Sunday, September 24, 2017

The knowledge of the impossibility of the attempt

The Goldens all told stories about themselves, stories in which essential information about origins was either omitted or falsified. I listened to them not as "true" but as indications of character. The stories a man told about himself revealed him in ways that the record could not.
The Golden House, by Salman Rushdie, is about Nero Golden and his three grown sons, living the life in New York City. It begins the day Barack Obama is inaugurated as president and ends some eight years later.

It is not the book I thought it would be.

While it mocks The Joker who eventually won the country, it takes a few jabs at Obama along the way. Nero Golden, meanwhile, is himself a kind of golden-boy caricature, one young wife after another, his spoiled progeny, so much gold it's garish.
I assumed he had brought serious funds with him when he came west, but there were persistent rumors that all his enterprises were highly leveraged, that the whole mega-business of his name was a flimflam game and bankruptcy was the shadow that went with his name whenever he took it for a stroll. I thought of him as a citizen not of New York but of the invisible city of Octavia which Marco Polo described to Kublai Khan in Calvino's book, a spider-web city hanging in a great net over an abyss between two mountains. "The life of Octavia's inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities," Calvino wrote. "They now the net will last only so long." I thought of him too as one of those characters in animated cartoons, Wile E. Coyote perhaps, who are constantly running off the edges of canyons, but who keep going, defying gravity, until they look down, and then they fall. The knowledge of the impossibility of the attempt brings about its calamitous ending. Nero Golden kept going, perhaps, because he never looked down.
I had thought Golden was meant to serve as a commentary on, or parody of, Trump. It feels like the whole novel is supposed to be doing that, yet failing to do that. It's not really about the Obama years, or about the America that allowed Trump to happen. But I can't shake the feeling that it should be.

This novel (much like our times?) is chaotic. It's told by a storyteller (I mean Rushdie, not his weak narrator), but there's not much story to it. While it's easy to get swept up in Rushdie's prose, it wears thin after a couple hundred ADHD pages.

There are some compelling narrative threads but they don't come together satisfactorily. Big themes include identity and re-invention of self.

About two-thirds of the way through,
Then a friend of mine, a writer, a good writer, said something that scared the pants off me. He said, think of life as a novel, let's say a novel of four hundred pages, and the imagine how many pages in the book your story has already covered. And remember that after a certain point, it's not a good idea to introduce a new major character. After a certain point you are stuck with the characters you have. So maybe you need to think of a way of introducing that new character before it's too late, because everyone gets older, even you.
I thought, maybe this is it, maybe this is where it gets interesting, someone new to shine a light, but no. There was no one. I had stopped caring.

The Golden House novel left me feeling bored and disappointed.

The reviews in the New York Times really nailed it.

Monica Ali in the New York Times: In Salman Rushdie's New Novel, the Backdrop Is the Obama Years
Collectively, their story lines are high-octane vehicles for observations on everything from art to gun violence, told with Rushdie's customary brio and narrative panache, and the reader is happy to go along for the ride.
Despite (or because of) all the apostrophizing, René fails to demonstrate any insight into why "60-million-plus" brought the Joker to power.
Dwight Garner in the New York Times: Salman Rushdie's Prose Joins the Circus in 'The Golden House'
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. Rushdie is obsessed with "characters," as Alfred Kazin once said of John Irving, yet somehow does not evoke the more difficult thing: character.
LA Review of Books: Rushdie's Domus Aurea: "The Golden House" by Salman Rushdie
The point is apparent: the times have produced an arbitrary, indiscriminate form of violence, whether by an organization or a lone nut that can catch any of us anywhere. But the book sheds little light on the America that produces that violence or how it shapes human action and interaction.
New Statesman: The Golden House is Salman Rushdie's not-so-great American novel
What is The Golden House actually about? The models invoked – Nero as Captain Ahab, as Jay Gatsby, as Lucius in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass – suggest a study of hubris, with America as an all-too-willing home, but the relationship between subject and backdrop is lost amid so much verbal noise.

Interview with Salman Rushdie
NPR: Leaving The Past Behind — Or Trying To — In Rushdie's Latest
America clearly has some very heavy, and even dark aspects to its history. But it's not like having a couple of thousand years, or three thousand years of history. The burden of history is greater. And so one of the things that happens in this book is that people from an old country, an Indian family, a wealthy Indian family — in a way, trying to shed the burden of their own history — comes to a country in which the subject of reinvention of the self is completely central. Everybody does it. People come through Ellis Island and change their names, people move from the Midwest to the big city and try and be new people, and it seemed appropriate for people from an old country trying to get rid of the shadow of the past, to come to somewhere where it's possible to be new.

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