THE HORROR, THE HORROR
That Didn’t Take Long: Novelists Tackle Trump
Salman Rushdie, Gary Shteyngart, and Jonathan Lethem have all published fiction that deals with the Age of Trump, but where are the pens warmed up in hell?
Standing for months in front of Trump Tower with a “literary” sign—such as WHO WILL GO UPRIVER FOR PRESIDENT KURTZ?—I wondered which American novelists would dare to brave the supposed curse of topicality and treat the famously litigious Donald Trump during his Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now presidency.
The first was the relatively new U.S. citizen Salman Rushdie in The Golden House. In the last month or so, Gary Shteyngart in Lake Success and Jonathan Lethem in The Feral Detective have published novels set, respectively, just before and just after Trump’s election. All three novelists call Trump a “monster” but avoid engaging him directly as a character. They instead make him an off-stage figure, to whom their characters react, and invent Trumpian stand-ins to absorb the writers’ wrath.
Sufficiently enraged to stand in the cold, I hoped for a novel as super-heated, explicitly political, and courageous as Robert Coover’s The Public Burning. About the Rosenbergs’ execution as “Atomic Spies” in 1953 when Richard Nixon was vice president, written in the ’70s when Nixon was president, and featuring Nixon as a major character, The Public Burning is an epic circus that mix-masters fact and fabrication. The novel closes with its superhero Uncle Sam, personification of old white-man anger, preparing Nixon to screw the American public as Sam has prepared all past presidents: by sodomizing him. Scheduled for a Bicentennial release, The Public Burning was delayed by legal challenges and one publisher’s cowardice until 1977.
Coover told an interviewer he wanted The Public Burning “to seem to have been written by the whole nation through all of its history.” Rushdie brings recent Bombay history to bear on his American characters. Rather than history, Shteyngart and Lethem present slices of “upriver” American geography, composing road novels in which their protagonists attempt to reinvent themselves in an atmosphere of Trumpian darkness.
Shteyngart is the more journalistic, the less profound. He has said Lake Success traces very closely a bus trip he took through the American South and West in 2016. His protagonist is a forty-something New York hedge-fund manager named Barry Cohen, who likes to think of himself as a “moderate Republican, socially liberal” and “fiscally conservative.” He is married to Seema, the daughter of Indian immigrants, and the Cohens have a three-year-old autistic son. When Barry’s family becomes too much for him to bear, he sheds his cell phone, ditches his credit cards, and lights out for the territory to find his college lover now living in El Paso.
During Barry’s weeks on the road, Shteyngart inserts reminders of the presidential campaign and hints that the Queens-raised Barry is similar to candidate Trump. Barry has no use for the information of finance “quants”; instead he’s a gut-truster and studied salesman. For Barry, as for Trump, everything is personal—clients he schmoozes, insults he has suffered, deals he has made, delusions of grandeur he maintains. Everything, that is, except the insider-trading deal that will destroy his fund and threaten prosecution, which he calls a “witch hunt.”
In Baltimore, Barry meets a crack salesman that he offers to mentor like an apprentice. In Richmond, he visits his old flame’s parents, intellectuals to whom Barry condescends. On the bus to Mississippi, he shares a seat with a young African-American woman he seduces and, again, says he wants to mentor. Maybe she can have a job in his foundation, a fantasy like Trump’s fraudulent charity. Barry manages to worm his way into the home of his old lover, witnesses her online harassment by Pepe-the-Frog people, experiences “horror” and irrational fear during a day trip to Juarez, and eventually departs El Paso with his lover’s credit card. When Barry runs out of money, he runs up against the edge of America in San Diego, where readers might expect him to have a life-changing epiphany—if he weren’t a Trumpian figure who has basically learned nothing about himself or, really, about the America he has crossed because, again, everything is personal, not representative (for Barry) of the political.
