• Email
  • Print

In a London of Infinite Possibilities

In his story “The Body” (2002), Hanif Kureishi made his main character reflect on London. The place, he thought, was

no longer part of Britain—in my view, a dreary, narrow place full of fields, boarded-up shops and cities trying to imitate London—but has developed into an independent city-state, like New York, and has begun to come to terms with the importance of gratification.

Kureishi is right about that importance. On the old English principle of “Well, why not? Might as well give it a go,” people of every origin and culture have spent the last few decades getting high on warm alco-pops, gulping and sniffing cheap illegal drugs, and hopping under each others’ musty-smelling duvets to breed new and thrilling ethnicities. Gratification has produced a new London, increasingly moving beyond “multiculturalism” into a real hybridity. It’s not in the least like that nervous “swinging London” of the 1960s. This is a confident megalopolis where the pursuit of pleasure and “fulfillment” has spread out to the edges, not confined, as it was back then, to a few media-infested lanes like Kings Road, Chelsea, or Carnaby Street. Kureishi, himself born in south London, has an acute sense (as Dickens had) of the relationship between urban district, social class, and behavior. His concentric London has a core district of theaters, abbeys, and restaurants (this zone interests him least), then a thick ring of decayed, swarming residential boroughs, and then a vast low-rise spread of suburbs. His first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), was divided into two parts, “In the Suburbs” and “In the City,” and the aspirational life-journey from outer districts to central city is a track along which most of his longer fiction is laid. If an addicted Kureishi reader were to imagine one of his suburban houses, it would be a two-story brick box in a row with scores of almost identical others. Behind it lies a moist, wildly overgrown back garden terminating in a World War II air-raid shelter; inside the house lives a turbulent family in which Father—probably Indian or Pakistani—is struggling to run a small shop and bullying his children into taking education seriously. This is the lower middle class, where the young are expected to work and study hard and to organize their lives for the future. But the children who rebel against these pressures escape into the tall-housed residential districts around the center (for Kureishi’s people this usually means West Kensington or Shepherd’s Bush). There they get down to gratification and self-expression, in company with the other colonists and refugees who have taken over these shabby streets. As the main character in Something to Tell You says about Shepherd’s Bush and the Uxbridge Road:

It always cheered me to walk here. This wasn’t the ghetto; the ghetto was Belgravia, Knightsbridge and parts of Notting Hill [i.e., areas still rich, white, and mostly English]. This was London as a world city.

The protagonist of Something to Tell You is Jamal Khan, a Freudian analyst and a cautious, evasive personality. Friends, lovers, relatives, and patients often misunderstand this aloofness as a sign of superiority (“you’re a sphinx without a secret,” one irritated woman tells him). His mother is English, his father an Indian Muslim intellectual whose family moved to Pakistan. They met at the London School of Economics, married, and settled in south London suburbia. But “Dad” grew restless. For him, as his son says, London “was extraterrestrial and the English codes unbreakable,” and—while Jamal and his sister Miriam were still small—he abandoned them and returned to Karachi to become a left-wing journalist.

Studying philosophy in college, shy Jamal meets beautiful, warmhearted Ajita. Her father, a “Uganda Asian,” owns a textile factory whose underpaid workers are in revolt. Their home is in the same suburb as Jamal’s, and he and Ajita (chinking with jewelry, driving a gold-colored Capri) fall in love. They have happy, experimental sex in jungly south London gardens. But Jamal, who wants to know everything about her, becomes aware that Ajita has a secret. “It would put you off me…don’t ask.” A shadow begins to gather. Ajita will eventually confess her wretched secret. This leads Jamal to bring about someone’s death, in a way that makes him technically a murderer. Without giving the story away, these two events—which happen in the middle of the novel—break Jamal’s life apart, separate him from Ajita, who flees to India and then America, and leave him a guilt-haunted wreck. More than twenty years later, she will return and the two lovers, now middle-aged, warily explore the hope that they could reunite. But it does not work out. Too much separates them, not least the gulf of time that lies between the hopeful dreams of the 1970s and the sinister anxieties of the “war on terror,” Islamophobia, and the ruthless cult of egoism first installed by Mrs. Thatcher and powerfully elaborated in the decade of Tony Blair:

Now, of course, we live in Thatcher’s psyche if not her anus, in the world she made, of corruption, consumerism, celebrity and guilt’s bastard son, charity: bingeing and debt.

