:: Article

Épater La Bourgeoisie: Hanif Kureishi’s The Nothing

By Jude Cook.

Review or Hanif Kureishi's The Nothing

Hanif Kureishi, The Nothing (Faber & Faber, 2017)

When a cherished artist disappoints one with their new book, the feeling is at once strangely sour-sweet and inescapably personal. Sour, because one had hoped for so much more; sweet, because one is confident the affronting new work is a merely a momentary blip, and that the sure course towards artistic greatness and literary immortality will be resumed with the next novel. And personal because, well, how could it be otherwise? When it comes to Kureishi, I confess I am a helpless fan. I have read everything multiple times; made pilgrimages to Powis Square where a working laundrette named My Beautiful Laundrette can be found (though the film of the same name wasn’t shot there). I have even visited the site of the Three Tuns pub in Beckenham where Karim had a drink with his father in The Buddha of Suburbia, only to find a plaque commemorating the site of Bowie’s early gigs. I confess, too, that I have occasionally been disappointed. Kureishi’s previous novel, The Last Word, wasn’t the wicked satire on literary rivalry I’d yearned for. Instead, it felt oddly underpowered, slapdash. I had hoped for wild indiscretion, revelation (one of the characters was reputedly based on VS Naipaul), but found only caution and narrative confusion. The essays, published around the same time, in Love & Hate – including ‘A Theft’, the classic account of being defrauded by a business advisor – had more vitality, spark, panache. Some of these pieces allowed Kureishi to examine yet again the project of multi-culturalism that Britain, pre-Brexit, so very nearly succeeded at, as well as to reflect on the writing life (something for which he has a talent unparalleled – see Dreaming and Scheming for proof). Yet, although he was initially lazily lumped into the Empire Strikes Back group of 1980s sub-continent writers such as Salman Rushdie and Rohinton Mistry (Kureishi grew up in Bromley), Kureishi has always been primarily a satirist, and a supreme agent provocateur. Despite the occasional European aridity of the essays, the fiction since 1990’s The Buddha of Suburbia has mostly occupied the same British comic tradition as Zadie Smith and Martin Amis. Satire – by turns vicious, ribald and humane – is his aim, and many commentators over the years have missed the humour entirely. From early on, Kureishi was pigeonholed as an earnest author obsessed with how the immigrant experience played out in the UK during the seventies, eighties and nineties. While racism, class and religion are certainly among his themes, it is his exploration of freedom, both sexual and political, that has been his central concern from the beginning. The Buddha of Suburbia was a polemic for reinvention; for intensely celebrating one’s individuality and sexuality, for unfettered creativity, regardless of the cost to the soul. And while black and Asian writers from Smith to Nikesh Shukla have rightly admitted that Kureishi’s voice was the most exciting and life-changing of their youth – largely for depicting a cast of characters and experiences they could identify with – he also emerged as a fearless advocate of a kind of punk libertarianism. A breaker of barriers; a provocative literary alchemist and witty sage. A sane and ever-surprising counter-voice to the prevailing dogmas. A Voltaire of suburbia.

