“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,” is the arresting first sentence of Hanif Kureishi’s new novel, “The Nothing.” The man hearing noises is Waldo, a Bafta-winning filmmaker now staring down his 80s, in a wheelchair and in terminal physical decline, who sits at the window of his Victoria flat, like Jimmy Stewart in “Rear Window,” observing the goings-on of his neighbors through binoculars. “There is a world within this London mansion block,” he notes, and later: “Dinner parties are more riveting than wars, and are always an occasion for a close-up. But there’s no sex.”
Hang on. I thought you said this was a Hanif Kureishi book? I want my money back. Kureishi is the Londoner (of Pakistani descent) who wrote the 1985 Daniel Day Lewis film “My Beautiful Laundrette” and arrived on the literary scene with the 1990 novel “The Buddha of Suburbia,” a bi-curious picaresque whose wily mixed-race hero bed-hopped his way out of the London suburbs. “Always put your penis first,” a wise old writer tells the main character in “The Last Word” (2014), a directive every Kureishi protagonist has done his best to heed, with Waldo no exception. A once studly young buck in flares, love beads, shoulder-length black hair and “an ass you’d pay to bite,” he now lives with his wife, Zee, 22 years his junior, who feeds and washes his failing body. “I am, I’ve realized at last, the sort of fool who wants to be loved exclusively,” he says.
But Waldo’s imagination is not going quietly into the night. Convinced Zee is having an affair with a longtime pal of his, a down-at-the-heels film critic and Soho gadfly called Eddie who spends nights at their flat under the pretext of helping Zee with her nursing duties, Waldo goes to bed, feigns sleep, turns up his hearing aid and lets his mind run wild: “Working with sound and my imagination, I envisage the angles and cuts, making the only substantial films I can manage these days, mind movies.”
The idea of a celibate Hanif Kureishi hero tormented by the very urges he once indulged is an excellent one — think Philip Roth in a chastity belt. Given the current cultural and political climate, in fact, that idea may have even more than usual appeal. The unfettered license that male writers have enjoyed when it comes to holding up every stain in the sheets as a palimpsest of their smarting, solipsistic souls is due for an overhaul. Sexual jealousy has produced many a major and minor classic, from Saul Bellow’s “Herzog” to Patrick Hamilton’s “Hangover Square” and Julian Barnes’s “Before She Met Me,” but the trick of these books lies in the skill with which the writer evokes, through the heat haze of the protagonist’s obsession, the bobbing horizon line of reality, however fleetingly glimpsed. There must be more to “Lolita” than just Humbert Humbert’s lust.
Here, Kureishi runs into trouble. There’s really nobody in the book besides Waldo, the other characters existing mostly to ferry congratulatory bouquets to his much-garlanded imagination. “Waldo, you’ve got the filthiest mind of anyone I’ve met,” says Zee, who nevertheless supplies him with sordid stories of Eddie’s past involving sodomy and rape. “Your mind resembles a roaring wind tunnel,” admonishes his movie star friend Anita, but she too brings him reports of Eddie’s affairs, peccadilloes and (as Zee puts it) “orgies in his school uniform with important people.” But what a stroke of luck! The world is exactly as florid as the fantasist first imagined it to be. The book is a little like one of those fake knots that, once pulled, turn out to be just a piece of string.
Even paranoiacs can be plotted against, of course, but there’s a word for the kind of writing in which too neat a sense of reality is made to line up with loamy sexual fantasy: pornography. I suspect Kureishi knows this. That pre-emptive shrug of a title almost defies us to take his book seriously. “As a reader I’m done with literature,” Waldo declares as he asks Anita to read him one of his favorite detective stories again. “I only want fun.” But fun for a writer and fun for a reader are different things, and while it may have been fun for Kureishi to record the most gleefully obscene details of Waldo’s recollected sex life with Zee, it is rather more arduous work for readers to square that with the devoted nurse they had been picturing a few pages previously: one minute a Florence Nightingale, the next a lithe vixen who slaps Waldo and attempts to smother him with a pillow.
The behavior that might have driven her to such an act is carefully elided, if not hard to imagine. For all his self-obsession, Waldo shows little instinct for the chilly self-appraisal to which Bellow subjected Moses Herzog: “To his parents, he had been an ungrateful child. To his country, an indifferent citizen. To his brothers and his sister, affectionate but remote. With his friends, an egotist. With love, lazy. With brightness, dull. With power, passive. With his own soul, evasive. Satisfied with his own severity, positively enjoying the hardness and factual rigor of his judgment, he lay on his sofa. …” That final sentence is a killer, with Bellow dinging Herzog for the complacency and self-congratulation even accurate self-knowledge can breed. Ouch.
Compared with that, Kureishi is still on the beginner’s slopes, practicing his snowplow. Whether you enjoy this book is very much down to how much of a jolt you can get from its epigrams, most of them loitering in the 25-watt range: “the libido, like Elvis and jealousy, never dies”; “a saint is only someone who has been under-researched”; “boring people are always popular. They never do anything unexpected.” All of which have the requisite cynical snarl but collapse at the gentlest inquiry. “The imagination is the most dangerous place on earth,” Waldo asserts, but Kureishi has supplied him with the safest possible paddock in which to roam: a world carefully Waldoized, confirming his every suspicion and offering his steamy imaginings the least possible pushback. Where’s the danger in that?