The Golden House by Salman Rushdie – from Nero to Obama, via The Godfather

The veteran novelist blends ancient history and myth with popular culture, crime caper and film techniques to fashion a morality tale for today

Fiction loves an infiltrator. Double agents, panders, uninvited guests, cuckoos in the nest – all are dynamite, not because they explode perfectly stable status quo, but because they expose their pre-existing fault-lines. The socially inquisitive, the disadvantaged, the bereft and tellers of tales all make good infiltrators: think of The Go-Between, Brideshead Revisited, The Line of Beauty, The Goldfinch (yes: they are often, if not exclusively, male). If you want to know the truth of a family, send in a stranger.

René, the narrator of Salman Rushdie’s complex and witty fable, doesn’t have to go far to get into the eponymous house: he lives across the road, in a sylvan and exclusive Manhattan square. New York’s skyscrapers, plush hotels and grand concert halls are a beat away, but Rushdie’s multinational characters largely confine themselves to their enclosed world, with its suggestively Arden-like gardens. Chief among them is Nero Golden – emphatically not his real name – and his three sons, the equally extravagantly named Petronius (“Petya”), Lucius Apuleius (“Apu”) and Dionysus (“D”).

The Goldens have fetched up in Greenwich Village just as Barack Obama is taking the reins of presidency, and the novel runs until his successor – here presented simply as the Joker, or a “giant victorious green-haired cartoon king and his billion-dollar movie franchise” – takes over; America’s descent into grand guignol functions as a shadow story to the Goldens, sometimes more and sometimes less frightening and uncontrolled.

Put simply, Nero Golden is wealthy almost beyond measure; certainly we see little sign of the money ever running out, thanks to his successes in the construction business, among others. More complicated is his first life, in a city whose identity he conceals, but which is revealed to be Bombay (its mutation into Mumbai is part of the story). Reinvention is his modus operandi and vivendi, and the negative connotations of his chosen forename do not bother him – perhaps the reverse – a jot. His sons’ identities are more problematically unstable, lurching between Roman history and Greek mythology, shifting into diminutives and bastardisations, repeatedly allusive (Petronius, for example, takes us by way of The Satyricon to the figure of Trimalchio, and Fitzgerald’s original title for The Great Gatsby, Trimalchio in West Egg).

It is not just their names that shift. The eldest, Petya, battles agoraphobia and anxiety to remodel himself as a master of that most interior of modern spaces, the computer game; Apu becomes a disruptive, unsettlingly macabre artist; and D begins on a lengthy journey of gender crisis and part-resolution. Throw in a fantastically ruthless Russian woman to woo the paterfamilias, and the scene for inter- and intra-generational disaster is set.

Rushdie has rarely had much time for the untwisted realist narrative, and here too he puts his story through contortions. He is not telling us the Goldens’ story, René is, and René is not so much telling it as using it as material for a screenplay. Scenes are suddenly presented or recast as fragments of script, a peremptory “Cut” or “Dissolve” indicating that it’s time to move on; and films haunt the novel like antic ghosts, chief among them, unsurprisingly, The Godfather.

In such times as ours, the fabular and mythic may provide more opportunities than the contemporary everyday; and certainly novelists such as Colm Tóibín and Kamila Shamsie have recently turned to the ancient world to find touchstones for new work. Rushdie has always been an impish myth-manipulator, refusing to accept, as in this novel, that the lives of the emperors can’t be blended with film noir, popular culture and crime caper. On the evidence of The Golden House, he is quite right.

• The Golden House by Salman Rushdie is published by Jonathan Cape (£18.99). To order a copy for £16.14 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Alex Clark

The GuardianTramp

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