To highlight Barry’s loathsomeness, Shteyngart tells about half of Lake Success from Seema’s perspective. Like Barry, she has a delusional erotic adventure, but she never evades responsibility for her son’s care. Barry is an unobservant Jew and Princeton grad who is several times compared to Fitzgerald’s Gatz, an American without a cultural tradition. After Barry hits the road, Seema reconnects with her parents and their traditions. The son of Russian immigrants, Shteyngart presents his Indians—the father a scientist, the mother a cultural activist—as the ethical counter to Barry the native-born millionaire who, like Trump, has only superficial notions of success founded, in Barry’s case, on a youthful drive-by of Lake Success, a town not far from Queens and close to Fitzgerald’s model for West Egg.
A writing professor in Lake Success says, “The best fiction is the fiction of self-delusion.” Shteyngart’s novel is fundamentally a comedy of manners, the boorish manners of the grandiose and deluded male protagonist. The book doesn’t tell us much about Trump or even red-state America that someone reading the news wouldn’t already know. In his first novel, Absurdistan, Shteyngart was a satirical slasher. In his last novel, Super Sad True Love Story, and in Lake Success, Shteyngart is more a fiscally aware moderate humorist who knows—he has admitted—the kind of pleasure his audience expects from him. It’s not Donald Trump buggered by Uncle Sam.
Lethem’s road trip begins where Shteyngart’s ends—in California—but Lethem’s West is a lot further “upriver,” and his genre is noir, not comedy. The protagonist and narrator of The Feral Detective is 33-year-old Phoebe Siegler, a writer for The New York Times who quits her job in disgust after Trump’s election and travels to the “Inland Empire” of California to search for a friend’s missing daughter.
Phoebe hires an eccentric older detective named Charles Heist who guides her into the Mojave desert where she meets members of different “tribes” broken off from the old “Viscera Springs Ranch” commune: the Bears (mostly male of the Hells Angels variety), the Rabbits (tough and tender women, one of whom packs a gun), and the Hammerkings (who run a shopworn carnival now in mothballs in the “dark at the end of the world, a ring of RVs and trailers shored against the sand and wind of an apocalyptic vacancy.”)
After Phoebe learns about the histories and purposes of these groups, she recognizes their “allegorical implications” because she’s a literature-quoting and film-trained narrator. Trump is a Bear, Hillary is a Rabbit. Heist is a little bit of both, and so, it turns out, is Phoebe who, like Shteyngart’s Barry, partly goes native and atavistic. To ward off muggers in New York, Phoebe carries a pocket klaxon that she uses in the desert to abet the murder of a Bear. She says she “sound-fucked him brutally in his side-brain.” [Lethem’s italics]
Like Lake Success, The Feral Detective is a literary entertainment. Lethem doesn’t “sound-fuck” readers with Trumpian noise because, like the movie-mad Hammerkings, Lethem is busy running a carnival of noir conventions, shamelessly employing them and sometimes reversing them. Mysteries and nocturnal adventures abound, but the naïve New York client ends up saving the old-school California detective. The climactic violent showdown occurs about two-thirds of the way through so the novel can add a second rescue mission. Phoebe records hard-boiled dialogue, but her narration is often brittle, self-conscious Manhattan chatter. Watching two men fight to the death, she reminds herself to read Joyce Carol Oates on boxing when she gets back to New York.
Because we know that Trump made politics tribal, and that feral violence was often near, Lethem’s noir allegory, like Shteyngart’s comedy, doesn’t tell us much we couldn’t imagine after watching a Trump rally or the women’s march on Washington, both of which are alluded to in The Feral Detective. Lethem’s heart of darkness in the Inland Empire (read, maybe, the Heartland Midwest) lacks leverage because it is constructed of pop culture staples from Charles Manson stories to Road Warrior movies. In Lethem’s Metaland, characters are aware of themselves as types. Maybe that is Lethem’s insight: when a president is a role-playing entertainer, the populace and the resistance are lured into roles determined by popular entertainments. Busy with violence and sex, Phoebe is no more able to fully recognize the implications of her adventure than her fellow New Yorker Barry Cohen is able to recognize his delusions. Like Barry’s story, Phoebe’s ends in personal rather than political terms.
