One man’s sav­age gaze

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IN Hanif Kureishi’s brief and caus­tic novella The Noth­ing, Waldo is a cel­e­brated film­maker who is con­fined to his apart­ment be­cause of ill­ness and ad­vanc­ing age.

He has lately be­gun to sus­pect that his wife Zee, younger by 22 years, has be­gun an affair with Ed­die, “more than an ac­quain­tance and less than a friend for over thirty years”. This is the story of Waldo’s de­scent into para­noia, ob­ses­sion, and sex­ual jeal­ousy.

Ed­die is a scamp, an itin­er­ant shifty dude who has done some film jour­nal­ism and writ­ten about Waldo. Cur­rently, be­cause of money trou­bles, he is largely liv­ing with Waldo and Zee on the pre­text of as­sist­ing Zee with car­ing for Waldo. And care for Waldo he does; he has even given the old man a bath.

Waldo has tol­er­ated him and en­joyed his com­pany all th­ese years, to an ex­tent, be­cause Ed­die has interesting things to say about movies and “adores the fa­mous” and is a “dirty-minded racon­teur” – in fact, Waldo de­scribes in de­tail why he tol­er­ates Ed­die and keeps him around, but his ex­act words can­not be re­pro­duced here.

It is that kind of a book. It’s al­ways a plea­sure to read Kureishi, and this is shot through with vivid de­scrip­tions and black hu­mour on ev­ery page.

It’s ob­nox­ious, clever, and bawdy, much like its main char­ac­ter. The whole novel is told from Waldo’s ex­tremely graphic and in­creas­ingly para­noid first per­son point of view. As Waldo says of his de­tailed, ob­ses­sive fan­tasies, “I like to think I can see it. I was al­ways a cam­era”. The reader is re­minded that “the imag­i­na­tion is the most dan­ger­ous place on earth”.

A glimpse into Waldo’s char­ac­ter can be seen in this nugget: “If you’ve once been at­trac­tive, de­sir­able, and charis­matic, with a good body, you never for­get it. In­tel­li­gence and ef­fort can be no com­pen­sa­tion for ug­li­ness. Beauty is the only thing, it can’t be bought, and the beau­ti­ful are the truly en­ti­tled. How­ever you end up, you live your whole life as a mem­ber of an ex­clu­sive club. You never stop pity­ing the less blessed. Filth like Ed­die.”

If this makes you want to suf­fo­cate him with a pil­low, you wouldn’t be the first in line. Cer­tainly his wife is tempted to do the same. But as Waldo re­veals more of him­self through­out the book, one starts to won­der if all this philosophis­ing is just a cover for an un­der­ly­ing fear: the slow, creep­ing re­al­i­sa­tion by some­one on their death bed that all that they hold dear might not be what makes the world go around.

If beauty and de­sir­abil­ity are the true forms of en­ti­tle­ment and the ugly are to be pitied by some­one who has al­ways had both, then what makes an av­er­age-look­ing man like Ed­die such a hit with the ladies, even his own wife?

Waldo would cer­tainly bris­tle if you called him a misog­y­nist; he might counter that he does in fact love women, and would prob­a­bly pri­vately write you off as a prud­ish, re­pressed fem­i­nist, which in turn would af­firm the fact. That’s the kind of man Waldo is.

He does love women, but only if they’re pleas­ing to his eye and sex­u­ally al­lur­ing. If they’re not, they’re dis­pensed with in one sen­tence, like Maria, “the kind Brazil­ian maid”.

Waldo’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion of his friend Anita, one of the ac­tresses he has directed, is summed up in an as­sess­ment of a phys­i­cal fea­ture of hers that also can­not be re­pro­duced here.

If you love sharp, snappy writ­ing with a keen sense of rhythm and pacing, this book has it. Waldo’s bon mots are clever and pro­vok­ing – but the whole thing can often feel like one gi­ant quip.

And that might be the prob­lem with the book: while Kureishi has es­tab­lished an in­cred­i­bly vi­tal sense of char­ac­ter through Waldo’s voice, there’s never a sense that any­thing is truly at stake.

The ob­ses­sion with his wife stays on the sur­face, though when Waldo tries to con­tex­tu­alise how a rogue like him fell in love with this one de­serv­ing woman, it sounds a bit hokey, like some­thing he’s mem­o­rised from a Hall­mark card.

Thus one isn’t quite sure what was Kureishi’s in­ten­tion in this char­ac­ter study. Per­haps a man who val­ues looks, charm, sex­ual al­lure, and glam­our like Waldo can al­ways only skate on the sur­face.

As al­ways, I was left won­der­ing about the women in the story, whom I can only see through one man’s eyes. I want to know more about them and why they are this way.

Seen by Waldo, Zee veers from petu­lant to crazed and ful­fils all the stereo­types about at­trac­tive women who are con­stantly threat­ened by the pres­ence of women who are con­sid­ered more at­trac­tive. Yet she is fas­ci­nat­ing; Kureishi gives her some amaz­ing lines.

The book ends abruptly, with a bleak so­lu­tion. Waldo is no fool and he hasn’t had the wool pulled over his eyes, but things have cer­tainly gone his way in a sense.

Waldo’s voice is mem­o­rable and I will prob­a­bly think about his piti­ful mas­cu­line ways for some time.

“You have sav­age eyes,” Zee tells her di­rec­tor hus­band, and the same could be said of the male gaze in gen­eral, as well as of Kureishi’s. Whether or not you en­joy this book de­pends quite a bit on how much of this sav­agery you are will­ing to sit through.

The Noth­ing Au­thor: Hanif Kureishi Pub­lisher: Faber & Faber, con­tem­po­rary fic­tion

Photo: han­i­

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