Hanif Kureishi has been on the literary scene for about twenty years, but I’ve never felt the urge to read one of his books. Maybe it’s because no one loves a renaissance man: novels, plays, screenwriting, memoirs – make your mind up, will you? But his new novel Something to Tell You has already had some good advance word in the papers – hype, you say? – so I couldn’t resist when the opportunity arose.
The cover shows a multitude of couples in various entwinements (but nothing troubling: and I did look), which pretty well sums up the book. Kureishi courted controversy with his novella Intimacy, which some claimed was a self-serving account of his failed marriage; Something to Tell You makes its narrator, Jamal Khan, a psychotherapist (“an autobiographer’s assistant, midwife to my patients’ fantasies”), so the relationships, failed at worst and at best straining, fill the pages to bursting. As to whether there is more author than character in observations like “The founding myth of heterosexuality: completion, the ultimate fulfilment,” I will not speculate (although in saying so, I kind of have).
Jamal – I find myself thinking of him in first name terms – was a youth in the sixties, and still acts that way, even though now the only sixties he’s proximate to are his own. Even now, separated from his wife and on occasional terms with his son, he’s not averse to a little light prostitution:
Then she secured me to the bed with handcuffs. In a corner of the room was a cross to which you could also be tied, but I preferred the bed. I was keen to try most perversions, provided you could sit down for them.
Even then, his libido cannot quite subdue his inner analyst:
I felt as mystified as ever about the multiplicity and importance of human desire, and of how destructive and fulfilling it could be, with, often, the destructiveness sponsoring the achievement.
This is a central issue for the book, along with that of “[responsibility] for our selves. But what are our selves? Where do they begin and how far do they extend?” Responsibility for themselves often seems to be the last thing on the minds of Jamal and his contemporaries, though destructive desire is pretty high up the agenda. Many, indeed, will find their middle-class London-centric self-indulgence maddening, and Kureishi acknowledges this too:
Most nights his crowd went to drinks parties and then to dinner. It was expensive: the clothes, food, drugs, drink, taxis. Not that money was an issue for them. ‘But it’s like an Evelyn Waugh novel!’ Lisa said, going to some trouble never to see any of them again. ‘He’s one of my favourite writers,’ Henry replied.
Henry is one of the grandest characters in the book, a theatre director with a gourmand’s appetite for everything, who “carried his own atmosphere with him” and has a splendid line in self-involved speeches (“I don’t want to be loved. I want to be desired. Love is safety, but desire is foul. ‘Give me excess of it…'”). He is in love with Jamal’s sister, Miriam. This is the least in a circuit of relationships past and present which haunt Jamal first- and second-hand. He is still in love with his first girlfriend Ajita. He can’t quite divorce his wife, and his son often hates him. Oh, and did he tell you he was once involved in a murder? Guilt gets a look-in too. Therapist: heal thyself.
The murder story, and its long-term consequences, keeps the plot going at otherwise quiet moments – though there is little quiet in this teeming novel of lifelike messiness – and one of the incidental pleasures are the asides into the history and practice of psychotherapy. As well as this, Something to Tell You acts as a scattergun social history of Britain in the last forty years, touching on race relations, celebrity culture (“That was how, until recently, we examined the Other, through the imagination and intelligence of an artist like Ibsen or Proust. Now everyone revealed everything but no one understood anything”) and (as inevitably as American novels ‘dealing with’ September 11) the London Tube bombings of July 2005.
The structure of the book seems shapeless, but in fact is better described as roomy, giving space for Kureishi to try to fit everything in – even if some of the elements stick out obtrusively as a result, and there are sags and gaps here and there. Any sufficiently messy performance has a charm of its own, particularly when so many of the players are so consumed with themselves. Jamal identifies two of them as “madmen … their craziness not making an increase of life but, rather, consternation, despair, isolation.” He should take a look at himself.