So it’s a relief to find Kureishi’s new novella – with its wonderfully Beckettian title, The Nothing – surpasses all nervous expectations. Far from a disappointment, it’s something of a return to form, though a rash of censorious responses in the British press might beg to differ. With a nod to Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s The Key and Diary of a Mad Old Man, the new work is a study of the ageing, libidinous male, unsparing in its candour. The book’s protagonist, Waldo, a wheelchair-bound septuagenarian filmmaker, admits to having “most illnesses: diabetes, prostate cancer, an ulcer, early MS, constipation, diarrhoea, and only one good hip, a cough, phobias, addictions, obsessions and hypochondria”. Establishing the book’s mordant tone, he finishes this roll call with the caveat: “Otherwise I’m in great shape”, although, he tells us, “I have been expecting to die any day.” Sexually obsessed with his wife, Zee, 22 years his junior, in the opening chapter Waldo eavesdrops as she cuckolds him with Eddie (“more than an acquaintance and less than a friend”), a feckless, public-school Soho freeloader and part-time movie critic; a “dirty-minded raconteur”. All is set for a tale of dark sexual jealousy and revenge. Except, with typical perversity, that’s not quite what Kureishi serves up. The psychoanalytic strain in Kureishi’s work – one that has grown in recent years – demands we take Waldo as a case study, albeit a funny, suffering one in the mode of the Bellovian or Rothian hero. His thought-riddled testimony – and the context in which it is made – is paramount to understanding the book. It’s also essential to take into account that Waldo is (or was) an artist, and necessarily obsessed with the artistic process, a trait he shares with his creator (“I imagine things for a living, and the imagination is the most dangerous place on earth”). From the start, the incapacitated Waldo sets out his desires and loathings, all of which need to be seen through the prism of his sexual and artistic impotence. Forget about this context, and they lose all their pathos, and become the ramblings of an impossible, dirty-minded egotist. The book’s great, much-quoted opening sentence is a good example: “One night, when I am old, sick, right out of semen, and don’t need things to get any worse, I hear the noises again.” Recalling the uninhibited noises in the Kilburn flat occupied by Shahid in The Black Album, it’s an opening that sets up much curiosity in the reader and begs one to read further. While we might not relish being informed of a protagonist’s sperm count in the first line, there is much dark freight in not needing “things to get any worse”.  It puts one in mind of the Herodotus’s injunction to call no man happy until he’s dead. And it’s immediately poignant, without even knowing who the speaker is. We ask: just how bad have things been for this nameless sufferer?

Written in the pleasingly immediate present tense, the book utilises the eighteenth-century technique of “writing-to-the-moment”, pioneered by Richardson in Pamela. There’s a freshness to observations such as: “Throughout the night I listen to foxes, drunks, police sirens… and the buzz of my wife’s vibrator.” Later, he notes: “I begin to imagine what they are doing, the positions they adopt. Has she got onto her knees?” When Waldo isn’t musing on his errant wife, or brooding “constantly about the business of being an artist”, he’s thinking about the state of the nation, and how society has become less egalitarian since his youth: “We took it for granted that the good things – equality, feminism, anti-racism, freedom for sexual minorities – would be extended… We believed we were enlightened. The good things would be good for everyone. But people didn’t want them. We were elitists, that’s all.”       

Contemplating the view from his window, Waldo observes:

There is building work nearby. This area, Victoria, is constantly being renovated. I will not live to see its new look. I preferred the soot-black, more derelict London, which had some sublimity in its post-war despair. The mad were put in asylums, but the sane are worse off in their offices. This new world seems banal and exhausted. There’s too much money in London. We’ve lived too long.

As a nihilist credo, it can’t be beaten. But there’s also real regret in the notion that one can live to witness too much change, too much renewal, too much rise and fall.

Hanif Kureishi

But the real meat of the book lies in Waldo’s immoderate, teasing pronouncements on love and sex. When it’s clear Zee and Eddie aren’t going to cease their liaison, and are merely waiting it out until he croaks, Waldo’s voyeurism goes into overdrive. He watches couples in the apartments opposite, Rear Window-style. He plots to mess up his rival (“I will wait until she’s out shopping and he is here on his own. I will have him on toast”). Finally, he starts spying on his wife and her lover by videoing them on his phone and iPad. Here Kureishi’s Freudian obsession with the eternal tension between passion versus duty – between the rampaging Id and the plodding, patrolling superego of social or parental censure – takes centre stage. Despite his cuckolding, there is the definite sense that Waldo approves of – even enjoys – his wife following her desires. It’s the same paradoxical impulse that had Kureishi half falling in love with his own swindler in ‘A Theft’. To this end, the book is full of sparkling, contrarian, La Rochfoucauldian aperçus: “The more difficult love is, the more it is love.” “It’s our destiny to feel forever deprived of something.” “If you can’t enjoy your own death, what can you enjoy?” There are also more considered observations, wrought from bitter experience: “I learned the hard way what a catastrophe being a step-parent can be: how much hate and humiliation you are obliged to swallow.” And some welcome meditations on Eddie, who is in therapy to address the sexual abuse he suffered at boarding school, where he’d been made to feel like “nothing”. Here, the roguish Eddie becomes more than a stock character from Kureishi’s past fiction; the familiar “scamp, ligger, and freeloader”. He suddenly gains a dimension when he announces: “A monster is someone who’s been monstered.” While Eddie has previously enthused about his early reading (“the depraved, contraband stuff. Dostoyevsky, Baudelaire”), sounding like any number of Kureishi’s fictional avatars, he at once becomes a character we want to see developed. However, the book never escapes the focus of its first-person voice, with Waldo’s animus for Eddie becoming complicated when a friend observes: “He resembles you… Evasive, tricky. It’s like you’re being haunted by yourself.”

