Thatcher’s children on the analyst’s couch
WHEN the volatile and unbuttoned Londoners of Something to Tell You aren’t swigging champagne and chilled vodka, ingesting drugs or having dangerous, messy or just plain weird sex, they sit around kitchen tables discussing these various ecstasies with the discrimination of connoisseurs. Hanif Kureishi’s new novel takes its pleasures very seriously indeed.
But this concentration on hedonism is about more than titillation or countercultural cachet. Sex, drugs and rock ’ n’ roll have been Kureishi’s bread and butter for decades; he has long exhausted any reserves of shock they contain. Here, instead, he sets the pursuit of personal pleasure against those genuinely perverse national fetishes of the era inaugurated by Margaret Thatcher and extended by Tony Blair: unfettered competition, rampant consumerism, the cult of celebrity and pre- emptive war.
And who better to put contemporary Britain on the couch than a shrink? Narrator Jamal is a talented psychoanalyst, ‘‘ a reader of minds and signs’’ with a quiet yet growing reputation, established thanks to several books of upscale popular analysis and helped by his close friendship with Henry, a well- connected film and theatre director.
Much like the author, who lends parts of his own biography to his creation, Jamal is a South Londoner of Anglo- Asian descent, grown out of a wild if bookish youth into a more reflective middle age. His early mistakes — including one whopper — serve his analysis of others. They are useful, he reckons, since ‘‘ it is dirty work, getting closely acquainted with the human’’.
The hard- won professional equilibrium Jamal describes is threatened by a bizarre development. Henry, one of the nation’s cultural treasures, ‘‘ a brazen intellectual whose passion is for talk, ideas and the new’’, announces that he has fallen in love with Jamal’s lewd, lowbrow and mentally unstable sister, Miriam.
‘‘ All our separate existences are being altered, indeed shaken, by this unlikely liaison,’’ says Jamal. Yet Henry and Miriam do share extravagant personalities, and both are Falstaffian in body and appetite, built as if to contain some more potent and destructive energy source. And it is they, along with a vivid band of satellite characters, who proceed to steal the novel from Jamal. As peacemaker, healer and professional keeper of secrets, his job is to clean up the mess created by their burgeoning affair.
The basis of this tempestuous relationship is sexual. Henry, married to old money but bored by the civility and steadiness that go with it, is drawn to the possibility of rediscovering passion and danger in Miriam’s stocky, tattooed arms.
Together they explore the wilder reaches of London’s sex clubs, finding their niche in a PVC dungeon where the city’s swingers gather for anonymous orgies. Henry assures Jamal in eloquent terms that he has discovered classless democracy in the club, as well as true happiness, but this information leaves Jamal nonplussed.
His efforts to balance the competing claims of sister, friend and his friend’s aghast family provoke a personal crisis: in short, Jamal paralyses himself by self- analysis.
While non- judgmental by nature and training, and largely immune to shock, Jamal can’t embrace Henry and Miriam’s flight from normalcy. But neither is he comfortable with the safe alternatives. Wasn’t there ‘‘ a definition of the normal which didn’t equate it with the ordinary or uninspiring’’ he asks, or ‘‘ which wasn’t coercive or ridiculously prim’’?
Should he return to his wife and son, and the marriage that broke down several years before? Or should he look back even further, to his first love, Ajita? Their brief but passionate college affair was interrupted by Ajita’s revelation of abuse by her father. Back then, Jamal secretly took matters into his own hands, to tragic effect
since his actions saved Ajita but severed their relationship. It is only a chance encounter with Ajita’s younger brother, now a pop star, that draws them back together.
As Jamal revisits episodes from his past and dithers over whether to confess to Ajita what he really did all those years before, Henry and Miriam are busy setting the Thames on fire.
All these differences in class and postcode, skin colour and sexual predilection, turn out to be a boon, with each character offering a unique perspective on the capital of a nation as it manages a cultural decline that looks to all the world like a rebirth.
From the suburban bedrooms of the 1970s, where pot- smoking teens wore out their David Bowie LPs, to the big- shouldered 80s and the emerging media class flattening the old hierarchies with a steamroller combination of vulgarity and mindlessness, through to the failed promise of Blair’s Britain: all is subjected to Kureishi’s tenderly contemptuous scrutiny.
He finds vital information in the B- side of the culture during these years, just as Jamal finds the secrets of the unconscious in the everyday language of his patients.
Beyond the pleasure of watching Kureishi’s fine critical intelligence at work, and the low thrill of reading real history and gossip only slightly smudged into fiction, a sense of ambivalence remains central to Something to Tell You . Jamal and Henry live in the uneasy awareness that the cultural shifts that benefited their generation have had negative side effects. They are nagged by the evidence that aspects of their revolution were borrowed by others, to unexpected ends.
There is a wry and crystallising moment when Jamal recalls how the 70s were a time that decided fathers were the enemy. This hatred became a cult, in which patriarchy and the phallus’’ were vigorously attacked.
And what did we end up with, at the end of that iconoclastic decade?’’ he asks. Thatcher: a fate worse than a man.’’
Tender, contemptuous: Hanif Kureishi delves beneath the B- side of British culture