Jan 26, 2018

Review: NOTHING by Hanif Kureishi


'The idea of a celibate Hanif Kureishi hero tormented by the very urges he once indulged is an excellent one — think Phillip Roth in a chastity belt. Given the current cultural and political climate, in fact, that idea may have even more than usual appeal. The more or less unfettered license that male writers have enjoyed when it comes to holding up every stain in the bed-sheet as a palimpsest of their smarting, solipsistic souls may be time for an overhaul. Sexual jealousy has produced many a major and minor classic, from Saul Bellow’s Herzog to Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square and Julian Barnes’s Before She Met Me, but the trick of these books lies in the skill with which the writer evokes, through the heat haze of their protagonist’s obsession, the bobbing horizon line of reality, however fleetingly glimpsed. There must be more to Lolita than just Humbert Humbert’s lust.  Here, Kureishi runs into trouble. There’s really nobody in the book besides Waldo, the other characters existing mostly to ferry congratulatory bouqets to his much-garlanded imagination.  “Waldo you’ve got the filthiest imagination of anyone I’ve met,” says Zee, who nevertheless supplies him with sordid stories of Eddie’s past involving sodomy and rape.   “Your mind is like a roaring wind tunnel,” admonishes his movie actress friend Anita (“not a woman a man can look at for long without wanting to put his penis in her mouth”) but she too brings him further reports of Eddies affairs, pecadilloes, and “orgies with in his school uniform with important people.” But what a stroke of luck!   The world is exactly as florid as the fantasist first imagined it to be. The book is a little like one of those fake knots that, once pulled, turn out to be just a piece of string. Even paranoiacs can be plotted against, of course, but there’s a word for the kind of writing in which too neat a sense of reality is made to line up with loamy sexual fantasy:   pornography. I suspect Kureishi knows this. That pre-emptive shrug of a title almost defies us to take his book seriously.  “As a reader I’m done with literature,” declares Waldo as he asks Anita to read him one of his favorite detective stories again, “I only want fun.” But fun for a writer and fun for a reader are different things and while it may have been fun for Kureishi to write of Zee, “when I could still rim her little hole, or halo, as I call it, and push inside, she’d almost slice the tip of my tongue off” it is rather more arduous work for the reader to square that with the devoted nurse they had been picturing a few pages previously: one minute a Florence Nightingale, the next a lithe vixen who slaps Waldo and attempts to smother him with a pillow.  The behavior that might have driven her to such an act is carefully elided, if not hard to imagine. For all his self-obsession, Waldo shows little instinct towards the kind of degree-zero self-appraisal to which Bellow subjected Moses Herzog: “To his country, an indifferent citizen. To his brothers and sisters, affectionate but remote. With his friends, an egotist. With love, lazy. With brightness dull. With power passive. With his own soul evasive. Satisfied with his own severity, positively enjoying the hardness and factual rigor of his judgment, he lay on his sofa....” That final sentence is a killer, with Bellow dinging him for the complacency and self-congratulation of even accurate self-knowledge can breed. Ouch. Compared to that, Kureishi is still on the beginner’s slopes, practicing his snow-plough. Whether you enjoy it is very much down to how much of a jolt you can get from his epigrams, most of them loitering in the 25-watt range:  “the libido, like Elvis and jealousy, never dies”; “a saint is only someone who has been under-researched”; “boring people are always popular. They never do anything unexpected.” All of which have the requisite cynical snarl but collapse at the gentlest inquiry. “The imagination is the most dangerous place on earth,” asserts Waldo, but Kureishi has supplied him with the safest possible paddock in which to roam: a world carefully Waldoized, confirming his every suspicion and offering his steamy imaginings the least possible pushback. Where’s the danger in that?' - from my New York Times review  

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