acknowledges that the inhabitants of the Gardens are “cocooned in liberal downtown silk,” but his sympathy with its residents is unironic, his satire never rising beyond a playful chiding. In a novel full of howling political outrage, with excursions into transgender politics, shootings of and by police officers, Black Lives Matter protests, campus battles over safe spaces and confederate monuments, Gamergate, the Internet-generated rise of conspiracy theories, and riffs on the nature of “truth” and “freedom,” Rushdie’s disinterest in New York City’s most contentious social issue—accelerating economic inequality and the forced relocation of its working and middle classes—is as conspicuous as an out-of-scale condo development blotting out the sun. He comes closest to the issue when Apu Golden, Nero’s melancholic middle son, takes a field trip to the Occupy Wall Street protest, dressing down to blend in, and marvels at the protesters costumed as Gandhi and Henry Ford. “So wonderful,” says Apu, “to see Goethe lying down among the sleeping bags, G.K. Chesterton standing in line for soup.” His sketches of the scene are exhibited at an art gallery on the Bowery.

No writer, even in a novel so heavily engaged with social issues, need weigh in on any particular subject; as Rushdie knows better than any other living novelist, the author’s only blood allegiance is to his reader. Yet amid his sharp refrains about “our age of bitterly contested realities,” “the prevalence of the unreal over the real” (a line credited to Primo Levi), and fears that a “cloud of ignorance has blinded us,” one wonders whether life among the Garden people might not impose at least a cirrus cloud of ignorance over their view of the world.

The Golden family, we are assured from the novel’s opening pages, will suffer a tragic fate. But the world that Rushdie describes—the private island parties, the Madison Avenue shopping sprees, the film festival circuit, the celebrity cameos, the fetishization of multicultural artists (a Faroese singer, a blind accordionist from Ecuador, a Somali metal sculptor), the ladies’ lunches at Sant Ambroeus, the billionaires joking about their “units” (one unit=$100 million), the publicists hired to suppress instead of generate publicity, the flawless taste in cinema and rugs, the endless downtime—is immune from real danger. This is not a political fault, but a dramatic one; it means the stakes are never especially high. Just like the Joker’s supporters, René and his neighbors live in a world in which the unreal prevails over the real. It is the same world, in fact, that created the Joker.

By the end of the novel Rushdie has traveled into the future, more than a year after the Joker’s victory. The world has not ended but René and his coterie remain in shock and grief. Their only response—their best response—to “the monstrous forces that faced us” is to live without fear, cherishing love and beauty and friendship. “Humanity,” writes Rushdie, “was the only answer to the cartoon.” This may not prove an effective campaign slogan in 2020, but it has the virtue of being true. And the novelist’s subject, after all, is humanity—the inner life, with its maddening contradictions and inadequacies. For all of The Golden House’s folkloric architecture and twinkling prose, for all its impish cartoonery and exuberant storytelling, the novel is at its heart an unsettling portrait of the state of humanity in the United States of 2017. It celebrates our meager glories and exposes our flaws, particularly our inability to see outside of our own little cocoons, whether they be constructed of silk or some coarser material.