Although known for writing about the experiences of being English born to an immigrant father and all the complications that go along with it, Kureishi also explores sex and sexuality in his work (not a big surprise considering he started off writing pornography). Famously, My Beautiful Launderette looks at the life of Omar Ali, a closeted young Asian man with a Thatcherite uncle and a bitter alcoholic of a father.
Maybe it’s more to do with brashness. The New York Times once described him as someone who “…likes to affect the outlaw image: the fashionable ponytail, the black leather jacket, the beer in a bottle, not a glass.” Considering that the two stereotypes for most British Asians at that time were that they were either fanatical Muslims, or meek introverts, Kureishi seemed to be an example of how multiculturalism, as a natural process, can reshape a country and produce a new kind of Englishman.
By the mid 90’s (after the success of The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album), Kureishi found that he had changed. As he put it:
I'd been this kid with long hair, hanging around in London, taking drugs and having sex with girls. Suddenly, I was getting up at seven in the morning and taking my kids to the park. My life switched. I'd become an adult. These kids were looking to me as a father and I was responsible. I could no longer write books from the point of view of a 17-year-old.
Living in London, at the height of Cool Britannia (which he arguably helped kick off), Kureishi walked out of a relationship with the mother of his two sons. Then, not too long after that, Intimacy was published. He faced a barrage of criticism for it but, over twenty years since publication, how does it stand up in 2020?
Lasting no longer than 160 pages, Intimacy is a very simple tale: a man (Jay) is ruminating on the state of his relationship with Susan, torn between leaving her for another woman and staying together for the sake of the children. But where it grows in complexity is when it becomes apparent that the dissatisfaction is part of a wider malaise, as he examines his life, his generation (who came of age in the 60’s) and the subsequent move into middle age (Kureishi was 44 when Intimacy was published) in a world his generation created, but are now too old to participate in.
Jay, our narrator, manages the neat trick of eliciting sympathy from readers while also irritating them at the same time. Because Intimacy is, essentially, a monologue, we are forced to stay with this character throughout. One who grew up watching his father fail to be published and was left with the conclusion that his father’s life demonstrated that "…life is a struggle, and that struggle gets you nowhere. That there is little pleasure in marriage; that it is like doing a job one hates."
One particular segment, when Jay discusses the effect of Thatcherism on his generation, stands out:
We were left enervated and confused. Soon we didn’t know what we believed. Some remained on the left; others retreated into sexual politics; some became Thatcherites. We were the kind of people who held the Labour Party back. Still, I never understood the elevation of greed as a political credo. Why would anyone want to base a political programme on bottomless dissatisfaction and the impossibility of happiness? Perhaps that was its appeal: the promise of luxury that in fact promoted endless work.
A stinging criticism of the “live to work” mentality that blossomed in the 1990’s, and also an example of the effect identity politics had when it quickly overtook class struggles, it still resonates in today’s environment.
Jay is a polarising narrator. Some will conclude he is a selfish prick who can’t view Susan as anything other than a prop to satisfy his whims. Others will recognise a figure who is struggling to reconcile middle age with his youthful outlook, a kind of masculinity in crisis (especially when you consider the line “My son, there may be a time when I explain these things to you, because there may be a time when I understand them.”).
How you interpret the character will more than likely be the key to your enjoyment of the book. For me, I found him a gripping example of how middle age allows people to realign everything they thought they knew, and then sees them react in horror at what they have become.
Next time you see a mate go through a mid-life crisis, think of Intimacy and have pity on them.
Hanif Kureishi, 1998, Intimacy. Faber and Faber. ISBN-13: 978-0571196364
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.