A Novelist’s Requiem for the Male Libido

Posted December 26, 2017 3:21 p.m. EST

British novelist Hanif Kureishi emerged on the scene in the 1980s with a hat trick: two lauded screenplays (including the Academy Award-nominated “My Beautiful Laundrette”) and a novel, “The Buddha of Suburbia.” His work was a “declaration of war on the British establishment,” he said, rude and tender love stories populated by characters fresh to the page and screen: drug-smuggling mullahs, skinheads lusting after Pakistani men, queer South Asian women in thrall to Angela Davis and, always, a string of young and pretty men hunting trouble.

Kureishi felt revolutionary. He had an edge, a griminess and cool Salman Rushdie could only envy, and he paved the way for a new kind of British writer who could take on race, racism, fundamentalism and political responsibility with playfulness and defiance, people like Meera Syal and Ayub Khan-Din. Zadie Smith recalled “The Buddha of Suburbia” being passed around surreptitiously on the playground (for “a useful, masturbatory section depicting an orgy, somewhere around Page 205”) and how it cracked open the possibilities of the novel for her: “I thought an English sentence was a kind of cat-o'-nine tails, to be used, primarily, as a tool for whipping children into submission. I didn’t know you could speak to a reader like this, as if they were your equal — as if they were a friend.”

This burst of work felt so important, so needed, that it engendered a stubborn loyalty. With the same stew of hope, despair, shame and perverse pride endured by the long-suffering fans of a long-losing team, Kureishi’s readers have stuck by him even as he churns out, with dismaying industry, a series of leaden farces and desultory intrigues. They — we — have squirmed through his enthusiasm for (and rudimentary grasp of) psychoanalysis and unpardonable sex writing. From “The Last Word”: “You are a succulent woman, juicy as a dolphin and at your sexual peak too.”

“The Nothing,” Kureishi’s latest, is a strange performance: a mound of words presented to us as a novel, a situation passing as a story.

As with his recent screenplays “The Mother” and “Venus,” he returns to the theme of sexuality and aging. Waldo, a filmmaker, impotent and consumed with sex — a “penis in a wheelchair,” he calls himself — becomes violently jealous of his young wife’s friendship with a mutual acquaintance. He cranks up his hearing aid and starts spying on them, turning to time-tested and cutting-edge methods of surveillance.

It’s a decent setup for what could be a claustrophobic chamber piece with shades of “Rear Window”: the character bound in body whose imagination takes flight. And the requiem for the male libido is (alas) one of literature’s most honored themes; it was almost de rigueur for a writer of a particular generation to meditate, with squelchy detail, upon the end of eros — see Roth, Updike, Fuentes, García Márquez, Kingsley Amis, Edmund White. The best books in this genre marry wistfulness with humor. (White: “His sex ambitions were still the same — to have sex with every man in the world.”) But Kureishi’s book is sour and shallow; it’s over before it begins. Waldo stalks and plots, fights listlessly with his wife. There’s none of the amplitude, the imaginative energy of his best work or even the interesting surliness of his more mediocre efforts.

K ureishi will occasionally rouse himself to some insight, some pointed phrase: “I don’t want her to be happy. I just want her to be with me. Is that too much to ask?” But “The Nobody” is just the barest distillation of the notes he has struck since his first novel. “I wanted to live always this intensely: mysticism, alcohol, sexual promise, clever people and drugs,” Karim, the hero of “The Buddha of Suburbia,” promises himself. Here again, we see the emancipatory power of sex, of derangement of the senses — but it’s rote. Kureishi wants his Waldo to roar, like Lear. Instead we get a thin whine: a wasp in a jar, all pointless agitation and a touching desire to offend. In Kureishi’s novel “Something to Tell You” (2008), he praises, as is his wont, the Rolling Stones. “Although they had been doing those tunes for 30 years,” he writes, “the Stones didn’t make their boredom obvious; they knew how to put on a good show.” To the extent that it takes their boredom as a given, that’s a pretty loaded compliment. And a telling one, too. In writing as in music, three decades is a long time to be singing the same song.

— Publication Notes:

‘The Nothing’

By Hanif Kureishi

167 pages. Faber & Faber. $22.