As early as the second century BCE, northern Germanic societies convened an assembly of community members who passed judgment on legal matters. Such gatherings were held under a linden tree, which were revered as a symbol of justice and jurisprudence. The practice gave rise to its own legal term: 'sub tilia', or in German, 'unter der linden.'
Naming a character René Unterlinden is one thing. But Salman Rushdie, in The Golden House, his 12th novel, casually reveals his narrator's name just as the latter is expressing appreciation for the most famous unreliable narrator in English literature:
"Call-me-Ishmael might in "reality," which is to say the petty Actual that lay outside the grand Real of the novel, he might have been called, oh, anything. ... We don't know, and so, like my great forebear, I forebear to say unto you plainly, my name's René. Call me René: That's the best I can do for you." [The Golden House]
René is the only child of a Belgian professor couple, with whom he continues to live in Manhattan, even after going to school at NYU. His life is intellectual, and cozy: René works as a filmmaker, and listens daily with affection to his parents' friendly, detailed debates about the five boroughs, art, geography, poetry, and opera.
When an elderly man and his three sons move in nearby, they immediately represent the emotional and physical antithesis of the Unterlinden household. Nero Golden is well into his 70s and this name is not his real name. His three sons have names he chose for them: Petronius, Lucius Apuleius, and Dionysus. None of them mention where they've come from, how, or why. And why should they? America is mother to all those who reinvent themselves. René says that the Goldens never seemed all that strange.
"People in America were called all sorts of things — throughout the phonebook, in the days when there were phonebooks, nomenclatural exoticism ruled. Huckleberry! Dimmesdale! Ichabod! Ahab! Fenimore! Portnoy!" Of course, all of René's examples are fictional, lending further doubt about the legitimacy of his directorial debut, a film about his neighborhood and its residents.
The notion of shedding who you were, becoming who you are, and the story you decide to tell about your metamorphosis hangs its shroud over René's project, and in turn, The Golden House. The journey of four mysterious men should not be parsed when in America we "celebrate every day ... the idea of the Secret Identity. ... Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, Diana Prince, Bruce Banner, Raven Darkhölme, we love you." But René becomes entranced by the Goldens' capacity for reinvention: The quartet is fluent in Greek and Latin, none of them speak of their past, none of them break what appears to be a family-specific omertà.
Telling the Goldens' story, René decides, is now his story, a movie only he can write. Under this linden the reader will uncover the truth.
Suchitra Roy, René's film school colleague and eventual girlfriend, observes his fascination with Nero:
"I understand that you want [him] to be something of a mystery man. But what is the question that his character asks us, which the story must finally address?"
"The question, I told her, "is the question of evil."
"In that case," she said, "sooner or later, and the sooner the better, the mask must begin to slip."[The Golden House]
Whether or not the mask slips to uncover the truth, or whatever René conveys as the truth, is up to the reader.
The novel borrows a bit from Agatha Christie when it introduces the concept of cherchez la femme. There's no sense in looking for the original Mrs. Golden — she was killed on Nov. 26, 2008, part of the body count during the terrorist attacks Lashkar-e-Taiba unleashed on the Indian city of Bombay. Mrs. Golden was killed at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel, where she'd only gone after arguing with her husband. The discovery of his inadvertent role in her death brought Nero to America, his sons with him, his past ostensibly behind him.
The new Mrs. Golden is a Russian interloper who saunters her way into Nero's life with the lithe, determined grace of an asp. Vasilisa Arsenyeva claims "descent from the great explorer Vladimir Arsenyev himself ... that she came close to the Russian Olympics team ... that she was raised in the immense taiga forest that covers much of Siberia, and that her family was of the tribe Nanai, whose menfolk worked as hunters, trappers, and guides." It doesn't matter if none of this is true. "She is not looking for a mere man. She wants a protector. A Tsar." This man, of course, is Nero. René is fascinated by Vasilisa's machinations, and winds up embroiled in them too.
Some hints of the novel's eventual disconnect from the Goldens' narrative first appear when Rushdie pays lip service to GamerGate, via the oldest son Petronius, a doomed savant and game developer. The exploration of trans issues, via the youngest son, Dionysus, or D, as he chooses to be called, is empathetic and commendable. Through middle child Lucius Apuleius — or Apu, as he opts to be called despite his father's hilarious objection that "we are not Bengalis!" — the novel gently satirizes the New York City art scene. But to its extreme detriment, The Golden House elides President Trump, during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, with the Joker. Press for the novel tries to grab headlines by creating a parallel between Nero and Trump, but aside from a few brief mentions of their similarities — none of which are noted by René — the comparison is a dead end.
The Golden House begins its disengagement from the Fabricated Four when Suchitra partners with René to make an animated cartoon in which Trump, continually never named in the novel, is cast as the Joker, and Hillary Clinton as a Batwoman of sorts. The cartoon is a hit with "big-money super PACs supporting the Joker's formidable, eminently qualified but unpopular opponent." Suchitra and René make several more cartoons along the same lines; the success wins them praise, fame, and money — but no points with the reader for creativity. One of their videos includes this awful line: "How much could one fierce female Bat do? Well, that depended on you. Vote for the first Bat president of the United States. Because this election is no joke."
Some of the wasted prose about presidential candidates as superheroes is countered by how Rushdie depicts Rene's working and internal life outside the bounds of conventional prose. Chapters are written as bits of screenplays, with instructions about building shots; some are drafts of emails; some are monologues; some are accounts of therapy sessions; rounding out all of these are René's endless references. He quotes Truffaut, Laura Mulvey; compares his life, at different times, to Rear Window, King Lear, and The Purple Rose of Cairo; provides short film-centric syllabi on various subjects; dissects portions of plays by Somerset Maugham and paintings by Van Gogh.
But the novel falters again when, after nearly 300 pages of materiel, interrogation, and introspection, it's Suchitra who bounces back, while they're editing the cringe-inducing videos, to René's film. "You realize that this has become a movie about you, and all these Golden boys are aspects of your own nature."
That does, however, bring us back to the hidden story of the Golden family, their raison d'etre. Rushdie is clever not to tip his hand, to such a degree that when we get the true story we're astounded, fully taken aback by the dizzying highs and lows of the family's past. And by borrowing directly from the life of notorious Indian gangster Dawood Ibrahim, Rushdie builds in 20 pages a world of crime so vivid and appealing that I'm almost tempted to forgive him his Batwoman videos. (Readers familiar with Ibrahim's story or Bollywood films about the Bombay underworld will know exactly what the novel is referencing when Nero reveals his truth.)
When Riya Z, Dionysus' ex-girlfriend who has become Nero's confidante, urges René to meet her — Nero has told her his secret, she must share it with someone, and a reckoning is fast approaching — René doesn't hesitate.
"It was the missing piece I'd needed, and it gave me the dark heart of my movie, the big reveal, the point of it." In turn, Nero's story is the point of The Golden House too. In his triumph René muses with some arrogance: "I thought of Joseph Fiennes as the young Bard in Shakespeare in Love, jumping up from the desk at which he's writing and ... telling himself without vanity or shame, "God, I'm good." (This raises an interesting question: Did Shakespeare know he was Shakespeare?)"
It's impossible to say whether Shakespeare knew he was Shakespeare, but Rushdie knows he's good because he's Salman Rushdie.