After the planes crashed into the twin towers, it took a few years, but eventually dozens of major novelists worked the 9/11 attacks into the plots of their stories.
The literary response to Donald Trump may follow a similar trajectory. Earlier this year, several authors told me they felt compelled on Nov. 9 to set aside their work and begin something that felt more relevant to our scorched political landscape. Eight months into this reign of chaos, we're already seeing the literary results.
Sadly, the first major treatment was a clunky harangue. In May, Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson published a dashed-off parody called "Pussy," which demonstrated little of his satiric genius. And now another Booker winner, Salman Rushdie — who knows a thing or two about needling powerful people — has launched a second novelistic attack on His Tweetness.
"The Golden House" doesn't mention Trump by name — Rushdie wouldn't give him that satisfaction — but there's no doubt about the real identity of the "giant victorious green-haired cartoon king." That gothic villain rages around the background of this story, setting the tone for a nation in peril. The narrator howls, "The best had lost all conviction, and the worst were filled with passionate intensity and the weakness of the just was revealed by the wrath of the unjust."
Speaking of Trump's unlikely election, Rushdie recently told an interviewer, "This thing that is very bad for America is very good for the novel," but that sounds like fake news. In any event, Trump's election is not very good for this novel, in which Rushdie pokes through the story whenever he wants to pop off about America's poisonous political culture, "the horror spreading everywhere at high speed."
In the foreground, "The Golden House" is a family epic that cobbles together contemporary drama, ancient myths and modern films. We follow the rise and fall of a fabulously wealthy businessman named Nero Julius Golden (the quality of subtlety is not strained in these pages). He arrives in New York in 2009 with his three doomed sons. Refusing to speak of the country they left, Nero sets up his family in a grand mansion — a "palace of illusions" — in the Gardens Historic District of Greenwich Village. "We are snakes who shed our skins," Nero announces, and so a glittery new family is born, "shedding their Gatz origins to become shirt-owning Gatsbys and pursue dreams called Daisy or perhaps simply America."
If we were playing Literary Allusion Bingo, one of us would already have five across, but we've still got a long night ahead.
Flush with boundless millions, Nero's three troubled sons are free to roam New York and explore their passions: artistic, sexual and electronic. Their father, meanwhile, rules over his shadowy realm with wisdom and satisfaction. But when a very determined, much younger Russian beauty — some might say prostitute — enters the Golden household, the family dynamic is revolutionized. This may be a good time for the lawyers to remind everyone that any resemblance to current events or living people is, of course, entirely coincidental.
The story of Nero and his golden house is told by a handsome young neighbor named René, a far more involved and, alas, far less poetic narrator than Nick Carraway. Grieving the death of his parents, René ingratiates himself with Nero and befriends his sons. From his perch as affable sidekick, René serves as witness, spy and confessor. But his interest is not merely, or not only, friendship. René believes that Nero, his sons and the Russian "witch-queen" are perfect subjects for a film that will launch his career. In addition to a number of cinematic references — some pop, some obscure — René's movie project shapes the narrative in various ways. A few chapters appear in the form of melodramatic scripts. Others read like scene treatments, ending at a climactic moment with the word "Cut."
But despite René's avocation and apparent success, there's never anything particularly cinematic about his presentation, nothing like the movie section of Viet Thanh Nguyen's "The Sympathizer" or the spliced passages of Dana Spiotta's "Innocents and Others." Instead, we're left noodling the rather pedestrian issue of which parts of this story are real and which are manufactured. Just as Nero is a man who recasts his life at will, so René mingles history and fiction, documentary and fabulism. "It was hard for me to be objective about the Goldens," he tells us. "I'm not sure anymore what's real and what I made up." Well, that makes two of us.
Everything about this family spreading its influence and then crashing like the House of Usher comes to us in René's confidential but bland voice. He wonders, with sophomoric profundity, "Is it possible to be both good and evil? Can a man be a good man when he is a bad man?" Twenty pages later, he's still wrestling with that dilemma: "Is it possible for a man to be a good man when he is also a bad man?" Chapter after chapter, the story keeps lunging at that theme like a dog on a chain.
Worse, on any particular page, we might hear that René is knocked for a loop, clutching at straws, growing up before my eyes, losing his bearings.
Is that stylistic laziness or is it a super-sophisticated act of mimicry, Rushdie's success at capturing the voice of a cliche thinker?
Perhaps it wouldn't feel so arduous to plod through this pile of worn phrases if the plot moved more quickly. There are elements of intrigue, including a bizarre sexual bargain on which the story hinges, but the most exciting revelation erupts late in the book, long after the mystery of Nero's origins has cooled.
Then, finally, we have to endure René nattering on about the loss of innocence, a theme we can smell like mildew as soon as we enter this airless novel. And of course, by the end of the story there must be a fire, or what René calls "the deadly realism of a fire," which doesn't sound like it could toast a marshmallow, but at least we're done.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and the host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com. On Sept. 25 at 7 p.m., Salman Rushdie will be at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW, Washington. For tickets, call Politics & Prose Bookstore at 202-364-1919.
By Salman Rushdie
Random House. 380 pp. $28.99