Salman Rushdie, an American Immigrant in the Age of Trump


Salman Rushdie wants to re-create Lolita. Specifically, the “long middle section, when Humbert and Lolita are on the road going from motel to motel in the middle of nowhere.” Not in a skeezy way, but with his youngest son, who is in his twenties, hates Facebook, loves Instagram, and promises untold knowledge and material and surprise for his seventy-year-old novelist father. The trip would scratch a few itches: supply the take “of a much younger person on what’s going on”; play out literary fantasies, re: Lolita and another old favorite, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It would also take Rushdie — a cosmopolitan writer in the strictest sense — into what the Manhattan intellectuals in his latest novel The Golden House might call “the hinterlands.” The “long middle section,” not of a book, but of a country.

Out this month, The Golden House unfolds far from the hinterlands. It’s meant to be Rushdie’s “New York novel,” he tells me, in the line of the great ones, most obviously, The Great Gatsby. Here too a dazzled narrator — named only René — guides readers into the life of a self-made enigma, Nero Golden, who arrives in a haze of moneyed mystery at the Greenwich Village enclave where René was raised and still lives. The complex feels otherworldly: a block of housing around a quadrangle, referred to throughout as The Gardens. It’s a dream of New York for the canon — more Madeleine than Girls. With it, Rushdie makes a formal bid for a title. When I suggest he has leapfrogged since his debut from “Indian” to “international” author, he offers an addition, based on the lineage The Golden House slots into: “I think I can even call myself an American novelist.”

Rushdie’s first trip to New York was during his twenties. “I had a lot of friends here, so when I actually did move here, I didn’t feel like a stranger in town.” He rented a place, figured he might stay six months, instead lasted “basically the rest of my life.” His new home reminded him of the one he’d left. “Even the shape of Manhattan island is pretty much the same shape and size as what used to be called Bombay and what is now called South Bombay. The old downtown area.” Like America’s, India’s megalopolis “has grown massively onto the mainland. There is this sort of peninsula sticking into the sea, which is really very approximately the same proportions as Manhattan and exactly the same, really, of this very vibrant, incredibly crowded space.” In both cities, it takes “two hours to get anywhere.”

The theme of arrival thus inspired The Golden House: a “classic New York subject,” says Rushdie. “This is a city in which most people who live here were not born here. Most people came here from somewhere else. You put your bags down and you’re a New Yorker.” So far, headlines about the novel focus mostly on Donald Trump, whose presence is elliptical; the book begins with Obama’s inauguration and concludes with the rise of a monstrous, green-haired new president, a political framework Rushdie makes light of repeatedly, in a resigned tone, as if executing a move he’s had to make all tour long. “I think of it really as background rather than foreground,” he says.

Rushdie isn’t in the business of anticipating the internet’s needs. He more often confuses it, as when Gawker and Page 6 writers covered his oddly old-fashioned sexts, in 2011, or when a few years later the writer Benjamin Anastas blamed the banality of Rushdie’s tweets for killing the fantasy of literary celebrity. We chafe when Disney stars grow up, nor do we want stately literary types to be too real (especially when they have British accents). Ultimately, Rushdie reached what he calls “a vanishing point,” set in play by a thought. “I just don’t need this noise in my head. I just don’t need it. There was something about the tone of voice of a lot of Twitter which is very discourteous and adversarial. It’s like a performance of something. I just thought, ‘Stop it, I don’t want this. I have no use for this.’ I stopped, and I deleted the app.” His last tweet is a poignant one, sent on November 8, 2016. “Done. You’re welcome, #MadamePresident! #imwithher,” it reads. Below it, a selfie of a bald, hawk-nosed face. Golden House–resident style, passable for any sort: Israeli, French, Jewish, Zoroastrian. A triangle of pinstripes edging a black coat, buildings of the city behind him. A man of the metropolis voting for a woman of the same, endorsed with a heart symbol, 2.7 million times.

René’s parents liked to talk about a bubble that they were happy to live inside. “Between the metropolis and the hinterland, always resentment, always alienation,” René’s mother, a college professor born in Belgium, used to say. Their neighborhood teemed with immigrants. Not the sort one might associate with the Lower East Side — scrappy Poles or Russians or Chinese strivers looking to make a buck. Residents of The Gardens became immigrants because they had money, not for lack of it. Hyper-educated, mobile, rootless. From nowhere; going everywhere. Nomads stopping at the finest ports of call. Immigrants in the vein of Rushdie himself, who was born in India when it was still British, to a Kashmiri Muslim family when such a title wasn’t in contention, in Bombay when the city was still spelled that way. When he arrived on the literary scene in 1981 with his Booker Prize–winning novel Midnight’s Children, he embodied the global citizen, a figure who seemed destined to last, even after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini’s death sentence, in the wake of 1988’s The Satanic Verses, chased him from London to New York. Rushdie seemed to define the future. A person born to toggle between poles of power: educated in England, decamped to America. In the hinterlands, they might call him a coastal elite.

Rushdie has a magician’s rather than a physicist’s sense of the world. He laughs that his conception of New York is “probably romantic” (dropping bags no longer stakes a claim so much as dropping millions in cash). His first novel, Grimus, confused readers because of its romanticism. Billed as sci-fi, it featured the flights of authorial fancy that became his calling card — rooted loosely in mythology: Sufi, Hindu, Norse — rather than in the strict internal logic of bona fide science fiction. The Golden House may feature the markers of the day, but Rushdie downplays what is current about it. “If the book depends on those things, then those things pass and our level of interest in those things diminishes, and along with that, our interest in the book diminishes,” he says. “The real virtues of the novel” he lists as “character and emotion and caring about what’s happening to people.” Fitzgerald, he believes, never forgot “the human scale, that the novel is actually about human beings and their concerns. As long as you put that in the center, then you have a chance of lasting.” I ask if technology has irrevocably changed the “human scale” of life. Do we care for each other as we have for eons, when we interface so regularly through machines? “It has endangered it,” he replied.

Even so, novelists who never claimed to be “political” are shifting gears. Zadie Smith last year spoke of being surprised at her changing urges, citing George Saunders’s take on Trump supporters in the New Yorker as evidence of a trend. “The question is who is in the bubble,” he says, laughing. “I sometimes think that the people out there in the middle of nowhere are the ones in the bubble.” He described the middle of the country as full of people “who somehow got left behind, in an earlier age of the world.” As to the hard fact that they are setting the pace of the next age, he cited a statistic René’s father frets over, that 19 million people did not vote.

“I don’t think it’s the metropolitan world that’s out of touch,” says Rushdie. “I don’t see why it is that neo-Nazis are supposed to be the ones in touch.” The global immigrant wave he emblematized in 1981 isn’t dead yet, he adds. “We do live in a time in which all of us, countries as well as peoples, are very interpenetrated. The idea of somehow retreating into some pure idea of white America, it’s not tenable for any length of time.” Then again, he is a romantic. And he hasn’t done that road trip yet.

The Golden House

By Salman Rushdie
Random House
400 pp.