The tormented revenge fantasies of a cuckolded film-maker are told with Kureishi’s customary relish.
Hanif Kureishi has always had a talent for arresting opening lines. His 1998 novella, Intimacy, about a middle-aged man on the brink of abandoning his wife and children, began: “It is the saddest night, for I am leaving and not coming back.” The Nothing, his new novella about an elderly man scheming and conniving to stop his wife from abandoning him, begins, “One night, when I am old, sick, right out of semen, and don’t need things to get any worse, I hear the noises again.”
The dark thoughts are those of a famous film director called Waldo. The noises, or so he believes, are those of his wife, Zee, having sex with a longtime pal of his. Is he deluded? “It is true that I imagine things for a living, and the imagination is the most dangerous place on earth.” And so the cuckolded geriatric devises his last and possibly greatest drama, one in which he hopes to outsmart the gangsters and keep the girl.
Waldo used to have it all. He made movies that were hits and was friends with Bowie and Joe Strummer. Even better, he had “fuckability: a gorgeous man in flares and love beads, with wide shoulders, shoulder-length hair black hair and an ass you’d pay to bite.” Now he’s overweight, hasn’t had sex with Zee for years, a self-proclaimed “penis in a wheelchair”.
Zee’s lover is Eddie, a privately educated rogue, raconteur and film critic. He’s been chummy with Waldo for many years, acting at times as an informal home help. He has a messy home life of his own and had a traumatic adolescence. But Waldo, like Kureishi, is wholly unsentimental; he fantasises about revenge in language a Shakespearean hero – or a bragging rapper – might use: “First I will smite him with madness, blindness and impotence, among other things. Then I will urinate in his mouth and wipe my ass with his head.”
Kureishi’s prose is studded with tart epigrams. “We directors are voyeurs working with exhibitionists.” “The libido, like Elvis and jealousy, never dies.” “Narcissism is our religion. The selfie stick is our cross, and we must carry it everywhere.” Those about women are designed to wind up liberals. Of one of his favourite actresses, Waldo declares: “Anita is not a woman a man can look at for long without wanting to put his penis in her mouth.” Elsewhere he says, “I hold her red-feathered mules in the highest regard. I like a woman to look as though she just stepped on a budgie.”
Part of the pleasure of The Nothing is not knowing whether Waldo is victim or sadist. Is he playing others or will he get played? Is Anita, a long-time actress friend who brings him weed, the ally she initially appears to be? Waldo, a fez-wearer, installs secret cameras; haunted, duplicitous Eddie resembles Tony Curtis’s character in Sweet Smell of Success; a pervasive aroma of dealing and double-dealing: this is as close to a noir thriller as anything Kureishi has ever written.
Admirers of his earlier fiction will be happy to learn that his appetite for sexual riffs, describing sucking and rimming, or anatomising “the humiliation of desire” has not abated. But London, the alluring setting of The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), is no longer a source of wonder. “I preferred the soot-black, more derelict London, which had some sublimity in its post-war despair,” bemoans Waldo. Death and dolefulness permeate every page, but so does a pleasingly lubricious impishness.