Leave it to Salman Rushdie to set a story about a fall from a state of grace in an Edenic garden in Manhattan.
Rushdie's often enthralling novels — Midnight's Children, The Satanic Verses, The Moor's Last Sigh and many more — are set vividly in the real world, yet unfold into dimensions of myth, fairy tale and magic, drawn from sources that range from classical Rome to Bollywood movies and American comics. He's obsessed with the transformative power of storytelling, the potential for narrative not just to record the world but to shape and transform it.
The central character in The Golden House, Rushdie's 13th novel, is René Unterlinden, a first-person narrator in the Nick Carraway mold (and Rushdie will drop plenty of other reminders of The Great Gatsby, that resonant myth of the American tradition of reinventing the self).
René has lived all his life in an idyllic Greenwich Village enclave called the Macdougal-Sullivan Gardens Historic District. It's a real New York place — in the 1920s, back-to-back rows of townhouses on one block of Macdougal and Sullivan streets were remodeled in Colonial Revival style, and their backyards were joined into a single private garden space shared by the homes' owners. In Rushdie's hands, that actual place becomes a magical one, a setting for intrigue and tragedy.
Today, those homes sell for prices in the millions, but René tells us that his college-professor parents "bought our house near the corner of Sullivan and Houston back in the Jurassic era when things were cheap." His parents, both Belgian immigrants, live intellectual but adventurous lives and dote on each other and their only son.
René is dawdling away his early adulthood, hoping to become a filmmaker but not yet gripped by passion for a particular project. "I was trying to make a fictional portrait of my neighborhood," he tells us, "but it was a story without a driving force. ... And then the Goldens arrived and they were my flying saucer, my engine, my bomb."
On the day of Barack Obama's inauguration, the Golden family moves into a mansion at the Gardens that has stood empty for years. The father and three adult sons are clearly not American, but they do not speak of where they are from or why they have come to the Gardens. (Rushdie reveals fairly quickly that they are from his own hometown, Mumbai, and that they left there after the terrorist bombings in 2008, in which a family member died. However, oceans more will be revealed.)
Golden, of course, is not their real name. When they came to America, the family adopted it and chose first names from classical Rome and Greece: Nero for the father, and for the sons Petronius, Lucius Apuleius and Dionysus — or, as they come to be known, Petya, Apu and D.
Petya is brilliant but has agoraphobia and Asperger's syndrome. Apu is the charmer, a society figure as well as a talented painter. D, who is much younger and a half brother who never knew his mother, is a tortured soul.
Nero is a force of nature. His sons, and pretty much everyone else, bow to his commanding personality. He can be warm and generous — René soon feels like a member of the family and will eventually live in the mansion — but there is no questioning Nero's power and even threat.
Part of it is force of character, and part of it is dizzying wealth, from untold sources: Nero casually contemplates donating $100 million to Avery Fisher Hall or the Tribeca Film Festival, "as long as the old name got dumped and the Golden name was up there in block capitals made of gold."
It's no wonder that René sees the Goldens as fictional characters, the stars of the movie he wants to make — they see themselves that way, too. "It did not occur to any of them," he tells us, "that their decision was born of a colossal sense of entitlement, this notion that they could just step away from yesterday and start tomorrow as if it wasn't a part of the same week, to move beyond memory and roots and language and race into the land of the self-made self, which is another way of saying, America."
As the Goldens' story unfolds at the Gardens, René recounts it for the reader. Petya and Apu fall in love with the same woman, a Somali sculptor named Ubah Tuur, and it does not end well. D meets an intense woman called Riya Z, who works as a curator at the resonantly named Museum of Identity, and their part of the story will take unexpected turns.
Nero, too, will fall in love, with a spectacularly beautiful Russian named Vasilisa. René couches his fanciful notions about her background in one fairy tale with a sinister twist: The Russian folktale of Baba Yaga tells of a witch who eats little children lost in the woods. Long ago, he tells us, Vasilisa was one of her victims, but instead of consuming the child, Baba Yaga made Vasilisa eat her — and now the witch wears her lovely body and plots destruction beneath that alluring surface.
At first, Vasilisa just seems unusually businesslike. When she becomes Nero's mistress, she "produces a printed card, the size of a postcard, with boxes to tick" stating what he will pay for her apartment, car, allowance and more. But, as their relationship grows, that Baba Yaga theory becomes more plausible. Women, Rushdie writes, are adept at assuming new identities. "A woman leaves her father's house, sheds his name like old skin and puts on her husband's name like a wedding dress."
The Goldens and their women are all immigrants who instinctively adopt new American selves, and all that shape-shifting is what fascinates René. "And in our movies and comic books — in the comic books our movies have become — do we not celebrate every day, do we not honor, the idea of the Secret Identity? Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, Diana Prince, Bruce Banner, Raven Darkholme, we love you."
René thinks that he can shape the Goldens' narrative to his own purposes, but, as he ruefully admits, "Drama has a way of bushwhacking the dramatist."
In The Golden House, Rushdie skillfully mashes up all manner of mythic, literary and pop culture tales. One of the great pleasures of his fiction is sailing upon the sea of stories he has such mastery of and discovering what forms he will shape it into. In this novel, he deploys everything from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock to the Godfather movies, from The Metamorphosis (both Petronius' version and Kafka's) to DC Comics.
Not all myths are created equal, though. Some are rich and complex and show us what it truly means to be human; others are debased and coarse and perhaps shape our world in ways we should be wary of.
Often in the world of myth, disorder within a powerful family is a symptom of greater disorder in the world at large, and that's certainly the case in The Golden House. Early on, we learn that the landlord for the Goldens' business office is "a vulgarian whose name Nero could not bring himself to speak, and who liked to call himself the Joker on account of having been born with inexplicably lime-green hair."
A few chapters later, as the family begins to implode, René tells us, "The Joker was on TV, announcing a run for president, along with the rest of the Suicide Squad."
Later in the book, René and his girlfriend, another filmmaker, are busy making campaign ads that depict a female candidate dressed as Batwoman fighting the Joker's chaos: "America had left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe; D.C., Suchitra said, was under attack by DC. It was the year of the Joker in Gotham and beyond."
The world has changed, inside the Gardens and out. "My parents had grown up in fantasyland," René says, "the last generation in full employment, the last age of sex without fear, the last moment of politics without religion, but somehow their years in the fairy tale had grounded them, strengthened them, given them the conviction that by their own direct actions they could change and improve their world. ... Whereas now horror was spreading everywhere at high speed and we closed our eyes or appeased it."
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.