Rushdie (Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, 2015, etc.) returns with a topical, razor-sharp portrait of life among the very rich, who are, of course, very different from the rest of us.
Where Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities sent up the go-go, me-me Reagan/Bush era, Rushdie’s latest novel captures the existential uncertainties of the anxious Obama years. Indeed, its opening sentence evokes the image of the newly inaugurated president “as he walked hand in hand with his exceptional wife among the cheering crowds,” even as our narrator, shellshocked like everyone else in that time of plunging markets and ballooning mortgages, worried that assassination was the inevitable outcome. Against this backdrop arrives a mysterious immigrant who has taken for himself what he imagines to be a suitably aspirational name: Nero Golden. So beguiling is Golden that, tucked away in a secret palace in a New York affordable only to the very wealthy, he proves an instant lure for our narrator, a filmmaker in search of a subject. Each member of the Golden household harbors secrets, sexual and financial and criminal, but the plot thickens considerably when a Russian arriviste, "Vasilisa the Fair," inserts herself into the Goldens' world, ticking down a checklist of all the pleasures she can provide for Nero given the proper options package: “You see the categories are ten, fifteen, twenty,” she tells Golden of her monthly allowance needs. “I recommend generosity.” It seems clear we are not meant to think of Obama but of his successor, whose election closes the book and who gives us Rushdie’s decidedly unfunny, decidedly unironic condemnation of an “America torn in half, its defining myth of city-on-a-hill exceptionalism lying trampled in the gutters of bigotry and racial and male supremacism, Americans’ masks ripped off to reveal the Joker faces beneath.”
A sort of Great Gatsby for our time: everyone is implicated, no one is innocent, and no one comes out unscathed, no matter how well padded with cash.