Saturday, April 24, 2010

Satyrs Of Suburbia

This appeared in today's Indian Express


In his introduction to The Second Plane, Martin Amis writes, “Geopolitics may not be my natural subject, but masculinity is”. It’s a statement that comes to mind when reading Hanif Kureishi’s collected short stories. To be sure, many of these tales get their charge from a blending of the political with the personal, but questions of virility and potency, specifically in post-Thatcher Britain, animate most of them.

At one point in the title story from Love in a Blue Time, a character considers how “he'd longed for the uncontrolled life, seeking only pleasure and avoiding the ponderous difficulties of keeping everything together”. The bulk of the stories in this volume could be said to be about the unraveling of this emotion. There are many satyrs of suburbia here: no-longer-young men who have fraught relationships with their wives and offspring, puzzling over past successes and failures, taking their measure by changes in old friends and recalling a time of “lies, deceit and alienation”.

In addition, quite a few of those who inhabit Kureishi's world are from the writing or performing arts -- London's playwrights, directors, actors and agents -- which means that many stories, though forceful on their own, create something of a circumscribed air when taken together.

Collected here are the stories from Love in a Blue Time, Midnight All Day and The Body, as well as eight more recent ones, some of which appeared in publications such as The New Yorker and Zoetrope. To be frank, these new stories – which, naturally, one turns to first -- are a bit of a let-down. ‘Weddings and Beheadings’, for example, has an interesting and provocative premise – the ambitions of a cameraman who films beheadings by terrorists – but isn’t sufficiently fleshed out. Others, such as ‘A Terrible Story’ have stilted and overblown dialogue, while ‘Phillip’, dealing with an old friendship recalled in the present, manages to be moving despite the awkward structure.

There is much pleasure to be had in re-reading the rest, not least of which is the desire they provoke to return to Kureishi’s novels. The affecting ‘Nightlight’, from Love in a Blue Time, has affinities with Intimacy; and the remarkable ‘My Son the Fanatic’ springs from the same urge that would make Kureishi write The Black Album. (As he has said elsewhere, both came from his reactions to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.) Other subjects written about that seem to have arisen from a wellspring of personal experience are those dealing with racism (‘We’re Not Jews’) as well as tales of relationships between parents and children (‘Goodbye, Mother’).

Two formidable stories could well vie for the distinction of being the most impressive ones here: ‘With Your Tongue in My Mouth’, dealing with the lives of two half-sisters, one from Pakistan and the other from Britain, and the novella-length ‘The Body’, which takes to a long-drawn conclusion the premise of an older man reborn in a younger body, with its associated meditations on ageing and Cartesian duality.

Throughout, the prose is unadorned and straightforward, largely comprising simple, declarative sentences with an air of bluntness and Roth-like lack of inhibition. There are many penises in these pages, for instance, even a tepid Gogol-inspired tale revolving around the same organ. Of course, one of the enjoyments of reading Kureishi’s work has always been his sardonic asides, such as when one of the characters is moved to observe: “I imagine that to participate in the world with curiosity and pleasure, to see the point of what is going on, you have to be young and uninformed”.

At another point, in another story, one of his characters muses, “It has, at least, become clear that it is our pleasures, rather than our addictions or vices, which are our greatest problems”. In these collected stories, Kureishi ably takes us on a tour of the pitfalls of our pleasures.

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