There’s something banal about the conclusions of Lake Success and The Feral Detective, something like “Trump may set the terms of public life, but there are still personal responsibility (Shteyngart) and personal love (Lethem).” This banality makes me wonder if the novelists are not daring Trumpian topicality but exploiting it in stories that didn’t really need him and don’t really plumb him.
It takes some courage to forsake popular genre and to let the “monster” speak. Perhaps because Rushdie is further along in his career and has survived a fatwa, he had the security and nerve to write a more expansive, more imaginative, and more direct Trump-inflected fiction than Shteyngart and Lethem, one that presents Donald Trump as the cartoon Joker in Gotham. No need in The Golden House to travel “upriver” when there’s plenty of darkness between the Hudson and the East River. Rushdie also invents substantial, if somewhat unlikely, surrogates for Trump’s crime family. Shteyngart and Lethem have, basically, two characters each. Rushdie has a multitude.
Rushdie’s title refers to Trump’s fondness for gold and to a White House rife with corruption. The title also harbors a classical allusion that identifies the kind of fiction Rushdie creates: “A golden story, in the time of Lucius Apuleius, was a figure of speech that denoted a tall tale, a wild conceit, something that was obviously untrue. A fairy tale. A lie.” Rushie’s reference to Apuleius, the author of The Golden Ass, is made by the novel’s narrator, an American screenwriter who calls himself “René” and says his “preferred manner” is “Operatic Realism,” an equivalent of the “golden story.”
René is obsessed with movies, all kinds of movies from cheap Bollywood entertainments to American classics, and with the screenplay he spends years writing about a mysterious Indian family who became his neighbors in Greenwich Village. René presents himself as a friend of the family, a Nick Carraway to an Indian Gatsby, but in fact Rene’ exploits his relationships with his neighbors and composes this “memoir” to help promote his film. Exploitation and fakery thus pervade The Golden House: the artifices of the narrator, the deceptions perpetrated by the Indian family, and the corruption of the Trump figure, who receives increasing attention as the novel moves toward its tragic climax and his election.
The wealthy patriarch of the Indian family gives himself a new name—Nero Golden—when he and his adult sons suddenly and mysteriously leave Bombay for New York. The three sons also take new names: Petronius, a reclusive designer of computer games; Lucius Apuleius, a man about town who becomes a promising artist; and half-brother Dionysus who appears to be half man, half woman. In Bombay, Nero was an Indian Trump: a shady, successful builder who migrated into entertainment, and was then used as a money launderer by a mob with nationalist political ambitions. Like Trump from Queens, all the Goldens attempt metamorphosis in Manhattan, but their Indian past ultimately brings down the House of Golden. As René points out with references to movies and other fictions, America as a space of reinvention for immigrants and natives alike is an old story, one that Shteyngart and Lethem also tell in their more modest ways. All three novelists refer to The Great Gatsby as the locus classicus of that story.
Rushdie ushers in Trump rather late in the novel as the consummate American symbol of fake reinvention, a person whose rise parallels Nero’s from construction to popular entertainment to venal politics. Although the novel opens with Obama’s first inauguration, the climactic actions occur in late 2016 and early 2017 when Nero Golden’s marriage to a younger Russian woman and his past corruption catch up with him—and when Americans choose a corrupt candidate as president. The Golden House thus seems to me a work of both Operatic Realism and Moralistic Futurism, a novel that uses Trump’s double (the increasingly demented Nero) to predict the downfall of its crazed Joker.
In The Dark Knight, the Joker says, “Introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos.” In writing this account, narrator René confesses he, too, has been an agent of chaos and shows that his obsession with commercial success by whatever means allows for little engagement with politics. Complicit in the Golden family’s dysfunction, René represents the complicity of an educated public—and perhaps its artists—that did little to prevent Trump’s election by the benighted crowd to whom he directed his atavistic appeals.
