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Sanjena Sathian’s Gold Diggers is a playful social satire with teeth

This terrific debut novel uses heists and alchemy to deconstruct immigrant ambition, striving, and sin.

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Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian
Penguin Press

In the first half of Sanjena Sathian’s terrific debut novel, Gold Diggers, it’s the early ’00s, and Kanye is all over the radio. But the gold that Sathian’s protagonist Neil has on his mind is a little more literal than the gold Kanye is rapping about.

Neil, 15 years old, is ensconced in an Indian American enclave in the suburbs of Atlanta, listlessly attempting to live up to his parents’ expectations for him. Too nerdy to pass as cool and too bored by most of his classes to flourish as one of the smart set, Neil longs to excel, to win his parents’ approval, to win over a hot girl. He dreads mediocrity, but he fears he may well be that dread monster, an average kid.

Anita, Neil’s former best friend and current crush, has a solution to his fears: gold.

Anita and her mother Anjali have been pilfering gold trinkets from the rest of the Desi community. Following a process Anjali learned from her mother in Bombay, they render the gold into an alchemical elixir they refer to as “lemonade.” And once drunk, the lemonade transfers some of the ambition and drive, some essential sense of purpose, out of the gold’s previous owner and into the person who has consumed it.

For that reason, Anita explains to Neil, the gold has to be stolen from the rest of their community. “Who else is really, truly ambitious?” she asks. “This is immigrant shit.”

After Neil catches Anita and Anjali in the act, he decides that he wants in on their scam. And so with few compunctions, he commences stealing the ambition — “skimming off the top, really” — of his classmates.

The giddy heist-movie energy of what ensues powers the first half of Gold Diggers: It’s all teens high on hormones and lemonade, pickpocketing their classmates for glory. But Sathian capably balances the slick pleasures of Neil and Anita’s small-time crimes with a clear-eyed foreboding. These characters are stealing, even sinning. And they will be punished for it.

So when Sathian skips forward in time to 2016 in the second half of the novel, Neil has been fundamentally changed by his winner-take-all ruthlessness. He is still purposeless, still struggling to find a sense of self that exists outside of his parents’ ambitions and his desire for his peers’ approval. He’s a history grad student at Berkeley now, struggling to peck away at his dissertation, filled with mixed envy and disdain for the friends who rode the tech bubble to California like modern-day gold seekers. Still, he is haunted by what he did in high school.

The structural choices here are heavily reminiscent of those in Jonathan Lethem’s much-admired debut Fortress of Solitude, which also sees its cynical East Coast protagonist fleeing to Berkeley, haunted by the mildly supernatural betrayals he committed as a teenager. But Sathian is a fundamentally more optimistic novelist than Lethem. She is willing to offer her characters redemption for their sins.

And it’s easy to root for Neil’s redemption. He is an occasionally monstrous figure, selfish and petty and shallow in a painfully teenage way. But he’s caught in a system that has left him with no winning moves: He has to succeed, or what are all his parents’ sacrifices for? And yet how can he win when there can only ever be one real winner? And what would success even look like for him? It’s because these questions are unresolvable that as an adult, Neil considers both himself and Anita to be “conceptual orphans.”

“We had not grown up imbibing stories that implicitly conveyed answers to the basic questions of being,” he thinks: “What did it feel like to fall in love in America, to take oneself for granted, in America? Starved as we were for clues about how to live, we would grip like mad on to anything that lent a possible way of being.” Gold offered that possibility, until it didn’t.

Sathian’s most compelling figure, though, is Anita. She’s a pageant queen as a teenager, working to discard the social liability of an association with Neil; Neil’s sister refers to her dismissively as a “climber.” But she’s loyal enough to their old friendship to bring him into her gold plan without second thoughts. And when we meet her as an adult, her suspended animation is dramatically different from Neil’s. She’s working a series of well-paying jobs that come with low social status, like event planning; she’s flitting in and out of a long-term relationship with a guy both she and everyone around her considers too good for someone like her, because she will clearly never achieve anything meaningful.

“Meaningful” in Anita and Neil’s circles means something specific: a job that is well-paying, with high social status, that will lead to marriage and children. It’s the dream of America, and it is what these characters were taught they had to strive for, in order to justify the sacrifices of their parents. It’s “immigrant shit.”

The project of Gold Diggers is to deconstruct that dream. But what makes the novel so compelling is the playfulness with which Sathian deconstructs it. You feel for the characters and the ways they have been warped by their pursuit of greatness and the ways they are haunted by their sins — but also, there are heists and alchemy. It’s a blast.

For both Neil and Anita, redemption can come only by making full use of what they took — and in finding a way to give it back. Their attempt to find a way to accomplish both of those objectives takes up the second half of the novel.

And if it turns out that redemption takes the form of a heist, with a mystical interlude to boot? Well, that’s just a bonus.