A good story makes a keen voyeur. In the hands of a good storyteller, the edifices of a fictional house and the vulnerabilities of the people it houses become all too real. In their crumbling, we crumble, in their victories we rejoice. But rooting for or rejecting characters is never easy when one is dealing with a Hanif Kureishi novel.
In his latest work, artfully (perhaps broodingly?) titled The Nothing, Kureishi returns with his characteristic set of eminently grey characters. The story is set in London, where a legendary film director, Waldo, lives with his much younger wife, Zenab or Zee. Along with a loss of his bodily functions, Waldo also faces the indignity of having his wife cheat on him right under his nose.
To add insult to injury, the affair is between her and a man named Eddie, who is to Waldo “more than an acquaintance, less than a friend”, and most of all, a social leech. These principal characters operate within that not-too-broad spectrum of love and hate.
Like many of Kureishi’s earlier works, The Nothing too has an unmistakable scent of his self. Zee’s character is Indo-Pakistani, just like Kureishi’s family was, while Waldo is as English as his upbringing. His familiarity with the world of cinema (Kureishi is an award-winning screenwriter) is reflected in the way his characters come from the ranks of directors, film journalists, actors and agents.
Also, one cannot help but ask whether the preponderance fn decay and death in the story is as much Kureishi’s personal arc as it is Waldo’s. But then, the writer is only 62, while this is the story of an ageing master with his glory days behind him.
A portrait of the artist as an old man
Waldo is ill and he is dying. His young and lovely spouse, Zee, is a faithful wife and caregiver until Eddie comes into their lives. From then on it’s a downward spiral for Waldo, who can do little but look askance from his wheelchair. But he cannot merely look. His compulsive camera eyes imagine more than they can see, and his artist heart feels more than it can bear.
Waldo soils his bed and begs his wife for the charity of touch, but there is no pitying him. One sees how ruthless and unsparing he is in acknowledging – and, in this case, articulating – the truth of his desires when he says this of Zee: “I don’t want her to be happy. I just want her to be with me. Is that too much to ask?”
Kureishi’s descriptions of Waldo conjure up a Coppolaésque figure – only much frailer – replete with a Corleone temperament. Once the toast of tinseltown, Waldo slowly unravels through the pages of the book. But there is a deliciousness of despair in this journey. The author, like a morbid lepidopterist, neatly pins loss, helplessness, jealousy, bitterness, loneliness, and humiliation like big black moths on a board. Then he languorously points out to the reader each part of each specimen – one more painful than the other.
When pleasure is taken away from a quintessential hedonist, he begins to indulge himself with pain. While Waldo looks for evidence of his wife’s infidelity, Kureishi keeps the reader guessing. As the smarmy Eddie walks in and out of their home with one sob story after another, one feels the degree of Waldo’s resentment rising. He plots to confront Eddie and seeks revenge. And when, in the face of Eddie’s oily charm, he fails to “smite him with madness, blindness and impotence…and then..urinate in his mouth and wipe (his) ass with his head,” you feel slightly sorry for this man who has been rendered impotent in more ways than one.
Although the plot isn’t complex, Kureishi holds a tight psychological leash. More than sub plots, it is the juxtaposition of minor with major characters that creates lush layers in the narrative. They serve as foils sometimes to Waldo’s egotism, and sometimes his frailty. As the geriatric gent interacts with his desirable wife, her wily paramour or his partner-in-crime, we are constantly privy to the whirring of his mind’s agile wheels, trapped in a diseased and ageing body. Throughout the story, Kureishi broadcasts an unceasing existential static as it were.
But as the story moves on, one cannot be sure if the protagonist is being tormented or is seeking masochistic torment. In the absence of sex, all his thrills come from its imaginings. With his ear to the wall and his spycam in motion, Waldo wants to make that one last film that will document his “humiliation of desire.” He is an artist after all, and “Whoever heard of an artist retiring? We become more frantic to fulfil ourselves as we age.”
Like his protagonist, the author’s writing has a voraciously sensual appetite. But then that is classic Kureishi. Readers familiar with his earlier works, such as Intimacy, will know of his penchant for sexual riffs. Here too, he is unabashed in his exploration of the sexual feeling, and The Nothing is dotted with heady epigrams such as these:
“Sexual feeling may decline, but…the libido, like Elvis and jealousy, never dies.”
“Who said you need an erection, a body, or an orgasm for sex?”
“To love sex, you have to embrace repulsion.”
And poignantly: “Sex is like art. If you know what you’re doing, you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Kureishi makes you want to discuss sex both academically and lustily at once. His honesty about all matters flesh and fetish is disarming. There is an almost clinical precision in the way he can measure desire and the extent to which men and women will go to have them fulfilled. Sex is a matter of fact for the characters in Kureishi’s literary universe. Cock rings are as casually mentioned as cakes. As a reader from a country where they’re trying to tell us about tearful peacock procreation, it takes a little bit of a realignment of sensibilities to be able to go through “those bits” (don’t ban them now, okay?) with an expressionless face.
But that does not mean Kureishi is artless in the matters of love. His brush strokes, scalpel strokes rather, are as masterful when he takes on the heart. He recognises and writes about the hopeless tangle of heartbreak and hunger that love is. And what is extraordinary is that Kureishi’s conception of love is ordinary. There’s no loftiness weighing down his characters, who want love the way most of us want it – in the holding of hands, in the sharing of drinks, in the selfish need of exclusiveness.
Another thing the author is master of is the art of capturing the insecurities and redundancies of masculinity. His protagonist here, as in many of his earlier works, is ridden with an angst typical to artists, and an incessant questioning of self-worth. In Kureishi’s hands, a man’s undoing becomes an almost beautiful thing to watch. He coolly strips all social constructs until one is left with The Nothing. The book, like life, ends a little disappointingly. But the parts are so much greater than the whole here, that the act of reading it – as they say these days – is everything.
The Nothing, Hanif Kureishi, Faber & Faber.