With its numerous Greek and Roman references and its wide knowledge of current culture, The Golden House recalls epics: the fall of Troy in the Iliad and the Trojan exiles’ invention of Rome in the Aeneid. Rushdie’s many characters are outsized, heroic or villainous. The narration is thick with historical digressions and epic catalogues. Rushdie’s Joker Trump never directly interacts with the other characters. Because his identity is revealed through long lists of his statements and actions, he is like the distant ruling god—a Zeus or Jupiter—of this epic, powerful but impetuous and amoral, a manifestation of the worst qualities of the humans who worship him:
Sikh taxi drivers and rodeo cowboys, rabid alt-right blondes and black brain surgeons agreed, we love his craziness, no milquetoast euphemisms from him, he shoots straight from the hip, says whatever he fucking wants to say, robs whatever bank he’s in the mood to rob, kills whoever he feels like killing, he’s our guy.
Although the Trump of The Golden House has a cartoon basis, Rushdie drills deeper than Shteyngart and Lethem into Americans’ attraction to the “monster.” Rushdie’s take is counter-intuitive or, at least, counter to Trump’s MAGA slogan. The Golden House suggests that Trump’s appeal satisfied voters’ desire to be released from the burden of American “greatness,” from morality, idealism, and exceptionalism. The Indian family of Muslims wanted to be Americans. Many Trump voters wanted to be non-Christian, pre-literate, tribal like the ancient Greeks and Romans. In this analysis of atavism, The Golden House, called a “circus” by one negative reviewer, is similar to the circus-influenced The Public Burning, which I argued two years ago in this space is a prescient treatment of the primitive and performative politics practiced by Trump the Joker.
Shteyngart and Lethem give us endings of personal hope. Rushdie offers Golden’s personal failures as Trump’s political future. In this regard, there is an interesting (and perhaps not obvious) connection between author, characters, citizens, and Trump.
Early in the novel Rushdie quotes Primo Levi: “This is the most immediate fruit of exile, of uprooting: the prevalence of the unreal over the real.” The Golden House is about exiles by an exile, an author forced to flee political extremism. Like Nero Golden, Rushdie was partly responsible for his exile with the publication of The Satanic Verses. He recognizes and laments that American citizens, particularly those who didn’t vote, are responsible for a sense of unreal exile in their own land. Donald Trump is also a self-created exile, a man who chose the “unreal over the real.” With his raw ambition, illiberal policies, racist sympathies, and persistent fakery, Trump exiled himself from his home in Manhattan where he received a very small proportion of the vote. If Trump survives his presidency, he will probably be safe in his golden Tower on Fifth Avenue, but he will always be an exile, a persona non grata, in the city of his birth. A god loved by the mob in The Golden House, in real life Trump will be jeered by crowds whenever he enters public space in New York City. Axios reported that Trump once said of Americans, “People really fucking hate me.” If Trump ever read a book, he’d understand why by reading The Golden House.
Like Barry and Seema Cohen’s autistic son, Americans are fortunate to have Indian immigrants among us. Rushdie has risked explicit bearding of the “monster” and has spared no imaginative resources in offering perspectives on him and alternatives to him. The novel is long on Golden background and family dynamics, short on the season of Trump, but is rich in characters and, for some readers, perhaps too rich in its allusive prodigality. But I still think The Golden House, published in August 2017, set an early standard for the political novel in Trump time. Rushdie’s “golden story” with its “wild conceits” seems to me the appropriate form for a presidency pervaded by alternative facts, hateful fictions, and outright lies.
Shteyngart and Lethem were constrained by the genres they chose. But it’s still early. Surely there is some young Coover or Pynchon plotting an even more explicitly Trumpian golden story that will challenge Rushdie’s. Paul Beatty and Colson Whitehead have the necessary wild imagination and satiric chops. Dana Spiotta and Rachel Kushner have the political passion and historical acumen. Joshua Cohen has written two long culture-bending novels and excellent journalism about Trump in Atlantic City. Don DeLillo said in a recent Guardian interview that he is working on a novel influenced by Trump. In the meantime, I still occasionally stand in front of Trump Tower, sometimes with a hopeful sign that reads IMAGINATION TRUMPS HATE.