TORONTO — Salman Rushdie says the idea of setting his latest novel between two historic U.S. elections came to him late, but the contrast between Barack Obama and Donald Trump’s presidencies provided the perfect backdrop for his modern American fable.
“I knew I was going to try to write a fairly contemporary social novel about this particular moment; but to actually have that structure going across those eight years was not there at the beginning,” the celebrated author said in a phone interview from New York.
“Once I thought of it, I thought: ‘That gives it an interesting arc.’ Unfortunately, given what happened in the election last year, the arc became, in a way, more formally satisfying to go from a moment of great optimism to, in a way, its opposite.”
“The Golden House” (Random House) opens on the day of Obama’s inauguration, where a billionaire and his children arrive in New York. The family heads to the Macdougal-Sullivan Gardens Historic District in Greenwich Village — or”the Gardens,” for short — to live in the former Murray mansion, now rebranded as the Golden House.
Rushdie said the setting is based on a real-life communal garden where his friends live, and seemed like an ideal environment for the novel’s drama to unfold.
“It seemed like a stage on which the action could take place. That made me think of (the film) ‘Rear Window’ because everybody could spy on everybody else’s lives,” said Rushdie. “The fact is, the house on which (Alfred) Hitchcock based ‘Rear Window’ is on Christopher Street, which is like 100 yards away.”
The patriarch called Nero Golden resides with his three sons: the reclusive Petya, flamboyant artist Apu and the youngest boy, D., who is carrying a deep secret.
“I think they come to New York to reinvent, not to disappear,” Rushdie said of the mysterious Goldens. “Nero Golden in New York is leading a very … business, entrepreneurial life. But they feel — as it turns out erroneously — that they can escape their past by coming this far. And the fact that they’re wrong about that is part of the tragedy of the book.”
The Goldens are seen through the lens of their neighbour, Rene, a budding young filmmaker who insinuates himself in their lives as research for a movie on the family. The novel itself takes on a cinematic quality, complete with the use of scene transitions and other techniques reminiscent of the making of a big-screen epic. It was a storytelling structure that proved freeing for the award-winning Rushdie.
“It can slip in and out of screenplay, and it can adopt some of the characteristics of film writing at certain moments for dramatic effect,” said Rushdie. “It allowed me also to use cinematic references in a way that I haven’t used ever that much before; to use film as a way of proving echoes of the action through which Rene can understand the action.”
Rushdie said the two areas of “The Golden House” in which he did the most work was in his exploration of Petya, who is living with high-functioning autism; and the issue of gender involving D, short for Dionysus, a moniker shared with the Greek mythological figure.
“The god Dionysus one of his characteristics is to be what would now be called gender-fluid,” said “He is sometimes referred to as almost hermaphroditic. He is a god who is on that gender boundary, which is why the name seemed right.
“Certainly here in New York, the subject of gender and the way in which the conversation about gender is fragmented into a conversation about many, many different variations of gender is something that’s new and I found very interesting, and so I wanted to delve into it,” he added. “I’ve had a couple of friends of mine who have been involved in transitions, and so I’ve had some personal experience in it through people I care about. …
“I tried to learn my due diligence, if you like, and write something that felt, to me at least, to have truthfulness about it. And I hope that people will feel that when they read it.”