In most stories about courtship and marriage, all the couple’s doubts, confusions, and crossed erotic signals sort themselves out after the wedding takes place and they enter calmer waters.
Not in the world of Hanif Kureishi.
From the get-go, Kureishi’s screenplays and fiction have specialized in the chaos of the libido, as filtered through stinging social satire. His alter egos and their objects of desire crash through class and racial barriers as they try on various sexual personae and inevitably make a mess of things.
For a brief time in the 1980s, Kureishi seemed to be a leading light of gay indie cinema, thanks to “My Beautiful Laundrette,” the film that gave Daniel Day-Lewis his breakout role. But it soon grew obvious — following his second screenplay, “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid,” and his exuberantly volatile debut novel, “The Buddha of Suburbia” — that “gay” was too tidy an adjective to apply to him.
The question became: Would Kureishi’s characters, after going drug-and-sex wild in their teens and twenties, settle down after marriage and children? No, not really.
And now that Kureishi is getting on in years? Might some serenity come his characters’ way?
Not a chance.
On the film front, “The Mother” and “Le Week-End” feature aging characters who upset the sexual apple cart in unexpected ways. In “The Mother,” for instance, a depressed elderly widow starts an affair with her married daughter’s housing-contractor lover (Daniel Craig in one of his finest non-Bond roles).
In Kureishi’s latest novel, “The Nothing,” the narrator — an ailing London film director confined to his bed and wheelchair — is a veritable psychosexual powder keg about to blow. Waldo’s illnesses include but are not limited to “diabetes, prostate cancer, an ulcer, early MS, constipation, diarrhoea and only one good hip.” Otherwise, he jokes, he’s “in great shape.”
Mentally, however, he’s not doing so well. Day by day he’s growing more jealous of his wife, Zee, 22 years his junior, whom he whisked away 20 years ago from a hum-drum marriage in Mumbai. (“No one thought it a good idea for her to dump her decent spouse for a wild man who was beginning to bear an unfortunate resemblance to the older Elvis.”)
He suspects she’s having an affair with shady sponger Eddie (“more than an acquaintance and less than a friend”) who’s moved in with them. Waldo, with the help of his “other girl,” Anita (the star of several of his films), wants to expose Eddie for the parasitic rascal he is before Zee succumbs to him entirely. Waldo snoops. He connives. He tosses Eddie’s belongings out the window.
“Who’d have thought retirement could be so apocalyptic?” he muses.
“The Nothing” is a mere 167 pages long, but it cooks up complications, intrigues, and tangled personal histories worthy of a much longer book. It also manages to capture the last gasp of a generation that doesn’t exactly have a reputation for aging gracefully.
“I still have a 1960s sensibility,” Waldo proclaims. “We took it for granted that the good things — equality, feminism, anti-racism, freedom for sexual minorities — would be extended. The good things would be good for everyone. But people didn’t want them. We were elitists, that’s all.”
That self-indictment does nothing to dampen Waldo’s subversive streak: “I’ve striven never to recognise common customs of fidelity or prisons of the conventional. Ethics are a pathological violence and the good an obstacle. I was, and hope to remain, a sensualist with a penchant for the Marquis de Sade as a moral guide.”
Waldo, clearly, is a handful: raunchy, sardonic, frustrated, and treacherous. But he’s also tender in his concern for Zee. And Eddie, as Anita’s investigations reveal, is real trouble.
Smooth-talking and unctuous, he’s as hilariously problematic as Waldo. Here he is, for instance, waxing righteous on his desperate need for funds: “He informs me that money is the devil, and that the financial class uses debt to control the population. The cannibalism of capitalism, the emptiness of democracy and hyperneoliberal alienation, commodification and stupidity; the virus of money and the way the poor bust their balls to save the financial class — he lays it out for my benefit.”
Eddie has a point, of course. But as with Shakespeare’s Polonius (“To thine own self be true”), the wisdom being offered is coming from a totally discreditable source.
The women in the picture, Zee and Anita, serve more as plot conveniences, although Zee’s weariness at being Waldo’s caretaker is certainly persuasive. The biggest draw in “The Nothing” (the title alludes both to Eddie’s character and Waldo’s impending death) is the comic hyperbole of its crazed, manipulative, self-deprecating narrator.
Add to that several Roget’s-worthy one-liners (“a saint is only someone who has been under-researched”), and you have one wickedly seductive gut-punch of a book.
By Hanif Kureishi
Faber & Faber, 167 pp., $22Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times book critic.