‘I’m alive, so that’s enough’
Faber Rs 850 | pp 671
Something new is happening in the shrewdly observant, funny and touching new stories that close this essential — and essentially magnificent — collection from Hanif Kureishi. They are preoccupied with the tenuousness of life itself. (Decline of the West, in which a man comes home from the office and tries to tell his wife that he has lost his job to the recession, best exemplifies this.) “Yes, that is absolutely true,” says Kureishi, down a patchy phone line from his west London home. “There is a fragility about them, isn’t there? In a way, it has to do with my getting older.”
I remind Kureishi, now 54, that he wrote in his disconcerting 2002 novella, The Body (also part of this collection) that after 40, “colour begins to drain from the world”. Is the world beginning to appear more and more in monochrome to him? “Well, I think of growing old and the fear of death as subjects. I’m lucky that I’ve been provided with these new subjects now. And I am still at it, I am interested in what I am writing next, I am alive, so that’s enough.”
A couple of the new stories, from the brief and chilling Dogs to Long Ago Yesterday, inhabit a blurred zone between dream, reality, hallucination and nightmare. But there isn’t the bohemian derangement of the senses that underscored so much of his earlier work — from the richly comic, zeitgeist-catching romp of The Buddha of Suburbia to the stories in Love in a Blue Time or Midnight All Day that anatomised London’s intelligentsia and its anxieties and the never-ending party that it turned the Thatcher years into.
Doesn’t he experiment with drugs any longer? “I smoke some dope, but I don’t think of that as a drug; it’s merely an aid to watching television. I’m now fascinated by the legal drugs: anti-depressants, Ritalin, that sort of thing. Doctors give them to children. Isn’t it a scandal?”
It’s no surprise that this should interest Kureishi because he has, as his fellow writer, William Boyd, once said, always cast a “shrewd and gimlet eye on contemporary life”. Published as part of Love in a Blue Time in 1997, his story, My Son the Fanatic, which delineated the dangerous alienation of radicalised young Muslims was a superbly prescient and frightening intimation of the global jihad that we have now come to fear so much. “Yes, I am interested in the contemporary,” Kureishi says. “I want to be part of what goes on around me. I can do that through my writing.”
His writing shows how he continues to do just that. “For me, the two events that have determined the world, or the way I see the world, are 9/11 and the recession”. This awareness is another reason for the “fragility” of the new stories in this collection.
His style evolves as he goes along (“I prefer writing shorter stuff now, I want to finish a story and move on to the next thing”) and his preoccupations, along with the changing world around him, alter, but some things very much remain the same.
The Collected Stories reveal just how central parenthood — or, more particularly, the father-son relationship — has been to his oeuvre. Why is it so? “It was a way of writing about race, and a way about writing about different generations. It is a way of looking at the world. And, depending on whether you are a son or a parent, the point of view keeps changing.”
He has teenaged sons now, and he talks about how children change everything. “I wouldn’t have the time to reread Middlemarch now. No, there simply isn’t the time.”
There will have to be the time for him to keep pushing the boundaries, for doing what he has been since 1984: writing screenplays, plays, stories, novels — an astonishing breadth, matched by few of his peers. “I need to do different things,” he says. “I don’t think I’d be able to just write books.”