The Last Word
“Harry Johnson gazed out of the window of the train at the English countryside and thought that not a moment passed when someone wasn’t telling a story … [He] was about to be employed to tell the story of the man he was going to visit …” Lord, who else can it be with an opening like that, these days, but Hanif Kureishi, multiculti poet laureate of modern England, the bloke with things to say, and craft-wise, perfunctory to the point of impatience?
Frequently described as “courageous”, the compliment is a tribute to his capacity to explore new terrain (My Beautiful Laundrette, Love in a Blue Time) and his frequent and shameless – and maybe gormless – pursuit of cliché (passim). The Last Word, his seventh novel, amid a score of plays, films and collections, may well be both.
Johnson, the protagonist, is a dislikeable young English novelist, the child of a dislikeable psychiatrist and a mad mother, stepping out with Alice, a dislikeable London fashionista and maddie. Harry’s been hired by Rob (publisher, dislikeable) to write the biography of Mamoon, an Indian novelist, resident for decades in England, famed over the decades for his gleeful reactionary swagger about blacks, Muslims, the Third World, the underclass, and yes, it’s V.S. Naipaul. Now resident in the English “countryside” – council estates, white druggies and skinheads, Somali immigrants – with the likeable but crazy second wife, Liana, Mamoon has Harry move in. Harry shags the housekeeper, his fiancée Alice comes down to stay, and Rob, and a six-way struggle of love and hate ensues, ruled over by a common compulsion to deep masochism, emotional and sexual. Threaded through are Mamoon and Harry’s long jousting dialogues. Funny, insightful, striking, and not remotely plausible as real speech, they lurch from engaging aperçu (“What was marriage, but sex plus property?”) to galumphing obviousness (“The sane have always envied the mad for their freedom and ecstasy”, blah blah blah) in the space of a paragraph. Characters shift voice from one scene to the next, tenses clash such that scenes fall apart.
Whether deliberate or slack, it’s Kureishi at his best/worst, compelling and bad, the Jeffrey Archer of the world music set. Judged as an Augustan-era philosophical romp, it makes the grade. But the pleasures of it have about them the kiss of the whip. XS
Faber, 352pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 8, 2014 as "Hanif Kureishi, The Last Word".
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