Menaces and Zanies

Nicholas Spice

  • Something to Tell You by Hanif Kureishi
    Faber, 345 pp, £16.99, March 2008, ISBN 978 0 571 20977 4

Sometimes what is left out of a poem or a story creates a more arresting sense of reality than what is left in. Keats’s poetic fragment ‘This Living Hand’ ends with the hand thrust towards the reader: ‘See here it is/I hold it towards you.’ The poem’s rhetoric conjures a space in which the spectral hand appears like a hallucination, hovering somewhere between us and the page. The hand has been offered to us before we or the poem know it. A rather less dramatic example of the technique is the moment in Emma when Harriet Smith, disabused of her infatuation with Mr Elton, casts the pathetic relics of that love (a bit of ‘court plaister’ and the stub of a pencil) into the fire:

‘But, Harriet, is it necessary to burn the court plaister? I have not a word to say for the bit of old pencil, but the court plaister might be useful.’

‘I shall be happier to burn it’, replied Harriet. ‘It has a disagreeable look to me. I must get rid of every thing. – There it goes, and there is an end, thank Heaven! Of Mr Elton.’

The finality of Harriet’s gesture – her symbolic immolation of the egregious Elton – is given its force by not being represented in the text. By the time Harriet says ‘There it goes,’ the plaster and the pencil have been thrown. The event that is missing creates a vacuum which we rush to fill. In doing so, it is as if we find ourselves actually present in the room with Emma and Harriet.

Hanif Kureishi’s Something to Tell You, a novel which suffers badly from feeling obliged to include too much, nonetheless achieves some of its best effects through what it leaves out. There are two scenes in particular where the reader is drawn to identify closely with the main character, Jamal Khan, because of what is missing from the text. In the first scene, about halfway through the novel, Jamal re-encounters Mustaq, the younger brother of Ajita, the girl he fell in love with when he was a student. Jamal, now in his early fifties, is a psychoanalyst with a growing reputation in smart London circles; Mustaq has become a pop star. Mustaq doesn’t know what the reader has known since the second page of the novel: that when he was a student Jamal was directly involved in the death of Mustaq and Ajita’s father. When he meets Mustaq, Jamal is wearing the dead man’s wristwatch and Mustaq notices it:

‘This may seem odd to you, but something is making me quite curious,’ he said. ‘Can I see that?’

He wanted to look at my watch.

I showed it to him.

Suddenly, the past seems about to burst through the smooth surfaces of the present and cause havoc with Jamal’s life. Jamal must know that very little now separates him from ruin. But the text stays silent. Nothing of Jamal’s turmoil is recorded, an absence which makes our awareness of Jamal’s inner state all the more acute.

Fifty pages later a second scene repeats this pattern. Jamal is talking to Ajita, with whom, as a result of his meeting with Mustaq, he is once again in contact:

I said: ‘We were a dissenting generation. People like your father – we called them capitalists then – we hated on principle. In other European cities, people like us were kidnapping and killing capitalists.’

‘You didn’t want to do that. You couldn’t kill anyone.’

I said: ‘I was always furious with my parents, my father in particular. It seemed odd to me that you loved your parents without any hatred.’

Again the novel swerves towards the precipice we have been expecting it to plunge over from the beginning, and what Jamal does not say and the cost to him of not saying it become intensely present.

In both these scenes the tempo of the dialogue remains measured and even; the pulse of the text doesn’t miss a beat. Jamal navigates these dangerous transitions with unnerving aplomb. But his surefootedness at such moments of emotional vertigo, and, elsewhere, his fluency as a liar, come as no surprise. As the novel’s narrator, he represents himself as reserved and secretive, a compulsive and manipulative listener who pays attention to others as a pre-emptive defence against having to speak of himself. His habitual style of conversation is a parody of psychoanalytic detachment.

To the other characters, Jamal likes to remain something of an enigma, but to the reader he is apparently an open book. Secrets, Auden says, are the currency of love. We share secrets to create our closest bonds. Affected by his quietness and his availability as a listener, people confide in Jamal, perhaps in the hope that if they tell him their secrets he will love them. Jamal, meanwhile, tells his secrets to the reader. This draws us close to him, a complicity that the novel never seeks to disturb by suggesting that, as its narrator, he might not always be reliable. Jamal may lie to the other characters in the story, but he never lies to us.

