Opinion Op-Ed
Column

Salman Rushdie on becoming an American novelist in the age of Trump

Salman Rushdie is probably the world’s best-known living novelist. But that comes with an asterisk, as he knows. People who have never so much as picked up a book of his authorship can probably recall, Oh yeah, he’s the guy the ayatollah wanted to have killed. In 1988, Rushdie published the novel “The Satanic Verses.” His portrayal of Muhammad outraged the hardcore leader of Iran, who issued a fatwa, a death sentence against Rushdie. In the years since, the order of execution has been walked back, re-imposed, reissued by Al Qaeda — you see the pattern.

Rushdie has written eight novels since “The Satanic Verses,” and sundry non-fiction, among them his memoir, “Joseph Anton,” about his life as a marked man. His latest novel is “The Golden House,” about a rich immigrant family keeping its secrets in the New York City of the age of Trump. The book brought Rushdie to the Los Angeles Times Ideas Exchange.


This is, I think, the third time you and I have spoken; the first time was in a secure, undisclosed location, and I vividly remember that I was struck by the fact that you were wearing Mickey Mouse socks.

Yes, well, it was a commentary on the age. Now we’re in an unsecure, disclosed location.

It did say something to me about you and your work that’s often overlooked, which is how vital humor is in it –

When I started out writing, people used to say that the books were funny. And then I think what happened with “The Satanic Verses” was so not-funny that it made people think the books couldn’t be funny — including “The Satanic Verses,” which is quite funny. And it’s only now that people are beginning to bubble up saying, You know they’re quite funny, these books. And I like that, because I don’t, as a reader, like books that have no sense of humor.

As the actor David Garrick said on his deathbed, Dying is easy, comedy is hard.

I agree with that. It’s much harder. Making people cry is much easier than making people laugh. You can’t explain comedy. If you have to explain the reason this is funny ... it doesn’t work.

I think it’s the most extraordinary inversion: the people telling the lies accuse the people telling the truth of lying. That’s called fake news.

This book is set chiefly in New York; it spans the period from the election of Barack Obama to the advent of a weird-haired president you call the Joker.

His hair is green. Completely different.

This is in a way about the Joker but also about the family surnamed Golden.

What happened is, two things came together for me. I had actually had the idea of this particular family with its shady secrets, from India, from Bombay, my old hometown, where they’d been involved in clearly quite suspicious activity. The old patriarch decides that he wants to get out of all that, so he goes to enormous and elaborate lengths to reinvent his family, to go halfway across the world, change their surname, refuse to admit anything about the past.

The previous novel, “Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights,” is also a New York novel, but it is a sort of a fairy tale of New York. It has genies and flying carpets and stuff. And almost immediately that I finished it, I thought, maybe write the opposite of this novel. Maybe hold the genies and write a social panoramic novel that’s essentially realistic.

And then somehow these two ideas sort of clicked together: I can tell the story of this dysfunctional, broken family inside the larger story of a dysfunctional, broken country.

They all live in this neighborhood in Greenwich Village which I call The Gardens, like a stage on which the action can take place, surrounded by the hurly-burly of America. Everybody who’s living around them in the book, they’re all immigrants. I wanted it to be a portrait of an immigrant city. That’s what I consciously set out to do.

Even though you conceived of the Goldens some time ago, there’s a bit of overlap with the Joker.

Unfortunately, the man who renames himself as Nero Golden is in the real estate business. He also likes to put his name very large on his buildings, and his name is Golden. But he’s completely unlike Mr. Trump in every other way, because actually he is, I think, as close as I’ve come to writing a tragic character.

He’s sucked into a dangerous world, which is the world of the Mob, and he wants to get out of it, partly because his family is being threatened. And then he fails. He fails to protect any of them. And I think you end up feeling very compassionate toward him.

How did the Golden family have to change to accommodate the reality of the Joker?

Writing it during the election campaign, obviously, and it became clear to me that everybody was obsessed with this phenomenon, the Trump phenomenon. And I thought it would be absurd not to refer to it. So it found its way into the book. But I think of it as background rather than foreground.

Exploring American character in the book, we get the sense of reinvention, we get the sense of the immigrant experience. But there’s a battle over the notion of identity. We’ve always been a practical country, an aspirational country. But within a handful of months, the idea of achievement and accomplishment has been turned on its ear.

One of the themes of the book is that of identity, because it seems so central to what’s going on. First of all, and most obviously, the Golden family is coming to America to change its identity, but it’s coming to an America which is also very anguished about its own national identity, about what is it to be an American, anguished about race, very anguished about gender identity, and what that does to American identity. So all these things are churning around here, now.

[Reading from the book] “How does one live amongst one’s fellow countrymen and countrywomen when you don’t know which of them is numbered among the 60 million-plus who brought the horror to power? … Or when your fellow Americans tell you that knowing things is elitist, and they hate elites, and all you have ever had is your mind, and you were brought up to believe in the loveliness of knowledge — not that knowledge-is-power nonsense, but knowledge is beauty, and then all of that, education, art, music, film, becomes a reason for being loathed, and the creature out of Spiritus Mundi rises up and slouches toward Washington, D.C. to be born.”

There’s really a bee in my bonnet is this inversion of the word “elite.” Here you have a government with more billionaires in it than any government in the history of the United States. And what — journalists and college professors and novelists are the elite? Not the people with private planes and beachfront properties in the Bahamas? No, they have the ear of the people. We’re the elite.

I mean, if we’re so elite, why ain’t we rich? But really, I think it’s the most extraordinary inversion: the people telling the lies accuse the people telling the truth of lying. That’s called fake news.

