Salman Rushdie has garaged the magic carpets and dived deep into 21st-century America, with its concerns about identity, guns, the 1% and even superheroes.
For his new book, The Golden House (Random House), the India-born, Britain-raised and America-adopted Rushdie sought to write a realistic novel focused on the contemporary moment. It’s, he says, about “what’s going on, what’s in people’s heads, what’s eating at people right now”.
Yes, that means a presidential candidate from New York, a brilliant man on the autism spectrum, and another who thinks he might become a woman. There are references to Bollywood, private islands, Jessica Chastain, people who claim Barack Obama is Muslim, and fatal shootings.
The narrator asks: “What is heroism in our time? What is villainy? How much we have forgotten, if we don’t know the answer to such questions anymore.”
The master writer has been an American citizen for less than two years. He’s one Muslim-born immigrant who can’t be deported: “I slipped in under the wire,” he says dryly, talking by phone from New York City where he lives.
His comment is followed by a laugh, but becoming a US citizen was far from a light decision: “Once you’ve made that decision, that’s who you are.” Even if, as he says, “in this time when the movies are being taken over by superheroes and supervillains, it seems as so is America”.
Despite his novel’s satirical edge and implied criticism of some current issues, at age 70, Rushdie doesn’t ignore history. And he’s more than willing to keep fighting for what he believes in and writing novels that depict people as more than cartoon cutouts.
“We live in a world in which we’re encouraged to be simple things. Literature is one of the places you can go to that shows how human nature really is.”
In fact, some of the new book’s themes are classic. References to politicians and such function as background, Rushdie says. The foreground is about a man who has taken a new identity, Nero Golden, and brought his sons to New York City to start a new life.
It will be a rather tragic story, made obvious by the fact that the father has changed his first name to that of a Roman emperor who was the last of his line (and who had his own mother executed). Rushdie says the story is realism pushed in the direction of Greek tragedy. “Operatic realism,” he says.
Instead of constant allusions to ancient gods or rulers (although there are some), Rushdie uses movies as the prominent motif, comparing one gangster to the titular figure in The Godfather (1972), a disturbed ranter to actor Klaus Kinski, and NY facades to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). A would-be president is called the Joker, of Batman fame.
Rushdie had been thinking about his Golden family for maybe a decade and finally realised they could move to New York City. The narrator who observes the mysterious Goldens (to some degree like Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby) became not a writer but a would-be filmmaker.
“I’ve been a kind of film addict all my life,” Rushdie says. “I was finally able to use some of that in the book and to play certain kinds of cinematic games with the way the book is written.”
He wanted to divert sharply from 2015’s Two Years Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights, saying he feels he’s taken his fabulist writing as far as he can, noting that he’s always been interested in modernism although he’s often placed in a “magic realism box”.
Rushdie’s literary reputation had been cemented in 1981 with Midnight’s Children, which has twice been voted as the best Man Booker prize winner of all. Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, the author became more of a household name after 1988’s The Satanic Verses, which offended Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who called for Rushdie’s assassination.
He hasn’t been in hiding for many years – during a 2002 interview he told me he lived an ordinary life and in 2009, when he was to receive the St Louis Literary Award, he said he’d rather talk about the literary content of The Satanic Verses rather than the politics around it. Yet the identity theme in his new novel may remind the reader of the years the author was known as “Joseph Anton” to security forces.
More overt, though, is one fictional character’s struggle with his gender. Rushdie says the character agonises over possible transitioning much more than two of the author’s own friends did. Although he expresses great sympathy for the issue, his book pokes a bit of fun at the confusing choice of various pronouns.
Another personal link to The Golden House is that it almost functions as his own sort of immigrant novel, a great ongoing, energising tradition in American literature.
“I’m an immigrant American too. I can bring stories from elsewhere.”
Now is a rich time for new writers in the United States, he says.
But whatever the theme or subject, Rushdie seeks space for readers to form their own conclusions:
“What the novel does best is to allow readers access to worlds which might be worlds they would not otherwise have access to, and allow them to live in that world and make up their minds what they think about it.” – St Louis Post-Dispatch/Tribune News Services