If you adored Catherine Texier’s Breakup last year, fell to the floor gushing sympathetic tears for the abandoned raconteur and raised your fists with indignant empathy over the cruelty of love’s death, then you’ll probably be just as content to steer clear of Intimacy, Hanif Kureishi’s fourth work of fiction.
If, however, you found Texier’s blitzkrieg of grief indulgent, if you wearied by page ten of the unnuanced voice of victimization, if you wondered when it stopped taking two to tango, “if you, too, have known love and loss” (as Fay Weldon said of Breakup) but took the intellectual path out of it, befriended your defense mechanisms, uncomfortably celebrated the idealistic possibility of finding love…again, thought it all fascinating at some level, then Intimacy may be for you.
A successful, middle-aged writer walks out on his common-law wife (and former editor) and two young sons, moves in with a younger woman who plays in a rock band, and writes a novella about it. This is Intimacy–billed as fiction, though the similarities to the author’s own life cast a spurious shadow over the claim. Intimacy is a falling-out-of-love book, according to Kureishi “an examination of family, duty, passion, and how we reconcile these things.” This otherwise noble pitch didn’t keep the shadow of self-reference from dogging the book’s publication last spring in the author’s native England. It led to such a violent onslaught of negative publicity that the former enfant terrible of London was driven into a much-publicized retreat from public life, inadvertently mirroring the exile of his friend Salman Rushdie. Except the fatwa over Kureishi’s head is benign and dramatizes the abiding Western preoccupation with the personal (as applied to celebrity) and the haphazard search for values in a secular world through diffuse notions of familial obligation and middle-class love. As Jay, the narrator of Intimacy, explains, “It is the men who must go. They are blamed for it, as I will be. I understand the necessity of blame–the idea that someone could, had they the will, courage or sense of duty, have behaved otherwise. There must, somewhere, be deliberate moral infringement rather than anarchy, to preserve the idea of justice and of meaning in the world.”
Kureishi first appeared on the scene in 1985 with the screenplay for My Beautiful Laundrette, one of the first great films in what morphed into the phenomenon of independent cinema. My Beautiful Laundrette infringed on middle-class morality by putting forth issues of sexuality, class, racism and familial obligation simultaneously. His first and second novels, The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album, likewise confronted a spectrum of coming-of-age quandaries–religion, fundamentalism, career, academe, love and ethnic identity. Triumphs of the roman à clef genre, both books maintained a peculiarly delicate balance of Oedipal crisis, positioning society rather than the father as the specter to be reckoned with, keeping Kureishi (in good English tradition) more outwardly than inwardly focused. That focus is subtly perpetuated in Intimacy, keeping it from being the self-absorbed nightmare that its subject might promise.
Kureishi is a kingpin of the unacknowledged art of the biographical tease–giving just enough to suggest a narrative doppelgänger but not enough to drown readers with a sense of mundane memoir. His 1997 story collection about loveless relationships, Love in a Blue Time, was inexplicably hateful–its pleasure retrieved primarily through Kureishi’s ever-lucid and elegant literary style. It smacked throughout of midlife crisis but lingered in allegory and never quite fessed up. Now Kureishi has grown older, rounder, patronly, bourgeois, as have his dopplegängers. Jay laments: “Velvet curtains, soft cheese, compelling work and boys who can run full-tilt–it isn’t enough. And if it isn’t, it isn’t.”
The panning of Kureishi–not just his book–by London’s champagne-socialist intelligentsia represented an embarrassing knee-jerk conflation of author and text, text and life. Female reviewers in particular loathed this book, taking Kureishi to task for his immaturity, his inability to commit, for walking out on his children: “Anyone with even a scrap of rectitude could not fail to find Intimacy a repugnant little book…. such callousness verges on the psychotic” (Observer); “At its core, Intimacy reads like pure pathology; the rage and boredom and cruelty of a man who has fallen out of love” (Guardian); “Feminist critics will have a field day with its misogyny” (Observer). Kureishi exacerbated the conflation of life and literature by giving an interview to the Sunday Guardian in which he transposed details of his own life, making himself out to have come from a more lower-class background than he actually did–perhaps in pursuit of the authenticity that “suffering” provides, or perhaps simply to blur the topical lines between persona and person just a little more. His claims were publicly rebutted by his sister in a letter to the Guardian that opened with the question, “Does being famous mean you can devalue those around you and rewrite history for even more personal gain?” Such rhetoric fueled the larger questions surrounding a book that quite brazenly attempts to make art of dirty laundry.
