Erotically Unmoored: Hanif Kureishi's Collected Short Stories (2010)

The Eighties was Britain’s twentieth-century accounting, all lucky winners and sore losers, a decade of settling scores in the class war and exploring the disruptive social and sexual mobility unleashed by the end of the tradition of deference. The utter wreckage of the dreams of the seventies radical Left produced a kind of panicked disarray amongst artists and their satellites the arty, all those lifestyle radicals who were rapidly shrugging off their hair shirts and reinventing themselves as a thrusting new creative class. All across Notting Hill, you could hear the slithery sound of sex rubbing up against new money. It’s a period many of Hanif Kureishi’s characters rather enjoyed. Roy, the central figure of ‘In a Blue Time’, “had loved [it]. The manic entrepreneurialism, prancing individualism, self-indulgence and cynicism appealed to him as nothing had for ten years. Pretence was discarded. Punk disorder and nihilism ruled.”

Kureishi’s Collected Stories, the earliest of which was published in book-form in 1997, is a record of the fall-out from this particular party. Kureishi’s men are often Eighties winners. They are actors, ad-men, tv producers, rock journalists, now middle-aged and disoriented; their A-list sneers are coming unstuck in the face of declining desirability, failed marriages, trick knees, powerful love for children, fear of death. There’s something slightly confrontational about the recounting of their troubles. Oh, to have such troubles! Many of Kureishi’s men know they’re ridiculous, even as they suffer. No amount of coke in the bathroom of even the largest West London townhouse will make the fear go away. For the younger ones, still armoured by their bodies rather than let down by them, the problems are jealousy, betrayal, and the sexual tug of war between pleasure and domesticity. For the older ones, sex is no longer enough, or too much to handle or just not happening at all. It’s often replaced by a kind of wistfulness, the yearning to reconnect with the centre of things, to know what it is to live a good life – an ethical life, as opposed to a merely comfortable one.

The outsiders, the poor and marginal, form a kind of counterparty in transactions with Kureishi’s winners. They are Pakistani taxi drivers and waitresses and E dealers and teenage prostitutes. Sometimes the two worlds interact, though unlike Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, who usually imbue such encounters with threat (All those scary hyper-masculine working-class men! All those big dogs and tattoos!), Kureishi often allows sex and conversation and other everyday activities to transpire between winners and losers without calling the fictional cops. His London is a hedonistic city, and not just for the rich; it’s a place whose communal pleasures are grubby and sweet.Sex is important in all this, and not just as pleasure. It’s a last sign of hope. “As long as there is desire, there is a pulse,” explains the erotically-unmoored narrator of ‘Nightlight’. “You are alive; to want is to reach beyond yourself, into the world, finger by finger.” Kureishi, whether he likes it or not (and I suspect he usually likes it not), has become a symbol of British multiculturalism; in a country whose public life has been shaped by that discourse, it's striking that people are often so busy discussing 'race' (whatever they think it means) they don't realise they're usually talking about sex. Miscegenation is the primary taboo, the biggest threat to the border racists are desperately trying to police. They know very well that the future of British identity is about who sleeps with who, who's doing the master in the toilet at Nobu, who gets to climb into the mistress's memory foam bed. Ultimately race, sex and class are knotted tightly together; it's about insiders and outsiders.

By reinventing himself as a chronicler of middle-class sexual mores, Kureishi has underlined that he’s no longer a brown-skinned suburban striver, no longer an outsider or an exile or an visitor to the symposium bringing news of life in the post-colonial ghetto. He’s inside, using the facilities. His critics sometimes sound as if they’d prefer things to go back to how they used to be.

Kureishi usually writes in a classically-British mode of social satire, a sort of broad realism whose slightly amped-up sounds and colours can either shade into comedy or lyrical mourning . He has a great eye for the competitive vanities of men, the laddish pomposity that can botch the expression of even the most sincerely-held emotion, particularly in the face of an ex wife or a loved-but-distant child. Sometimes he experiments with a hallucinatory tone, writing scatalogical stories that nod to Gogol and Gombrowicz, but these can feel laboured, the metaphors too heavy. He’s at his best when he’s simplest, such as the beautifully-succinct ‘My Son the Fanatic’, which demonstrates fiction’s ability to articulate complexities that no amount of newsprint can pin down. The quality I like best in his stories is their pugnacity, their appetite. Many of Kureishi’s successful people, men and women alike, are powerfully bored with themselves and the world they’ve made in their image. Occasionally this very boredom achieves exaltation. Scarred and punch-drunk they may be, but Kureishi’s people are still desirous, still searching. Though they can taste death in their cappuccinos, they don’t want to give in just yet.

(This review appeared in the Financial Times, 13th March 2010)