The narrator of Hanif Kureishi’s new novel Something to Tell You is Jamal. He is half Pakistani-half English, slim, sexy and successful. Before becoming an analyst of the Freudian variety, he directed pornos, was beaten up by his sister Miriam, murdered a man and had a nervous breakdown (not in that order so don’t look for causal relationships). In the present, he’s navigating his way through his past, with a little help from his son Rafi, his whore the Goddess and pretty much every substance you can abuse (alcohol, cocaine, viagra, speed, hash… bring it on).
Jamal describes Miriam as a curtain rod on account of the amount of metal that hangs on her person as a result of multiple piercings. She’s loud, arrogant, impatient, frequently suicidal and gifted with a skill for boxing. Miriam is golden-hearted, violent, tattooed, a low-life, an entrepreneur who will make a business of whatever she can – export reject jeans, hash, pornography, barely-distilled vodka – and mother of innumerable children. The others in Kureishi’s cast of characters are not as bizarre as this brother-sister duo, except perhaps Henry, Jamal’s best friend, Miriam’s boyfriend, celebrated theatre director, father of two (unrelated to Miriam), lover of Indian food, bondage and orgies. However that isn’t saying much when it comes to Kureishi’s creations. Jamal’s ex-girlfriend Ajita (she’s Muslim, despite her name) is repeatedly raped by her father. Jamal is fondled by Ajita’s brother who grows up to be a Freddy Mercury-esque star. Omar from My Beautiful Launderette appears in the middle of this book as a New Labour peer rooting for the war against terror. Karim from The Buddha of Suburbia is an actor just out of rehab who ends up on the tv show I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! In the curiosity shop of Kureishi’s mind, normal is dull. Normal is rooted in accustomed earth and flies kites for fun. Normal isn’t exciting enough to deserve a story. Thank god for it because thanks to Kureishi, there are some brown people in postcolonial literature who have deviance, rock star habits, wit, learning and joie de vivre. They might even be real.
Reading Something to Tell You is a delight. It isn’t perfect but the novel moves like an intimate conversation – full of gossip, tangents and twists. And most of us would enjoy being Kureishi’s confidant. The joy begins with the fantastic cover designed by Darren Wall which has countless androgynous, bendy figures engaging in coital and non-coital positions. Then Kureishi manages to create a range of entirely unpleasant characters and as Jamal peels off their ugly layers, they become increasingly endearing. You wouldn’t want to share a house with these fellows but you certainly want to know how they end up. The way Kureishi can conjure up neighbourhoods is outstanding and he unfurls London for his reader with his confident, witty and precise prose. Sometimes he is trite, like in parts of his descriptions of Jamal and Miriam’s time in Pakistan, but when he’s on the familiar ground of race identity and deviant sexuality, Kureishi writes with the effortless grace of a practiced pothead rolling the perfect joint.
I suspect some will find his characters a little overdone. It is true that they do feel a little unbelievable because not even the most minor character is normal. Kureishi soon convinces you their oddities are quirks, rather than the people themselves being entirely insane. The baby boomer generation in Japan that Haruki Murakami takes such interest in has an established reputation for being wacky and we think nothing of the surreal characters Murakami crafts. When it comes to South Asians, however, there is an assumption that conforming is coded into our DNA which makes us apparently uninteresting. But reading Kureishi, I realised we have our fair share of freaks. They’re freakier than most freaks because they all have a veneer of normalcy that is really convincing.
Running through my list of friends and acquaintances, I realised I know a fair share of bizarre personages who could give the citizens of Kureishi’s kingdom a run for their money.
– an incestuous brother and sister pair in which the sister lets the brother have one-month long relationships. Anything longer than that is unacceptable. He’s told their mother he probably won’t marry, breaking the maternal heart. She’s told their mother she wants to marry someone like her brother, thus gladdening the maternal heart because what could be dodgy about that?
– a woman who drove cabs in Los Angeles, came to India, married a farmer, went back to America, returned as a computer engineer and now decorates her home with Indian “taxi art” – steering wheels, taxi meters and so on.
– a man whose boyfriend is a farmer with two children and a wife back in his village. While he travels around the country with my acquaintance, his family think he’s a tour guide. His earlier boyfriends included a prince and someone “very wealthy” who flew him around the country in first class and gave him some seriously white sneakers. He likes Wendell Rodericks.
– a person who enjoys playing an anonymous cyber stalker even though the stalkee is someone they know in real life and therefore don’t really need to stalk, at least not anonymously.
– a gent who is an investment banker on all days and a ladyboy on some nights. He travels around the world for his trysts with destiny and among his non-tranny friends is known as the guy who is clueless about all things feminine – mascara to manicures. He doesn’t like his wife’s shoes but approves of her nicer underwear, which he has on at least one occasion nicked for himself.
– a woman who has an imaginary world of friends and admirers, each of whom have names and back stories. The imaginary world comes on every time she’s on a long drive alone with her ipod. The scenario she keeps playing again and again has her friends (and one admirer – *insert eye waggle here* ) performing an incredible, impromptu concert for her at Blue Frog, the most talked about bar in town, which is attended by all the people in her real world as well. She is 30 years old and is currently struggling with figuring out whether she should continue aging in her imaginary world or stay at 30 or become younger.
– a girl who was technically raped at 15, had an abortion at 17, dated a man with reportedly the smallest penis ever at 22 and opted for an arranged marriage because it seemed like least hassle. Her “rating” in the arranged marriage market was extremely high because everyone knew her as the good girl who doesn’t date, doesn’t smoke or drink and is suitably docile. She smokes, drinks and reads lesbian porn every night.
Now if only I was half as interesting as any of these people, I could write an autobiography and perhaps win international acclaim. Except I suspect few would believe Indians can be this weird and I’d be flogged for exoticising the land of Kama Sutra and the freaks in the know will feign ignorance so that they’re not exposed (which sounds a tad melodramatic but hey, we are Indians after all…). Or I’d get sued like Kureishi was. Best stick to blogging.