After the disaster, Jamal goes into therapy with an iconoclastic Pakistani, a “hip shrink.” He talks at last about the murder, but the therapist cheerily comments that he has “done the world a service, offing this pig.” Slowly Jamal recognizes that this is a career he could follow, and he trains to be a Freudian analyst, eventually a fashionable and successful one whose “popular” books are widely read. Kureishi slightly overloads this fiction with Jamal’s reflections about his profession, but they are always witty and unsettling. “What they [the patients] call their symptom is, in fact, their life, and they’d better love it!” Or “people hate the thought of giving up their symptoms—forfeiting one’s illnesses is a big risk, since they work as cures for other conflicts.” Or “the striking thing about the normal is that there is nothing normal about it: normality is the gentrification of ordinary madness.” The relationship between Jamal and Ajita is the central thread of the novel (its shape is a first-person narrative told by Jamal, the form Hanif Kureishi almost always chooses for his fiction). But Something to Tell You is mainly made up of other relationships. Some of them are crazed and obsessive, some tender and lustful, some driven by fear and hatred which can unexpectedly relax into compassion. Most of them cast Jamal as one partner, during the years after Ajita’s flight. All are in some way startling, and all are told with Hanif Kureishi’s hot verbal energy: scathing, wickedly observant, often foul-mouthed.

One of Kureishi’s talents is that he can make his characters change in value as time passes. Repellent figures may become interesting and even likable to the reader as they grow older. This is true about Ajita’s little brother Mustaq. First encountered by Jamal as a foully manipulative gay child, Jamal runs into him again decades later—a shock worthy of Anthony Powell’s characters in Dance to the Music of Time—as “George Cage,” a giant on the rock music scene. Mustaq knows or guesses too much about the “secret” and the “murder.” And yet Jamal gradually ceases to fear this proud, melancholy star and comes almost to love him.

Jamal’s first serious woman after Ajita is Karen, an ambitious young TV producer (“the TV bitch,” as his left-wing friends call her). Again, she’s a character that seems to transit. When she appears, Jamal finds her “brashness, vulgarity and loudness” appealing, but then—as Mrs. Thatcher’s 1980s proceed—she comes to seem detestably callous, ruthless in her career, and philistine in her tastes (“Tchaikovsky’s Crime and Punishment, Chekhov’s Last Symphony—yuck, fuck, muck!” she says). Karen has an abortion, and they break up. But much later, overweight, depressed, and then sandbagged by the diagnosis of cancer, she becomes once more “someone I knew and liked a lot.” Ajita herself moves subtly in the opposite direction. The sweet, shameless nymph in the suburban grass returns as a middle-aged woman who has left a husband and children in New York. Back in London, with money and on her own, she begins to explore her own desires and anxieties in ways that can exclude Jamal: “I have three men—you, my brother and my husband—trying to control me.” For the first time, she is putting herself first: plunging enthusiastically into analysis, failing to notice how ill a lover is until it’s too late. The reader will, I think, be surprised to find that he or she likes Ajita less by the end of the book. With writers less bold and less observant than Kureishi, lovable characters tend to stay lovable. The novel’s chronology weaves back and forth. At the start, the reader meets Jamal already well established as a shrink, and already separated from his English wife, Josephine. She makes her appearance as a rather forbidding figure, “tall, unmoving and unreachable,” preoccupied with her ailments and cures, “suspicious and envious of the mouthy and articulate,” quarreling fiercely with Jamal over the upbringing of their twelve-year-old son Rafi. But as the story nears its end, it emerges that Jamal is still more deeply in love with her than he can easily admit to himself (indeed, it’s never really explained why they broke up, except that they couldn’t stop shouting complaints at one another). Josephine, in a transition as delicately done as Ajita’s but heading in the other direction, tiptoes across the sympathy spectrum from cold to warm. A reproachful hypochondriac slowly turns into an ironic woman whose chatter about bad knees and insomnia somehow makes her all the more attractive: the subject of something like a happy end. Kureishi can be thought of as a noisy, sometimes showy writer. But he does these transitions with such patient expertise that disbelief doesn’t arise.

