March 18, 2018

Of Sex and Boredom: Hanif Kureishi's Something To Tell You tells us nothing new

Technically Hanif Kureishi is a British author, but he’s a ‘novelist of Pakistani and English descent’ according to his Wikipedia page, which is good enough for me (because authorial nationality is a headache I haven’t began to bash my head up against.) Also because his name crops up pretty regularly in discussions of Pakistani literature, so I was already halfway through his book when I realized he was British. At which point I thought, “I’ve read too much of this crap to not review this now.” 

And here we are.

Of all the Pakistani books I’ve reviewed, only this book came close to creating the level of blahness that Uzma Aslam Khan’s 
Thinner than Skin inspired in me. Not that Kureishi doesn’t write well. He’s a good enough writer, passably entertaining, sometimes. But he’s a writer wasted on his subject matter.
 
The problem could be that Kureishi took on too much in one go. London in the 70s, young love, drugs, sex, murder and guilt, race and religion, all crop up here and there, but the really interesting nuggets, the smart, incisive commentary on the society, gets lost under all the other garbage. This is mainly because Kureishi’s protagonist, a middle-aged divorcee with a cushiony job, is the equivalent of the uncle at parties who cracks inappropriate jokes, scratches his belly, and stares lecherously at all the girls. Not only is Jamal the psychoanalyst boring and uninspired, he’s also wholly self-absorbed and whiny in the most grating kind of way. 

It occurred to me that I wanted my wife to be a whore, and my whores to be my partners.

In fact, pretty much all the other characters in this story – the vanished love interest, the wild single-mother sibling, the theatre director best friend – are more interesting than our own Jamal, and that’s not saying much since all these characters can easily come off as too zany, too melodramatic, too hard an effort on Kureishi’s part to create ‘complex’ characters. All their lives seem inconsequential and tiresome, an error of huge proportions in a book which rests solely on its characters’ activities. Because the actual ‘mystery’, the back story to Jamal’s current problem, a crime he committed and got away for, fizzles away into nothingness. In fact, for a back story that has Jamal wrecked in guilt throughout the book, it winds up being the most anti-climatic ending ever. 

There’s also an almost unhealthy obsession with sex running through the whole book. By this point I’ve read and talked about sex enough to know that it’s not the topic itself that made me squeamish, but the treatment of it. Hanif’s characters talk about sex as if to say, ‘Look how cool I am! Admire me for I am liberal and know about prostitutes and whips!” Case in point:

“Perhaps my son would, one day, prefer to be blown by a stranger in a toilet, or perhaps he would like to be spanked while being fellated by a Negro transvestite.”

He’s talking about his son. And here’s another example of his best friend talking about his own son:

“Most nights Sam makes love. At the beginning of the night, in the middle, and just for luck in the morning. I hear it, I overhear it. I can’t escape the fluttering moans.”

Dear god, old man. Get a grip. Take a cold shower. That’s basically what a huge portion of the book feels like: awkward, uncomfortable, and like having a conversation with an older relative who is determined to use the words blow job in every second sentence. 

Another constant recurrence, equally irritating, is in the frequent allusions to writers, psychologists, actors, poets, playwrights, etc etc etc. Baudelaire, Balzac, Freud, Proust, Keats, Coleridge, Kafka, Marx, Emerson, Blake, on and on and on; it’s like Kureish needs us to know how much he knows and how well read he is. But instead of being impressive, it stumbles headfirst into pretentiousness. 

A favourite conversation with Valentin concerned moral absolutes and ideas he’d found in Balzac, Nietzsche, Turgenev and Dostoevsky about nihilism and murder.

Kureishi’s description of Jamal’s two friends, Valentin and Woolf, was so reminiscent of the three idiots you find in H. M. Naqvi’s 
Home Boy  that for a second I had a stark, horrible flashback to the cesspit that was that novel. In a similar vein to Home Boy’s overly descriptive homage to shoe styles and flashy, pretentious conversations, Something to Tell You might well have been the inspiration to Naqvi’s endless drivel. 

How I loved being with the unassailable men. Me, the eager little kid, they would patronise as I tried to please them with jokes, tough talk and a swaggering walk. Often Wolf and Valentin spoke in French or German…

I think probably the problem was more to do with the fact that none of the characters held their ground enough for me to care about what was going on in their lives. And once you don’t care about the characters, once you start to forget where your hero’s parents are and what his best friend does and why our protagonist is doing what he’s doing, then the book is a lost cause.

He became a made-up father, a collage assembled from bits of the real one. Each of us had our own notion or fantasy of him, while he stood in the shadows, like Orson Welles in The Third Man, always about to step into our lives—we hoped.

By the time we got to page 30, Jamal mentioned his father living far away in Pakistan and I had to stop and think, “Wait, what was the father’s story again?” Mainly this was because I was bored. In some places a randomly placed exceptionally well written passage or sentence would catch my attention-

People have such power; the force field of their bodies, and the wishes within them, can knock you all over the place. 

-but then we would be back to the same old stuff. Even all the discussions about minorities and racial discrimination and the changing social fabric of London, interesting though it was, wasn’t enough to save this book. 

Most whites considered Asians to be “inferior,” less intelligent, less everything good. Not that we were called Asian then. Officially, as it were, we were called “immigrants,” I think. Later, for political reasons, we were “blacks.” But we always considered ourselves to be Indians. In Britain we are still called Asians, though we’re no more Asian than the English are European. It was a long time before we became known as Muslims, a new imprimatur, and then for political reasons.

The problem with this book is that our protagonist is a thoroughly unlikable, incredibly boring character. And while thoroughly unlikeable characters can make for great writing (Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, Amy Dunne from Gone Girl, Dorian Gray from The Picture of Dorian Gray), over here it, very simple put, does not. 

Recommendation

There are too many good books out there to waste your time with this one. If you want, maybe check out Buddha of Suburbia since people seem to love that Kureishi book, but definitely give this one a miss.