Thatcher’s chil­dren on the an­a­lyst’s couch

Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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