A few overly literal critics have taken Waldo’s deliberately outrageous, lubricious musings at face value, lambasting Kureishi for presenting that bête noir of creative writing courses, the unsympathetic character. The “nothing” of the book’s title is clearly an allusion to the sixteenth-century slang for vagina (“No-thing”), as in Much Ado About Nothing. And while the explicitness of Waldo’s pronouncements is mostly predictably phallocentric (“He had an eager penis all his life”), some are comically poignant; reminiscences of an active amorous life that will never return. About his wife, he observes: “Her ass is still firm. 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.”  At one point, Waldo says of his friend, Anita, that she’s “not a woman a man can look at for long without wanting to put his penis in her mouth”. This line has been universally pilloried in recent reviews, ignoring the predicament of its speaker. That Waldo is a semi-impotent man facing death surely imbues it with pathos, defusing its glib sexism (or even misogyny). It’s a sad, desperate thing to say, rather than a leering boast.

While The Nothing can be taken as merely the scurrilous tale of a cuckold’s revenge in twenty short chapters, it’s the wider philosophical resonances that linger after the book is finished. These are urgent, fundamental questions that Kureishi won’t let go, worrying them doggedly. How might we grow old disgracefully without dying in the attempt? How do we sustain a relationship against the flux of life? How do we maintain dignity when the manner of our own death is beyond our control? (Waldo’s answer to the last is the darkly satiric: “I’m hoping for a last outing in a pedalo.”) Like his creator, Waldo is “rude, lazy, capricious, anarchic and a provocateur”, but he’s also an everyman facing what we all must face. Towards the end he announces: “There is no man keener to hear the truth about himself.” Kureishi is aware people at are once perpetually fleeing and running towards the truth about themselves, and this universalises the plights of the rather narrow, paranoid, almost cartoonish characters in the book. Waldo goes on to ask: “Doesn’t civilisation mean keeping your temper when there is no reason for restraint?” This is his last aperçu before the book’s Death in Venice conclusion – a final, suicidal shot at love and aesthetic bliss.

What complicates the Everyman hypothesis is, of course, Waldo’s status as an artist, which he never lets us forget. Fearing that contentment will “ruin him” creatively, he longs for “a final project… Whoever heard of an artist retiring?” But perhaps it’s a mark of Kureishi’s maturity that he can admit that artists are human beings too, not just Wordsworthian “favoured beings”. There was always a tension in his work between the lucky ones who could create and those who longed to, but couldn’t, and The Nothing hopefully sees the end of this distinction. The novella perhaps marks the beginning of Kureishi’s late style – ruminative, wise, salty, concise; reinforcing Said’s notion of “artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction”. While the alleviating optimism and heart of The Buddha of Suburbia is absent – the once puckish humour is now devilish, an almost despairing laughter in the dark – that’s only to be expected, with a lifetime separating that debut from his latest work. At least there’s still a whiff of the old danger, the customary penetrating cultural analysis, the crackling satire. The Nothing finally offers up an immersive address to the difficulty of existence; full of moral complexity, playful provocation, ambiguity. Something, rather than nothing.


Jude Cook

Jude Cook lives in London and studied English literature at UCL. His first novel, BYRON EASY, was published by William Heinemann of Random House in February of 2013. He has written for the Guardian, the Spectator, Literary Review, TLS, and Review 31. His essays and short fiction have appeared in Litro, Structo, Storgy, Long Story Short and Staple magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 13th, 2017.