The noisiest, showiest people in Something to Tell You are Jamal’s sister Miriam and his best friend Henry. Their collision, their union, and then their tumultuous joint pleasure-hunt wouldn’t happen anywhere except in Kureishi’s London. Henry is a famous theater and film director, still an exuberant talker but getting old, fat, and desperate to wring what he can out of life before it’s too late. Miriam is, to put it mildly, a bit of rough. Covered with tattoos and metal (“Parts of her face resembled a curtain rail”), overweight, and prone to murderous tantrums, she lives with some of her five fatherless children on the profits of fencing stolen goods and drugs. But Henry can see that inside the blubber and the ironwork is somebody with the wit and vigor he thinks he is missing. Miriam can see that behind the grand, verse-spouting eloquence is a good man longing to leap over the wall and plunge into the chaos and pleasure of her own life. To the horror of Henry’s ghastly ex-wife and daughter, they get together.

What they get up to drives much of the novel. Most of it is sex, conducted on Henry’s floor littered with ropes, masks, and other bondage gear; there they are discovered in flagrante by Henry’s priggish children, who back away declaring that they are “grossed out.” Soon they progress to orgies. They find a discreet doorway under some railway arches in south London, leading to a club where fetish gear or nakedness are required for entry. Here they discover middle-aged suburbanites happily copulating in heaps. Henry and Miriam are delighted:

Unfortunately for the public, old men can’t wait to get their clothes off. I overcame my shame, and Miriam didn’t bother with such needless sophistication…. I’m telling you, Jamal, not since I was a socialist have I felt such a sense of community.

Jamal acts as a sort of umpire and counselor to Henry and his sister, listening to their exploits and sorting out their crises. But his own emotional life also takes new shape as he is sucked along in the wake of their adventures. Reluctantly, he climbs into a ridiculous masked disguise and goes with them to the orgy cellar, where he finds his wife Josephine; joining a line of men, he makes incognito love to her and discovers how much he still desires her. Later, Henry and Miriam take him to a Stones concert. At the party afterward he is introduced to the famous “George Cage,” who turns out to be lost Ajita’s brother Mustaq. This is Kureishi’s most ambitious fiction, so far. It is irresistibly clever and entertaining, even though not everything quite works. It’s hard to believe, for instance, in Jamal’s favorite brothel, staffed by gorgeous, amusing young women who are all intellectuals—although, given that London has become such a place of infinite possibilities, a script typed by ten thousand monkeys who will eventually churn out the collected works of Henry Miller as well as of Shakespeare, nobody should swear that such a place doesn’t exist. More generally, the novel occasionally feels too long for its weight, its seething activity spinning rather than flowing. But the best parts are very fine. The most moving and accomplished chapter changes location entirely, recounting Jamal and Miriam’s journey to Karachi to find their father. They are very young—Jamal has just graduated—and completely unprepared for the reality of Pakistan and their Pakistani family. “Papa,” thin and fragile, living in an almost derelict flat, is a newspaper columnist writing against censorship to attack the shortages, the monstrous corruption, and the slow death of independent thought under the weight of Islamic obscurantism. The two children stay with Papa’s brother and his family; Miriam is segregated with the women, Jamal left free to move around and ogle his uncle’s pretty daughters. Dreams of finding exciting ethnic “roots” soon fade:

Far from being “spiritual,” as Miriam understood it, Karachi was the most materialistic place we had been. Deprivation was the spur. I might have considered my father’s friends to be vulgar and shallow, but it was I who was made to feel shabby, like someone who’d stupidly missed a good opportunity in Britain.

