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.