Poets & Writers

EPIC

ONCE upon a time, on a day of many firsts, a writer who had lived nearly four decades on a rather wounded, uncertain planet met the writer she admired most, a writer who had lived almost exactly seven decades on that same battered earth. It was the first hot day of the year, a week before the official start of summer (high of ninety-seven degrees in Manhattan, “record-breaking heat advisory,” every news outlet declared), and the first interview Salman Rushdie was giving for his new novel, The Golden House, published this month by Random House. It was also the first time I properly sat down with the author who has had more influence on me than any other living writer. The Golden House is his eighteenth book—his thirteenth novel, which has somehow been more quietly announced than one might expect—but I devoured it in a sitting and a half, my favorite Rushdie novel in years.

If F. Scott Fitzgerald, Homer, Euripides, and Shakespeare collaborated on a contemporary fall-of-an-empire epic set in New York City, the result would be The Golden House. Like Rome at its collapse, the America of Rushdie’s new novel—not unlike our own America—is bursting at the seams. Rushdie anchors us to a filmmaker narrator as he navigates a life in the city to which only the wealthiest have access, and ultimately intersects with its newest inhabitants, the mysterious Golden family—Nero Golden and his three adult sons—as well as a classic New York villain who embarks upon a boorish presidential campaign. Meanwhile, themes of race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, immigrants and natives, outsiders and insiders, ambition and power, money and more money form the dizzying backdrop for this wildly satiric and yet piercingly real world of The Golden House. Rushdie isn’t just writing a New York parable though; this is very much a return to literary realism, but it’s largely a hyperreal reality of our own world, one that even his most celebrated madcap fabulism couldn’t top.

And so I found myself at his agent’s office: a maze of book-lined rooms belonging to the both renowned and notorious Andrew Wylie, just two blocks and yet worlds away from Trump Tower. One of Wylie’s assistants escorted me to a cozy (cramped) conference room with an ancient air conditioner trying to blast away the day’s sins of pollution and humidity. I was a bit nervous and excited and overheated and then overchilled; I put on and then took off my jacket, over and over, and this continued until, a few minutes later, in walked Rushdie.

He was shaking his head at the weather, armed with a perspiring iced coffee and wearing an expensive-looking gray suit with a pale blue dress shirt, mustering a New York mumble-apology as a greeting. He was a combination of flustered, amused, anxious, and exhausted, but he rather quickly turned charmingly enthusiastic about doing press, something one might imagine is cumbersome at best for a man with a literary career that spans more than four decades. He smiled gently through much of our interview but also at another first: his entry into a new decade. Salman Rushdie was just days away from turning seventy years old.

This was not my first encounter with him. I had seen him speak many times in my life—braved many metal detectors and a police presence at various times all around the world to hear him—but he and I also both moved to New York around the same time, two decades ago, and I’d occasionally seen him around town. One time, in my early twenties, at a fancy downtown party I’d drunkenly snuck into, I blurted to the astoundingly accessible New Yorker, “I love your work, but I’m from the country that tried to kill you, sorry!” (He didn’t say a thing but maybe laughed, and I did not remind him of this during our interview.)

In 2015 I met him at the PEN Literary Gala, for which I served as a table host, among others. I had not been a fan of their decision, as I felt very devoted to PEN, so I went on with my table host duties. But a few times on Twitter I’d been critical of Rushdie’s attitude toward those boycotting (Rushdie was a former PEN president and not shy about this anger at those walking away from the gala), so when I got to the event, several photographers kept nudging me to take a photo with him. I finally ended up shaking hands with Rushdie and introducing myself awkwardly as cameras snapped away. “I know who you are,” he said, and we exchanged niceties and I walked off staring into my champagne flute and eyeing the metal detectors and hordes of security at the Museum of Natural History, thinking to myself, “Well, if we all die tonight, at least I can die knowing Salman Rushdie is not that mad at me.”

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