Our book today is The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureishi’s hugely successful 1990 debut novel about caustic, dreaming young Karim Amir, going crazy in the suburbs of 1970s London, worshiping at the altar of David Bowie and weaving through the hazards of his offbeat family life as he yearns for the mysteries of the metropolis. Karim is Indian (he’s called “nigger” and “darkie” and “wog” and all manner of other names by his less enlightened neighbors), articulate, and vaguely bisexual, and the reader is clearly meant to sympathize with him entirely as a kind of cuddly Holden Caufield.
Hanif Kureishi is almost sixty, and his craft has been steadily maturing during his whole writing life, from the meteoric gimmickry of his My Beautiful Laundrette screenplay to 2008’s rather lovely novel Something To Tell You, and it’s pretty clear from the first page of The Buddha of Suburbia that it’s going to be the one requisite coming-of-age novel every talented young author gets out of his system, usually at the start of his career. I’ve midwived many and many such novels – I know their topography like the back of my basset hound. I’ve long since learned not to count them as marks against their authors.
And yet. And yet.
Hanif Kureishi is almost sixty, but like Martin Amis and Julian Barnes and Salman Rushdie and half a dozen other Thatcher-brats, he remains situated in my imagination as a young writer, all spit and no polish, all coke and no revision, ever. I don’t come by this characterization lightly; I search every new novel I find for the telltale thrum of genuine talent (and even the occasional thrill of genius, as electrifying to discover as a five dollar bill on the sidewalk). I value the exhilaration of that feeling far more than I do the comfort of my own predispositions; I haven’t disparaged Amis and Barnes and Rushdie so much in these last thirty years because they were once young (we all were, rumor has it) – I’ve disparaged them because time after time, chance after chance, they kept writing crappy novels.
(Those of you who maintain that art is subjective and novels can’t be crappy but only read that way to some readers but not others, I have almost nothing to say – novel-writing is a learned skill, like tennis or cooking, so the only way I’ll ever believe that you believe such nonsense will be for you to let a first-year med student perform your next heart bypass)(And those of you who maintain that I might think a novel crappy when it is, in fact, a work of genius, I have almost nothing to say – after the age of two, you can tell a window from a rock on the ground, and so can I)(Not that any of this rules out liking – we’re all free to like anything we please, with very little carping from me, especially considering some of the things I like)(one thing I know the parenthesis-police don’t like: parentheses! We’d better rejoin the party now!)
It was on the strength of his stagework and screenplays that Kureishi gained the groundswell that helped to make The Buddha of Suburbia such an international hit. I read it when it first came out and thought it was moderately accomplished but far too fond of its own cute self, far too willing to lunge and dive for cheap effect at the expense of form or even simple believability. In the subsequent years I always tended to like Kureishi’s work more than that of his extended peer group, and it’s hard not to feel affection for the author who gave us the screenplay to Venus, that heartbreaking late-period Peter O’Toole vehicle. So I periodically return to books like his, in the hopes (as one wag put it) that they’ll have improved in the interim.
I wish I could say I found it a radically better novel, but it’s still the same – hokey, jokey, almost entirely unconvincing where it most wants to convince. Time and again, Kureishi seems to want applause merely for showing up, a quality I signally detest in young writers (unfortunately, since it’s their signal quality). On every page, you can see words, turns of phrase, and even whole passages that are designed not to provide good reading or even to be the convincing utterances of a South London teenager but rather to produce a shiver of collusional delight in the camp-following audience who will attend the reading at which these passages will be performed:
My father, the great sage, from whose lips instructions fell like rain in Seattle, had never spoken to me about sex. When, to test his liberalism, I demanded he tell me the facts of life (which the school had already informed me of, though I continued to get the words uterus, scrotum and vulva mixed up), he murmured only, ‘You can always tell when a woman is ready for sex. Oh yes. Her ears get warm.’
I looked keenly at Helen’s ears. I even reached out and pinched one of them lightly, for scientific confirmation. Warmish!
Oh, Charlie. My heart yearned for his hot ears against my chest. But he had neither phoned since our last love-making nor bothered to turn up here. He’d been away from school, too, cutting a demo tape with his band. The pain of being without the bastard, the cold turkey I was enduring, was alleviated only by the thought that he would seek more wisdom from my father tonight. But so far there was no sign of him.
But I noticed this time some strands running through the book that hadn’t seemed so pronounced to me the last time – I’d noticed them, thirty years ago, but they’d mostly annoyed me because they’re pitched in a completely adult register, just carelessly slapped into the narrative of a boy. They still annoyed me this time through, but since I was prepared to be annoyed, I had the luxury to notice that some of these insertions are deftly done and quite funny:
But that day I was leaving the school gates with a group of boys when I saw Helen. It was a surprise because I’d barely thought of her since I was fucked by her dog, an incident with which she had become associated in my mind: Helen and dog-cock went together. Now she was standing outside my school in a black floppy hat and long green coat, waiting for another boy. Spotting me, she ran over and kissed me. I was being kissed a lot lately: I needed the affection, I can tell you. Anybody could have kissed me and I’d have kissed them right back with interest.
The heedless profusion and riffing is still here in all its misplaced glory, and reading it reminds me of all the bright young people I once knew who considered Flaubert’s Parrot to be the greatest novel ever written. Whenever I would ask those bright young people if they’d ever read any other novels, their invariable answer was ‘no,’ and whenever I pointed that this fatally handicapped them from being able to award a top spot in the genre, they called me a snob. It was a wearying circle, and re-reading Kureishi’s slangy, supersmart prose brings it all back to me:
What a confused boy he was. But from the start Eva had insisted he was talent itself, that he was beautiful and God had blown into his cock. He was Orson Welles – at least. Naturally, long knowledge of this divinity now pervaded his personality. He was proud, dismissive, elusive and selectively generous. He led others to assume that soon world-dazzling poetry would catapult from his head as it had from those of other English boys: Lennon, Jagger, Bowie. Like Andre Gide, who when young expected people to admire him for the books he would write in the future, Charlie came to love being appreciated in several high streets for his potential. But he earned this appreciation with his charm, which was often mistaken for ability. He could even charm himself, I reckon.
(Ten points to the first reader who can tell me who ‘Charlie’ was in Kureishi’s life)
I finished The Buddha of Suburbia with no sense of satisfaction one way or another – it was neither better than I expected nor quite as bad as I remembered. A promising debut – that’s what it was called endlessly in the press upon its first publication, and reading it this time around, I realized what a small phrase that is, taken all-in-all. Although it most decidedly isn’t, it seems like something just about anybody could do: pick a louche subject matter, adopt a vivid, slangy argot, forgo most of the rude mechanics of plot (you’ll say you’re doing it because those mechanics are worn out, but really you’re doing it because you know you haven’t come close to mastering them), and boom! There you are in the middle of your promising debut. It’s what follows after that really matters, and that struck me this time too: the next time I read The Buddha of Suburbia will almost certainly be the day I read Kureishi’s obituary and set about assessing his life’s work. I doubt there’ll be a need before then, but I’ve been surprised before.