Hanif Kureishi weds wit with his middle-aged wisdom

Special to The Times

NEW YORK -- “I turned 50 and realized I’d been around for ages.” That’s Hanif Kureishi, novelist and screenwriter (“My Beautiful Laundrette,” “Venus”), talking about the panorama of his latest book, “Something to Tell You.”

“I could remember the ‘60s, and indeed the ‘50s, as well as the ‘70s and ‘80s . . .,” Kureishi tells me during a conversation in the offices of his publisher, Scribner. “So I wanted to do something a bit bigger. You meet these people when you’re 20 and somehow, when you’re 53, you still know them. You can see their lives.”

Carnal and carnivalesque, “Something to Tell You” departs from the compacted form of Kureishi’s recent work like “Gabriel’s Gift,” “The Body” and “Intimacy” and harks back to the multi-character comedy of his first novels, 1990’s “The Buddha of Suburbia” and 1995’s “The Black Album.”


Like the narrators of those books, Jamal, the middle-aged shrink who presides over “Something,” finds himself amid all sorts of unlikely collections as he navigates London’s racial, sexual and class barriers. Jamal’s sister, Miriam, makes a living dealing in smuggled electronic equipment and maintains a profile as a fixture on daytime talk shows as the embodiment of whatever social problem or neurosis she can represent. In short order, she becomes the lover of Jamal’s friend Henry, a theater and opera director, and the two are heading off to nights at London’s swing clubs. The brother of Jamal’s lost teenage love turns up as an acclaimed gay pop star whom Jamal meets at a Rolling Stones concert and Jamal is soon admitted into the presence of their doddering majesties.

When I tell Kureishi that he has always seemed to me the inheritor of the kaleidoscopic celebration of London that Colin MacInnes perfected in “Absolute Beginners,” he says, “I like a book where [you get] . . . a sense of the whole sweep of society, the whole fabric. You can go from the lowest to the highest. Take a burglar or a dealer and then the dealer is dealing to a lord in the House of Lords. Dickens would’ve known everyone in London.”

As always with Kureishi’s work, it’s impossible to say whether London is in a state of vitality or decline.

“[E]very place is becoming London now,” says Jamal at one point, “the city stain spreading.” He goes on to this description of the working-class suburb of Middlesex, “recently voted Britain’s least popular county”:

“The typical figures on the street were a young man in a green bomber jacket, jeans and polished boots, followed by an underdressed teenager with her hair scraped back -- the ‘Croydon face-lift’ -- pushing a pram. Other girls in microminis drifted sullenly about, boys on bicycles circling them, drinking sweet vodka smashes from the bottle and tossing them into gardens. And among those binge-mingers, debtors and doggers hurried Muslim women with their heads covered, pulling their children.”

London has so long been one of the inspirations and abiding pleasures in Kureishi’s work that it’s startling when he says, “I was thinking the other day, I’m getting a little tired of it. The rubbish and the noise. . . . and I thought I should move out to the leafy suburbs. That’s the sign that, I’m on the turn, man. But I still like it. I’m still fascinated by it.”


Kureishi’s famous dark luxuriant curls are now replaced by a spiky steel-gray thatch. Strikingly handsome, his dark eyes are intense and quick to take on a sly glint. When he talks about his 15-year-old twin sons, it’s easy to understand where Jamal’s unadorned love for his son, Rafi, comes from.

“They’ve got great haircuts, fantastic haircuts,” he tells me of his sons, “and they’ve got great highlights. They really bother me when they want to get their highlights done. And they spend a lot of time doing the stuff with dumbbells, stripped to the waist in front of the mirror. And they look fabulous. I said, ‘You guys could always get work as rent boys, you could always earn money if you want to help the family.’ ”

Along with London, the love of pop culture has been one of the constants of Kureishi’s work. He admits to me that now his connection with contemporary culture is mainly through his sons. “They listen to the rock ‘n’ roll music I listened to -- Hendrix and Zeppelin. And they listen to the Strokes and Snoop Dogg and Lil Jon. They listen to everything. So if I want to know anything about youth culture, or what the kids are listening to, I go into their room and they’re, ‘Hey, Dad, listen to this. It’s fabulous.’ ” The boys are also Kureishi’s companions on his excursions to rock shows. Among their recent take-ins: Stephen Malkmus, Nick Cave, Franz Ferdinand, and the Malinese duo Amadou and Miriam.

Kureishi satirized Muslim fundamentalists in “The Black Album,” in his screenplay for “My Son the Fanatic” and in his collection of essays “The Word and the Bomb” (which has not been published here). In the last, he writes that the children living in the West attracted to Islamic radicalism “deserve better than an education which comes from liberal guilt.”

And though he admits to being bored with these issues (“I want to write about stuff that people aren’t writing about”), he still muses about the connection between radical Islam and the West. He wonders “whether these two groups have produced and require each other in some way. Fundamentalism is the unconscious of the psychosis of consumer capitalism. And maybe the other way around too. They both have fantasies about each other. We have fantasies about the order and strictness of fundamentalism. The fundamentalists have very powerful fantasies about those dirty people in the West who are [having sex] all the time, and stoned out of their heads, and kind of living in toilets. Huge envy and love on both sides, for order and for disorder. So these two systems love each other and they need each other. Maybe they produce each other.

“If you think,” he goes on, “of pleasure and transgression being related, then in a way pleasure is transgression. We grew up, in a way, in rock ‘n’ roll music where transgression was the thing and after a while the rules disappear [and became] a madness. As you get older, what pleasures are there left? They’re smaller pleasures, they’re harder to dig out, and there’s much more shame involved as an older man, because you’re not shocking your parents anymore. They’re dead, they’re not going to be shocked. No one is shocked. So they’re not going to be impressed by your danger. So what do you do to find pleasure? It becomes much harder. Well, I think in the end your pleasure is the pleasure in other people, liking other people and identifying with other people, the pleasures of your friends and particularly of your children. You begin to die after 50, die in a good way, bits of you go off into the world in other people. That’s as much religion as you have.”