When you live in this world of scrambled reality, I found it actually changed my attitude toward my writing, if we live in this world where everybody’s lying every day all the time about everything, and in which, thanks to the Internet, we’re unable to distinguish between truth and fiction.

In the setting of New York, this is the Gilded Age plus 100-some years. Once again we see money exhibiting its power; it’s the gauge of society, the gauge of success. There was the New York of Edith Wharton, there was the New York of Fitzgerald and the Gatsby era. What is the New York of the Donald Trump era?

Actually, to prepare for this book, I did try to read some of those books you just mentioned. I wanted to read about these great writers’ portraits, realist portraits, of America. And the figure of Trump is the one that doesn’t compute, because he’s not like the city. The odd thing is, 90% of New York voted against Trump — 90%. They hate him. And what’s more, they got his number a long time ago. America is finding out what New York already knew.

Please speak to how fictional characters dictate themselves to you, whether you want them to or not.

I think if they’re not doing that to some degree, they’re not alive. When a character comes to life, first in the imagination and then on the page, it’s because the character begins to reveal things to you which you haven’t thought about them before. I often describe what I do as not so much writing as listening. Once the character is set, the destiny is set.

There’s this wonderful story about Charles Schulz. When he announced that he was going to stop drawing the “Peanuts” comic strip, the “Peanuts” website was bombarded by fans begging that, before he stopped, there was just one thing they would like him to allow to happen: Please, just once, let Charlie Brown kick the football.

And he wouldn’t do it. He didn’t do it. If Charlie Brown kicked the football, he would in some crucial way stop being Charlie Brown. And if Lucy, just once, didn’t whip the football away at the last minute, then her Lucyness would be impaired.

One of the characters is the second wife of Nero Golden, Vasilisa, who is a Russian, a beautiful woman who has to make her way in the world through her beauty. There’s a passage about how she does it. Can you explain her, and read the passage?

She’s a gold-digger, let’s face it. This passage is based on something that somebody actually told me that happened to them in New York. He fell for this Russian girl, and on the third date, she got down to business.

She produced from her pocketbook a card with tick boxes — a pre-printed card that they had to work through in order to do the deal of the relationship. This is the not-very-exaggerated fictional version of that. I’ll just read it:

“And on the third night she discusses business. This is not a shock to him. This makes things easier. Business is his comfort zone. She produces a printed card, the size of a postcard, with boxes to tick. Let’s go through the details, she says.

“Obviously I should not stay in the house on Macdougal. That is your family home, for yourself and your sons … So you can choose, (a) a residence in the West Village for convenience, for ease of access, or (b) on the Upper East Side, for a little distance, a little more discretion. Very well, (b), this is also my preference … We proceed to the car, and I leave this to you completely, (a) Mercedes convertible, (b) BMW 6 series, (c) Lexus SUV. Oh, (a), so nice. I love you. The question arises of where I will have accounts, (a) Bergdorf, (b) Barneys, (c) both of the above. Fendigucciprada, this goes without saying … The subject of a monthly allowance. You see the categories are ten, fifteen, twenty. I recommend generosity. Yes, in thousands of dollars, darling. Perfect. You will not regret… This is all for now.”

The weird thing about her, I have to tell you this, is that I thought she’s the worst character and the worst person in the book. She’s completely self-seeking and ruthless. And I have found some of the early readers of the books saying to me, we really like her. I go, really? And they say, Yeah, Vasilisa, the Russian girl — we dig her. I say, she’s so bad! And they say, But she’s completely herself. There’s no bullshit, she knows what she wants. She’s like a heat-seeking missile. And I thought, I guess sometimes the villain is more attractive than the hero.

In fiction, there’s a balance between making your contemporary novel feel contemporary, with contemporary references, and making it so that 10 or 50 years hence, it doesn’t feel to a reader that it’s a period piece.

It’s a dangerous thing to do, that’s true. And it’s a thing which any creative writing professor would tell you not to do. I felt that danger. The danger of working so close to the present moment is very real. If you do it wrong, then the book becomes simply yesterday’s news, yesterday’s papers, very quickly. And if you do it right, then you capture a moment for all time.

We were mentioning Fitzgerald. What he does very well is capturing the moment, so that now, if we look back at the so-called Jazz Age, it’s very difficult not to see it through the eyes of Scott Fitzgerald.

So that’s the goal: If you capture it properly, then contemporary readers have the pleasure of recognition, they have the pleasure of saying, Oh yeah, this is how it is. And future readers hopefully looking it will think, Oh, so that’s how it was.

The Golden family immigrates to the United States because it is fleeing from something more than to something. Most people come here for something. When you became a citizen in 2016, what were you feeling? What were the impulses for you?

It was clear that at a certain point, I realized I was not leaving, that it was not a temporary condition, that I had come to live in New York. And then I thought, if you’re clear about that, if you’re clear about the fact that this is where you’re going to live, then you should belong. And I had been frustrated in the two Obama elections that I wasn’t able to vote.

So I got myself a vote. Went well.

Now that you’re a citizen, do you look at the country differently?

Yes, I do. On that day when I was downtown in the relevant building in New York swearing the oath, I came out of there into the sunlight and got a Yellow Cab and was going home through New York City, where I’ve lived for almost 20 years, and I looked around and I realized I was looking at it completely differently. And the phrase “my country” occurred to me. And I thought, Oh , I see, OK, I’m American now. I’m now an American novelist.

Support our journalism

Already a subscriber? Thank you for your support. If you are not, please consider subscribing today. Get full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion and Facebook

MORE PATT MORRISON ASKS

How Hitler's fascism almost took hold in Los Angeles

Ken Burns on making his Vietnam War documentary: 'I was humiliated by what I didn't know'

American crackpots used to be a charming part of our civic life, until they started steering the ship

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°