Salman Rushdie’s Visit to the Midtown Scholar Bookstore
What I did not expect from famed novelist Salman Rushdie’s visit to The Midtown Scholar Bookstore on Friday, September 29, was to hear a him tell a story about playing ping pong with Scarlett Johansson at “one of those celebrity parties in Manhattan.”
Another thing I didn’t expect was that he’d elaborate on that story, explaining how he was coerced by filmmaker Bill Bennett (who was working on a film diary for Johansson at the time) to: lick Scarlett Johansson’s face. (Not kidding. Though he did confirm he did not lick her face.)
Nor did I expect him to describe his friendship and accidental collaboration with Bono of U2. Nor did I expect him to be as completely charming and authentic as he was in discussing his creative process and the origins of his recent novel, The Golden House.
I guess what I expected was a serious author, talking seriously about the work, answering questions in a way that leaves some mystery about creative inspiration and intentions. The room was packed with people from all around the region who listened to his anecdotes starry-eyed. But it turns out Rushdie is a bona fide celebrity who loves working a crowd, much in the way of a stand up comic. He did not work from notes, and indulged in digression and side-note throughout his speech. He was completely frank and transparent, and at times, nearly confessional. But always self-assured.
It makes sense after a long, celebrated career—complete with a major controversy involving a fatwah in which he was ordered to be killed by the Ayatollah of Iran, a Man Booker Prize and the Best of the Booker, being knighted by the the Queen of England, and being written into an episode of Seinfeld—that Rushdie would be so completely sure of his powers as a writer and, on some level, assured of his grip on the insanity and strangeness of the contemporary globalized world.
As Rushdie proclaimed during the Q&A portion of the evening, “The present reality of society is stranger than fiction.” If he were not so sure, if he were not at this stage of his career at this precise moment in history, this novel probably would not have been possible.
The Golden House breaks with his well established magical realist style to offer a counterpoint novel of, in Rushdie’s own aspiring words, “incredible verisimilitude.” Rushdie even divulged his reading influences in preparation for this novel, citing Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, James Baldwin’s Another Country, Henry James’ Washington Square, and more emphatically, the work of Charles Dickens. Rushdie praised Dickens for both his vivid, detailed realism and his larger than life, operatic characters—influences that readers of the The Golden House hardly need to strain in order to recognize, even if the exaggerated aspects of the novel tend to overshadow the realism.
The novel itself is set, as Rushdie put it, “as close to the present day as possible” with the book beginning around the start of Obama’s presidency and ending shortly after Trump’s. Though, it should be noted that Trump isn’t mentioned nominally in the novel. (Rushdie: “The words ‘Donald Trump’ do not appear in the novel. Because I didn’t want them to.”)
Narrated by René, a young filmmaker, the novel unravels a dizzying, fast-paced tale about the stark and extravagant exile of the Golden Family from an unnamed country in the East (presumably India). Nero Golden and his sons live out their escape from whatever shady dealings they left behind in their native country, to settle into a quiet block in Greenwich Village. While the manic prose and stuffed plot hurtle along, we see the rise of a figure called the Joker (a stand in for Trump) who ignites the novel’s political undertones, as well as a the ratcheting of a few related mysteries and twists that befall Rushdie’s cast of characters.
Perhaps one of the most telling revelations of Rushdie’s visit to Harrisburg was, as far as I can tell, his sincere declaration of motivation for this novel: “I wanted to write a tragedy—or rather tragicomedy—inside of the larger tragicomedy of America.” If this was his aim, he has certainly succeeded. But I think this novel’s effect goes a bit further than usually tragicomic catharsis, evoking an underlying nausea.
Earlier in the night, Rushdie quoted Hemingway stating that: “the best bullfighters work closest to the bull.” In this spirit, Rushdie’s The Golden House dances perilously, ritualistically close to the chaos of contemporary American society.
With our politics and our norms and values coming undone more and more every day, the novel feels almost too close to home, too uncanny, too ridiculous and farcical for comfort.
Our world really is this insane, the feeling tells us. Don’t ignore it.