“I imagine things for a living,” remarks the narrator of The Nothing, “and the imagination is the most dangerous place on earth.” Waldo, once a famous and charismatic film director and rake, is now old and decrepit, the possessor of “most illnesses”, mordantly misanthropic and confined to a wheelchair. He has “lived too long” and the “new world” of contemporary London “seems banal and exhausted”, a place of “too much money”. He might as well be describing himself. Waldo despises normality, even as he recognises it in himself, and considers ethics “a pathological violence and the good an obstacle”. And yet there is one thing that matters: “the achievement of loving a woman”. That woman is the younger Zenab, “Zee”, and she’s growing restless.
Waldo’s once vast ambitions are now shrunk to one: to die with the loyal and loving Zee by his side. There’s just one problem: she is no longer either loyal or loving. She has taken up with Eddie, an oleaginous acolyte of Waldo’s, who pushes both his wheelchair and his buttons. Zee reveals herself as a sadistic gold-digger and Eddie a social-climbing grifter with a tragic past. Eddie, in Waldo’s eyes, is the embodiment of Milton’s notion of the “devilish engine”. Waldo quietly plots his revenge: “Watch me take that thief down … I will urinate in his mouth and wipe my ass with his head.”
Waldo is not the only one with murderous impulses. This is a novel of suspicion and gossip, of things overheard with hearing aids and overseen with hidden cameras. Incriminating photos drop to the floor, waiters spill figurative beans, shady characters lurk. There are dark pasts, murky presents and, in Waldo’s case at least, a limited future. The Nothing is the sort of movie Waldo might have made – and now he begins secretly to create it.
Male anxiety about ageing is a theme Hanif Kureishi has explored previously (The Body). Waldo, who assures us he once had “fuckability”, clings to his sexuality; Eros, after all, is life. Cheerfully unreconstructed, he remarks about his own best friend, Anita, an ageing actress, that she “is not a woman a man can look at for long without wanting to put his penis in her mouth”. Anita, kind, thoughtful and no less sexually restless than Waldo, is The Nothing’s only truly likeable character. But the novel, like life itself, is short, and if occasionally brutal, entertaining enough to make it worthwhile. CG
Faber, 176pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 3, 2017 as "Hanif Kureishi, The Nothing ". Subscribe here.