This December, the personal goal I set for myself was to read through books that fell into the weird, not-really-a-genre-genre of magical realism. A quick Google search of “Best Magical Realism Books” pulls up results that pull books from and about authors and cultures all over the globe. Some repeat-offenders on these lists include One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, various works by Toni Morrison and Haruki Murakami, and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. These are all excellent authors and books, and all of them made my short reading list. As well, starting to recognize some of these big names drew me to my favorite book of at least the last six months, Salman Rushdie’s newest novel, The Golden House.
The Golden House follows a young film-maker, who introduces himself to the reader as simply René, living in a wealthy and insular community in New York. René finds himself drawn into the folds of the mysterious Golden family: the criminal-seeming Nero Golden, his new wife Vasilisa, and Nero’s three sons, Petya, Apu, and D. Fascinated by the people he has encountered, René tells their story both in context with himself and as part of the “mockumentary” he has planned around them. As such, the book is a mixture of the family’s events, René’s depictions of events he does not see (done in screenplay format!) and accounts of him working on the screenplay with other characters. The pieces come together in a fascinating sort of meta-commentary on the art of storytelling in three different layers: René hears stories told orally from the Goldens, which he recounts as bits of film, which are told to the reader by venue of the novel. So, that’s number one: if you’re interested in film, or how film and prose work together, this novel spends a lot of time investigating that relationship.
Number two is the characters themselves. The book sets up equally provocative relationships between René and each of the five members of the family; he is almost like a sixth family member, who has secret ties to each one. He gets to safeguard their fears, desires, and frustrations, sometimes even the feelings they have towards one another. And each one of the five family members is a hot mess. The Golden House is able to explore a huge number of topics and human questions from these characters psychologies. I was shocked and excited by how quickly the book could transition the reader from protests against Wall Street to discussions about gender identity, from the criminal underworld to the top of the iPhone app best sellers list.
Which brings me to reason number three why this book was so engaging: it is, as snooty as the phrase may be, a zeitgeist novel. (For those of you who don’t know the word, as I didn’t for like 20 years of my life, zeitgeist is from the German Zeit (time) + Geist (ghost/spirit), so it literally breaks down into “the spirit of the times.”) Its events span from Barack Obama’s election in 2008 to Donald Trump’s election in 2016. It is therefore completely full-to-bursting with statements and impressions about the time we are currently living in. It comments on political issues without allowing them to take over the entire book. (My personal favorite part is that it only refers to Trump as “The Joker” the entire time.) But it also looks at what New York, especially affluent and artistic New York, has become over the past decade. A warning, though: the book is also a screenshot of a affluent New York artist, so the texture of events can occasionally be drowned out in pages of allusion to antiquity or the classics of film and literature. Just as much as New York bleeds out of the pages, the consciousness of a highbrow narrator bleeds across them. René and the characters he meets often converse and think about things in terms of other things. References are everywhere; but you don’t need to understand them really. They’re merely part of the aesthetic texture of the book, which is rich with wisdom but also with the psyche of a very particular swath of recent human activity.
So, to recap, why I liked this book so much:
Oh, also, it’s just, like, good at being a book. Its story has a kind of epic grandeur to it. The book is long, but worth it. When I reached the end, I was impressed with the sort of antique poetic flourish that the whole book was. I hope you consider spending some time with this lovely book soon, and if you do, come talk to me about it!
Written by Erika S.