When Salman Rushdie began work on his second novel, “Midnight’s Children,” he realized, he has written, that he could not write his book “in cool Forsterian English. India was not cool. It was hot. It was hot and overcrowded and vulgar and loud, and it needed a language to match that,” and he would try to find that language.
Find that language he did, in “Midnight’s Children” and several of the excellent novels that followed. Increasingly, however, Rushdie has left cool English so far behind that his fiction has grown bombastic and close to unreadable.
In his new novel, “The Golden House,” each sentence is a Cirque du Soleil leap into a net that only he can see. Each sentence seems to be composed of stardust, pixie dust, fairy dust, angel dust, fennel pollen and gris-gris powder, poached in single-udder butter, fried and refried, encrusted with gold as if it were a Gustav Klimt painting, and then dotted with rhinestones.
All gestures here are grand gestures; all soirées are glittering soirées; all mirrors are magic mirrors; every ferocity is a genuine ferocity; every grill is a brazier; every regret a bitter one.
The effect is exhausting and deadening. Anything can happen, so nothing matters.
There is a reason to consider sticking with all 380 pages, however. It has little to do with the novel’s plot, about a wealthy man from Bombay and his three pretentious sons who move into a pretentious mansion in Manhattan.
What happens is that, at around its midpoint, Donald Trump puts his head into this novel, as if he were Jack Nicholson hacking into the bathroom with an ax in “The Shining.” (Heeeeere’s Donny!) In Trump, Rushdie finds such a perfect villain that he finds it hard to let him go.
The Trump character is named Gary “Green” Gwynplaine, a wealthy vulgarian, born with green hair, who likes to refer to himself as the Joker. It’s a treat to watch Rushdie let fly about this Joker and the threat he poses to America,
The Joker runs for president and packs arenas, the ghouls onstage behind him “swaying like doo-wop backing singers.” Suddenly “lying was funny, and hatred was funny, and bigotry was funny,” and the entire country becomes “a lurid graphic novel.”
Can this really be how the experiment that began with the Mayflower ends? “Why even try to understand the human condition if humanity revealed itself as grotesque, dark, not worth it.” Rushdie adds: “America’s secret identity wasn’t a superhero. Turns out it was a supervillain.” These passages are some of the novel’s best.
Rushdie’s wit surfaces once in a while. A toga is referred to as “a bedsheet with big ideas.” The phrase “nights of soft rock and lobster roll” conjures a whole universe.
“The Golden House” has been billed as Rushdie’s return to realism. Yet the New York on offer is so gilded and remote that the novel reads like what one’s impressions would be if all one knew of it came from back issues of Vanity Fair magazine.
As this novel nears its end, it builds toward a kind of gravitas. Rushdie writes vividly about the terrorist attacks that took place in 2008 in Bombay. The aftermath of those attacks touches everyone in this novel, and it provides “The Golden House” with moral and political subcurrents that might have been profitably pulled more fully to the surface.
“The Golden House” is a big novel, so wide it has its own meteorology. The forecast: heavy wind.
‘The Golden House’ by Salman Rushdie, 380 pages, Random House, $28.99.