Dirty laundry or not, art it is. Critics, as critics will do, plucked the devilish moments of Kureishi’s book from their context, and in so doing denied the delicate complexity those moments occupy. Don’t be misled by its veneer of straight, simple language; Intimacy works off irony, not misogyny. And irony is one of the few literary devices left in our self-referential literary landscape. Jay runs away from what he has in pursuit of something greater: “Tonight my predominant emotion is fear of the future. At least, one might say, it is better to fear things than be bored by them, and life without love is a long boredom. I may be afraid but I am not cynical.” In its course, Intimacy and its author offer up their innuendoed bellies to the reader–an uncommon act of vulnerability. “I will pursue my feelings like a detective, looking for clues to the crime, writing as I read myself within. I want an absolute honesty that doesn’t merely involve saying how awful one is.”
In defense of honesty, we are privy to Jay’s often ruthlessly negative depiction of Susan, the soon-to-be ex. Such narration can be read simplistically as an expression of misogyny, but it is more properly a dramatization of that sadly familiar defense mechanism that demonizes the object of rejection to make leave-taking less painful and justify an otherwise morally dubious action. The narrator’s tumult over his own tenuous justifications sears the surface of the story, almost palpable in its desperation. Consider this exchange between Jay and Susan:
“I can’t imagine what you have to think about,” she says. Then she laughs. “You didn’t eat much. Your trousers are baggy. They’re always falling down. You look like a builder.”
“Sorry? Don’t say sorry. You sound pathetic.”
Susan is an impossible nag in these moments, a one-dimensional monster, a patent fabrication. This is not the characterization of a real person but rather a display of the construction of resentment. Deceptively blasé in tone, the emotion lies in what’s not explicit, the juxtaposition of discordant sentiments and tortured ironic distance: “My younger son, his nose in my wrist as we walked in the street last week, said, ‘Daddy, you smell of you.’ ‘Cheerio, I must be going.'”
Intimacy is a journey through conflict: “How do I like to write? With a soft pencil and a hard dick–not the other way round.” This comment (often disparagingly cited by critics) is not simply macho posturing or even self-mockery but rather a callow admission of opposing potencies. The obligations of man: duty to family and society, weakness in the face of desire, phallocentrism and homage paid to it. The demands of craft: the self-investigation, the drudgery and isolation, the idealism that drives it. As an expression of sexuality (for there is much of that here, too), Jay’s is an embarrassing admission of creative and physiological onanism. Is the writer then so self-sustaining? And isn’t it only in the most intimate of circumstances that men admit that the wealth of their own minds makes them hard?
Relationships end. It’s bitter and sad. We have all been touched by it, nursed friends through it, heard endless narratives about it, wrought our own endless narratives. It’s a quintessentially human story–and potentially deathly boring. For my money, it’s infinitely less interesting to be handed grief on a platter than it is to speculate on the conflagrations of negotiating that grief. “Nothing is as fascinating as love, unfortunately,” Jay ruminates. Glued to the page and brimming with traces of common experience, we have to agree. The pain revealed in the interstices between hatred, love, fealty and duty constitutes entree into a higher level of intimacy that, finally, has little to do with our voyeurism and everything to do with our participation in life itself.
Few books are so saturated with the sense of compulsion to tell a story in elaborate detail. Kureishi gives voice to the lucubrations of the splendors and depths of the mind (to paraphrase Jay) and their unflagging appeal to expression through the written word–that unforgiving medium Kureishi both controls and lets control him, in a dynamic not unlike a love affair. That we end up feeling sorry for no one, sensing that everyone may actually be better off someday, whether the characters seem to deserve it or not, is Kureishi’s promise: a tale of hope for the future, for love.