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…
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