The question of Jamal’s secret – will it or won’t it come out – is the main plot device in Something to Tell You. What is unspoken sits behind the otherwise ambling, amiable, mildly comic narrative like a nameless menace. To an extent, this ensures that the novel holds our attention, but our acute consciousness that the other shoe has still to drop is also a distraction. It causes us to be impatient and fidgety, and it leaves the rest of the novel having to compete for our attention, a competition it cannot win.

This problem is greatly exacerbated by Kureishi’s decision to cast the novel as reminiscence. We are to suppose that the entire novel is recalled by Jamal in a series of daydreams while he waits for his analytic patients. The drawback is not so much that this arrangement isn’t plausible (we can accept it as a narrative convention), but that it makes most of the novel seem no more than an extended expositional catch-up, with the main cat let out of the bag on the second page. The result is an uncomfortable collision of positive and negative narrative energies. The extreme forward momentum set up by the disclosure of Jamal’s secret is immediately frustrated by the backward drag of a recollected story cast too much of the time in the pluperfect or past progressive tense: ‘I guess my sister had always been waiting for me to invite her out’; ‘We’d watch each other pee, have spaghetti-eating competitions, and egg-and-spoon races with our underwear round our ankles’; ‘We’d have the radio on low, and occasionally we’d even glance at our college books’; ‘In my own bed, I couldn’t sleep. I’d lie there going over what Ajita had told me’ – and so on.

The effect is to enervate the action, spreading it vaguely across an indefinite duration rather than focusing it in a sequence of present moments. The retrospective mode also prohibits any real sense of motivation and causation, making it hard properly to answer one of the more pressing questions the novel poses, which is how our bookish, tentative narrator can have become involved in a murder. The facts are clear enough. As a student in the early 1970s, Jamal falls wonderfully in love with the delightful Ajita. A dream of innocently disinhibited love turns into a nightmare when Ajita admits to Jamal that she is being sexually abused by her father. At college Jamal has taken up with a couple of zanies: Wolf, a German with a hint of the psychotic about him (who returns later in the story to blackmail Jamal); and Valentin, an anarchistic Bulgarian intellectual. Wolf and Valentin persuade Jamal that he must avenge Ajita by a physical attack on her father. They all go round to his house to put the frighteners on him, but things get out of hand: Jamal draws a knife and Ajita’s father has a heart attack, not before offering Jamal his wristwatch (he thinks they have come to rob him).

It’s possible to see in these materials the making of an absorbing and affecting story about an idyllic young love that goes very wrong. But the elements ought to be carefully developed in a narrative that unfolds forwards, a narrative that argues for the logic of the events through strongly depicted characters with plausible desires and motivations, not a narrative that merely rehearses these things as a set of faits accomplis. As things stand, the account of the murder, when it comes, reads too much like a formality that must be got through, while the novel’s interest, like ours, lies with how the murder will play out in Jamal’s later life. This creates a serious structural problem. Having set the trap, the novel has to wait a decent interval to spring it. So we are obliged to sit around for a hundred and fifty pages while the novel spins out the story of the murder, interspersing it with material from the rest of Jamal’s life, before the plot can resume. Once Wolf turns up intent on blackmailing Jamal, and Mustaq and Ajita re-enter the picture, the pace picks up again; but too late.

The story of Jamal’s life after the murder is relatively uneventful. Wolf and Valentin flee to the Continent, Ajita goes back to India to her mother, and Jamal has a breakdown, from which he is rescued by the psychoanalytic ministrations of Tahir Hussein, a Pakistani analyst of unorthodox persuasion who appears to be loosely based on Masud Khan. Through his experiences as a patient Jamal recognises his vocation and trains as an analyst himself. When the novel opens, his career has just taken off (he has two successful books to his name and a reputation as ‘therapist to the stars’). Otherwise, what do we know of him? That he once had a girlfriend called Karen; that he married a woman called Josephine, whom he later divorced; that he has a son called Rafi, a mother who has moved in with her girlfriend, and a fat and feisty elder sister called Miriam who is having an affair with his best friend, Henry.

