Paul Goldberg’s The Château really took a second reading for me to warm up to fully. Perhaps it’s because the bleakly-comedic way it treats the world post-2016 US Presidential election still has the sting of too soon to it, and how its jaunty, blithe tone at first seems like a misstep given everything that’s going on the background—and foreground—of the novel. Protagonist Bill Katzenelenbogen, recently fired from the Washington Post for “insubordination”, learns that his former college roommate, a famous plastic surgeon, has fallen to his death from a swanky Florida tower. Bill decides that he’ll put up with his exasperating (and to us, wonderfully complex) father, while he uses his last few dollars to get down to the opulent swamp of Hollywood, Florida, to investigate. Once he arrives in Florida, he learns that his father (who was once a refusenik dissident poet, is not a perpetrator of Medicare fraud) is trying to take over the condo board to restore their building (the titular Château) to its former glory—to “Make Château Great Again”, and to “drain the swamp” of the greedy board members who drown the residents in fees while they enjoy their shiny new Lexus-shaped kickbacks.
The Château gets off to a rocky start, seeming to reflect every cliché of this kind of literary fiction—of course Bill has an ex-wife, of course Bill slept with a young, hot coworker, with whom he still has a flirtatious relationship. So the appearance of Bill’s father Melsor and the whole host of Russian expats and wealthy American retirees who occupy Melsor’s sphere of South Florida provide a welcome turn towards the original and, strangely enough, the heartfelt. The introduction and handling of Bill’s romantic relationships (such that they are) feel like obligations of the detective story that Goldberg checked off a list, while Melsor and the residents of his condo feel wholly original, fleshed-out, and grounded in something real, in turn allowing Bill’s characterization to rise above what we might expect. Of course, the fact that my political sympathies lie with Bill’s mean that I can understand the “what the fuck, the world’s ending anyway” attitude Bill adopts when he decides to use the final thousand-or-so dollars to his name to go to Florida, especially in the disorienting unreality of life under a Trump administration.
Bill is both righteous and hypocritical, determined to resist Trumpism and fight for truth even as he doesn’t quite realize that treating his former friend’s tragic death as a career shot in the arm is pretty darn callous, or the fact that he still harbors feelings for the aforementioned former coworker, fired as she was from the Washington Post for Stephen Glass-esque antics. (Narratively, the death of Bill’s friend—a plastic surgeon—is more a symbol of American excess, and device to get Bill to Florida, than actual important plot thread.)
Bill and Melsor’s relationship, the wonky, beating heart of The Château, feels so well-worn and lived-in that its volatile pushes-and-pulls contain some genuinely touching moments. Bill’s feelings about his father are rightfully complicated: he’s disappointed that his once-brave, defiant father has become a greedy, nativist shill, and yet there’s the sense that against outside forces, Bill would be tempted to defend him to the death. While Bill stopped speaking to his father after Melsor attempted to get him to do some dirty work during his Medicare fraud trial, shocked and disgusted by Melsor’s mendacity and lack of morals, he still sent the former classmate who broke the story a hearty “fuck you” note. No one is allowed to insult and/or hurt Bill’s father but Bill. Meanwhile, as Bill finds it increasingly harder to feel concerned about abetting Melsor in his crimes against his neighbors (including breaking-and-entering and wire-tapping), we can see how his entire conception of right and wrong and rule of law has been rightfully shaken after the 2016 election.
Scholars of language and linguistics will likely have a field day with the way The Château works with language. Over the course of the novel, Bill (birth name: Ilya) increasingly converses with his father and neighbors in Russian, his native tongue, symbolizing his own grudging acceptance of Melsor; yet even as he becomes closer to his crooked father, Bill comes to use Russian as a language of investigation and discovery, eventually finding in the Russian language the desire to continue the truth-telling, danger-courting legacy his father abandoned when the family came to America.
If Trump hadn’t been elected, I suspect that Goldberg would have been able to write The Château as a sort of what-if?-so-glad-we-avoided-that parable; indeed, he told Kirkus Reviews in early 2016 that he was writing a book that clearly became The Chateau somewhere along the way. The proceedings of The Château are so vivid on their own that the liberal application of Trump Victorious feels topical rather than completely intertwined into the narrative. Trump merely provides a more recognizable lens through which we can view Goldberg’s creation, turning the proceedings from the “Florida Man” punchline/dismissal into something much more understandable for those of us not familiar with the unique ecosystem of the wealthy retirees of South Florida. Because The Château is a work of fiction, it’s not going to be judged on how factual it is, or whether its exaggerations help or harm our understanding of Trump—and it shouldn’t be.
The Château is undoubtedly the work of someone who has been considering the implications of Trump’s ascendance in very personal terms as well as the usual historic/political ones. Its early 2018 release date (and the fact that it’s set in January 2017, mere days before Trump’s “coronation”, as Bill puts it) might seem a bit opportunistic, since someone has to write the Defining Trump Novel of Our Time at some point. Yet Goldberg’s book is clearly the culmination of some serious thought about what the alarming rise of MAGA-ness means, skillfully deployed in a glib, almost theatrical fictional setting with an undeniably intimate touch.
Bill Katzenelenbogen’s fictional biography is so similar to Goldberg’s own—Russian-born, Duke graduate, medical reporter with a zeal for justice—that it’s nearly impossible not to see Bill as an authorial stand-in, meaning that Goldberg is likely using this farcical novel to unpack his own relationship to Trumpism. Even if Paul Goldberg’s father is nothing like Melsor Katzenelenbogen, the community—and constituency—Melsor represents is undoubtedly one with which Goldberg is familiar: the oxymoronically Trump-loving Soviet refusenik who doesn’t see in Trump the same kind of dictatorial intentions they escaped when they left the USSR. In short, Goldberg’s still writing about a kind of family he’s known and experienced, even if it’s not his literal family, and thus his observations have the ring of truth to them, as bleak as that may seem.