The visit ends in disaster. Jamal starts an affair with one of the pretty cousins, who believes that he will marry her, take her back to “Inglistan,” and buy her a Jag. Miriam takes to driving around with her head uncovered, getting drunk on the beach, and making love in hotels with the fiancé of another cousin. When Papa calls her a dirty slut who can’t behave, she knocks him down and spits in his face. They are both packed onto a plane to London the same night. Jamal accuses Miriam of ruining everything:

No wonder Papa thinks you’re an idiot and a bitch…. These people have their own way of life, and you just pissed all over it! There can be few people in this world who are more selfish than you!

When they arrive, they part in silence and for a long while their lives diverge. They will never see their father again. A year or so later, he is dead.

Among other virtues, Something to Tell You is a shrewd history of changing moods in changing times. It could be read as confirming the English mania for defining everything by decades. The 1960s, in which Londoners were struggling for the right to express their feelings and enjoy a minimally decent living standard, are over. There follow the 1970s, years of experiencing and experimenting with pleasure, chemical and sexual. But by the end of that decade, some of Kureishi’s young people are wise enough to recognize that sexual pleasure, in particular, is not some universal gold standard or graduation medal. He writes about Jamal’s Karen (“the TV bitch”) that “like many people, she didn’t really like sex but would go through with it if she thought the other person badly wanted it.”

After talking to his son Rafi about the subject, Jamal reflects:

One of the “truths” about sex which Rafi would also discover—perhaps early on—would be how problematical sex is, and how much people hate it, as well as how much shame, embarrassment and rage it can encourage. Henry and his generation did a lot to educate us about the nature of desire, but however free we believe ourselves to be…our bodies will always trouble us with their unusual desires and perverse refusals….

Then come the 1980s, the stampede for wealth and the flaunting of power and possessions. But in the next twenty years, the frame in which most of Something to Tell You takes place, the mood changes again. This is the period in which the cult of celebrity grips London, and in which the Thatcher “Me” generation begins to grow anxious. The hunt now is for attention. Pleasure and wealth become means to a desperate end: to be noticed. Miriam and Henry take their joys in public: everyone must know and see. Miriam will almost literally kill if she thinks that a parent or a lover is no longer paying her enough attention. Lisa, Henry’s dire daughter, is mad with jealousy of Miriam for usurping her father’s interest. “She has stolen him. He missed my childhood, having better people to be with.” Jamal’s boy Rafi, asked what he is best at in his school class, replies, “I am the best looking.” Only the sphinxish Jamal prefers discretion. It isn’t only that his job is hearing and respecting the secrets of his patients. Close attention is just what he doesn’t need. He is under threat from two other secrets, Ajita’s and his own—the murder. Then comes what the British call “7/7”: the slaughter by Islamic suicide bombers on the London Tube in July 2005. The mood of Jamal and his friends suddenly sobers. A young woman he and Henry have fancied is among the dead. Old assumptions wither. Henry, rhetorical as ever, asks:

Didn’t we grow up on radical Third World movements, from Africa and South America—and now the rebels, the oppressed, are killing us from the far religious Right! Don’t you ever feel you don’t know what’s going on in the world?

Jamal, moving about a half-paralyzed London whose sky is thrashing with police helicopters, expects to be insulted for his “Muslim” skin color, but is surprised to meet nothing of the sort:

Being bombed didn’t stimulate British patriotism. The city was neither united nor disunited. Londoners were intelligently cynical and were quite aware—they always had been—that Blair’s deadly passion for Bush would cost them. They would wait for Blair to go—after many more deaths—and then they would sweep the front step.

Everyone starts to discuss Islam, integration, world politics. Ajita takes to studying the Koran, remorseful that she has never visited her family’s Muslim roots, and for a few days wanders around London in a black burqa to see what it feels like. And in this new climate the secrets are allowed to open, or at least to fall open between the people who most need to know them. The skeleton cupboards are unlocked after so many years, and what they contain has withered to something merely sad and pitiable. In an almost Mozartian finale, partners separated by every Kureishian artifice and disguise now drop their masks and rejoin each other, as Something to Tell You is told.

  • Email
  • Print