Salman Rushdie’s writing is so awash with references that reading can become a bit of a breathless ride as you are ushered from one random allusion to another, given only moments to absorb the underlying significance before Rushdie throws another one your way and sets you off on another tangent. There is “the “unjust treatment” of Pluto, recently demoted to the status of “dwarf planet” after a larger body, Eris, was discovered in the Kuiper Belt; the flaws in Hawking’s theory of black holes; the anachronistic weakness of the American electoral college; the stupidity of non-electoral college students; the sexiness of Margaret Thatcher; and the “twenty-five percent of Americans” —on the far right of the political spectrum— “who are certifiably insane”. I think he lost me in the middle, but I caught up at the end.
The structure of this novel is something of a Russian doll; it is one story tucked inside another, narrated by a writer who tells us how he finds his story – his story being the story of the Golden House inhabitants, his neighbours. There is Nero Golden, the father, who has named himself after his favourite Roman Emperor, and there are his three sons, the sons of Caesar, who got to choose their own name as long as it was Roman, like their father’s.
The eldest son seems to suffer from a severe case of ASD. The second son has, in the words of his father, “failed to become profound”, and the youngest son is in denial about his own, complicated sexuality — as offshoots of the half mad, sexually deviant and callously unthinking Nero the Roman Emperor, the sons of Nero Golden are unable to escape not only their father’s self-determined greatness, but also his mistakes.
“He is like a great roof and you shelter beneath it. Step away from him and you are caught in the storm”.
What storm? Where do they come from, these motherless sons of a brooding widower? We never know for certain. Rushdie does not point a finger at one country in particular as being the origin of the Golden family evils; what interests him is the question of evil per se, and by association, the sinister fate of the mother.
As for the father, he poses the novel’s central question directly to the narrator.
“Is it possible to be both good and evil? Can a man be a good man when he is a bad man? If you believe Spinoza and agree that everything is determined by necessity, can the necessities that drive a man drive him to wrongdoing as well as right?”
Rushdie ratchets up the tension, hinting at the dark deeds that mask “an irreconcilable contradiction”, at the understanding that a man can be both good and evil, and that he is a “union of opposites”, which is the “deepest mystery of all”. Where, then, does the narrator/writer’s growing involvement with the Golden family take him? Does it lead him to a revelation about the nature of evil, or to something altogether different, such as the nature of parenthood? Or perhaps it leads, as Spinoza thought, back to necessity. Theme is always a roller coaster ride with Rushdie, and the narrator has a tendency to see the Golden family’s life as one long cinematographic experience, thus leaving us no more able to successfully resolve the question of evil than a Francois Truffaut character could successfully resolve a rocky relationship. He is quoted at the beginning of the book as saying, “La vie a beaucoup plus d’imagination que nous”. In the case of Mr Rushdie, I’m not altogether certain that is true.
Any Cop?: Vintage Rushdie, in my opinion. At the end of the novel there is the little subtle pointer to current events: The Golden family “thought of themselves as a king and his princes but they were no Caesars. A Caesar had indeed risen in America, his reign was under way, beware Caesar, (…) Beware the Ides of March…” A final reference at the end of many, which gives fresh relevance to the question “Can a man be both good and evil?” No comment. Or as Rushdie would put it, Cut.