Much of Something to Tell You is set in Jamal’s recent past (the novel includes a passage about the 7 July bombings in London) and a lot of it concerns the doings of Miriam and Henry. Their very substantial presence in the novel seems to serve two functions: to allow Kureishi to articulate his vision of modern London life among the affluent liberal intelligentsia, and to provide a splash of colour to contrast with the quieter tones of Jamal’s character. As a psychoanalyst, Jamal has plenty to say about desire, though his relationship with his own desire is equivocal. ‘Desire, like the dead, or an unpleasant meal, would keep returning – it was ultimately indigestible,’ he is prompted to reflect while watching his 12-year-old son watch two cats having sex on the lawn; and, a little later: ‘Pleasure: vortex and abyss – that which we desire and fear simultaneously. Pleasure implies dirtying your hands and mind, and being threatened; there is fear, disgust, self-loathing and moral failure. Pleasure was hard work; not everyone, perhaps not most people, could bear to find it.’

Jamal’s preferred position in relation to this fearful business is as an observer, in the background, watching. It’s as if he feels caught between two extremes: on the one side his experiences as a young man with Ajita, where pleasure, far from being hard work, was pure delight; and on the other, the strenuous sexual anarchy of Miriam’s relationship with Henry, an extended, no holds barred, pornographic floor show, complete with ‘scarves, whips . . . amyl nitrate, vibrators, videos, condoms and two metal tea infusers’, staged in a variety of North London bedrooms and a fetish club called the Sootie under a railway arch in Vauxhall. Being a good psychoanalyst, Jamal knows that the sexual idyll with Ajita was just kid’s stuff, a joyous set of variations on the theme of ‘I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours.’ But a trip to Sootie tells him he has no stomach for the adult version of unrestrained jouissance. So, he goes back to his ex-wife, Josephine (about whom we have been told next to nothing), a move that we are perhaps intended to read as a triumph for the ‘depressive position’.

Whether or not you enjoy Something to Tell You will depend largely on how you get on with Miriam and Henry and the world they bring with them. I found them wearisome: obvious, repetitive and static – simply the largest item in the pile of fictional bric-a-brac that clutters up the novel. The scenes from their relationship are clearly intended to act as a substantial counter-subject to the story of Jamal’s secret, but since Henry and Miriam are merely bystanders to the working through of this main plot, one begins to wonder what they are doing in the book at all. And if the Miriam/Henry material seems secondary, the host of minor characters and incidents cantilevered off it makes no lasting impression of any kind – on rereading the novel, I found I’d simply forgotten most of them.

The real achievement of Something to Tell You lies in the evocation of Jamal’s mental states: his faint but pervasive unease, the sense of a creative energy held in check, of an impulse to speak balked by the fear of what might be said. Weirdly, the failures of the novel flow from this success. To put it another way, Jamal’s problems become the novel’s problems. For Kureishi has not just made Jamal a narrator, placing the outer frame of the novel at some distance from him, so that the reader might walk around him and view him as one of a number of characters, even if the most important; he has effectively ceded to Jamal his full powers as a novelist, made him his surrogate, giving him the right to create the other characters and dispose the events of the plot. Novels are always more like dreams than they are like the interpretations of dreams, and a novelist is more like a dreamer than a psychoanalyst. The absence of any ironic distance between the novel and Jamal turns Something to Tell You into Jamal’s dream, as though, were he a novelist in our real world, this is the novel he would write.

In his memoir, My Ear at His Heart, Kureishi writes of his fear as a young man that his words might harm people, specifically that they might harm his father, whom he describes as charismatic but vulnerable and in need of the son’s protection. He also writes in a disarmingly forthright manner about the novel as self-disclosure: ‘The blank sheet of paper,’ he says, ‘is like the analyst’s silence, as provoking and as eventually revealing of the self’s dimensions and desires.’ Taking this as our cue, we might approach Something to Tell You with the attentiveness of an analyst listening to a patient. And what we might then notice is that the patient will do anything not to tell us what it is that is making him afraid. He is a talented man, as good at inventing truths as suppressing them. In the first session, he tells us straightaway what is on his mind – he has murdered someone and the guilt of this will never go away. Having made his big confession, he spends the rest of the session chattering on about his sister and her new boyfriend and how they have access to amazing levels of sexual expression which he only wishes he could have access to, and then about his mother and her new girlfriend, and then about his friend’s daughter who has stolen an Ingres drawing from her mother, and then about his old girlfriend Karen whom he has just met up with again – and so on and so on, until the session ends. And while the analyst is waiting for him to say what is really on his mind, the thought comes to him that all this chatter is just a diversion, and that the story of the murder is just a diversion too, intended as an unarguable obstacle to further inquiry. A father needs to be killed. But it isn’t his girlfriend’s father.