Transphobic, ableist and a little bit sexist, Salman Rushdie’s fable of familial dysfunction The Golden House is the perfect encapsulation of everything I find wearisome about the Great Male Novelist. When Nero Golden flees from India to New York with his three children – autistic Petra, artistic Apu and genderqueer D – their new neighbour, an ambitious filmmaker named Rene, begins planning a mockumentary based on the family’s dramas and their mysterious past.
Rushdie’s treatment of autism and of transness is deeply problematic: agoraphobic Petya is presented as abject and pitiable, while D, having found their way into New York’s queer scene, becomes confused about their gender identity by their well-meaning girlfriend and ends up dead. Both autism and transness are presented as curses of sorts, their presence in the Golden family an indication of decadence, of corruption, of the family’s ultimate downfall. Rushdie’s discussion of gender in particular seems borne out of a desire to Comment on this Important Topic rather than a genuine interest in understanding the subject: his grumblings about identity politics have the tone and sentiment of something your Sun-reading granddad might come out with. If Rushdie ever consulted – hell, even met – an actual trans person I would be very surprised.
There’s also a sexy Russian lady who marries Nero in order to get her hands on his fortune which – I mean, it’s such a cliché at this point that it’s hardly worth commenting on.
That so many people seem entranced by this novel – writing for the Guardian, Aminatta Forna tells us of Rushdie’s “considerable courage” in tackling gender identity – is surely an indictment of our Great Man-obsessed cultural landscape: of course nothing that a leading novelist like Rushdie says can be wrong, or underthought, or unoriginal, amirite? Meanwhile, new writers, trans writers, women writers, writers who can actually speak to the spirit of the age are shut out by an increasingly conservative publishing industry motivated primarily by profit. The Golden House is my first Rushdie, and it’ll be my last too: I’m off to read something more relevant.