For a generation of Americans, John Updike was the writer they came of age with, and then followed into the plains and plateaus of middle age. Hanif Kureishi, for a certain generation of British Asians, has become their Updike, the uber-cool, edgier version who understood the rebellious years and then hung around long enough to chronicle the slow, unglamorous but not unrewarding slump into middle age.
A few decades ago, it would have been blasphemy to compare Kureishi with someone as mainstream, as firmly establishment, as Updike. This was the man who began his career writing pornography, who blew our minds with My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and The Buddha of Suburbia. Kureishi wasn’t just the guru of the new multicultural, globalised novel, he was its bad-ass, strutting, swaggering poster boy. “At the deepest level, people are madder than they want to believe,” he writes in Something To Tell You, and it’s this insight that he brought to his explorations of relationships, the new melting pot of Britain, marriages, intimacy, love, desire and fanaticism.
“The cruelest thing you can do to Kerouac is to re-read him at thirty-eight,” Kureishi wrote in The Buddha of Suburbia, but it’s not a dictum that applies to his own work, especially the stories included in this compendium. Collected Stories covers the writing years from 1997 to 2007 and includes work from Love in a Blue Time, Midnight All Day, The Body and eight new stories. This is late Kureishi, the mellowed, autumnal observer of love and decay rather than the impassioned rebel of the early years. The cruelest thing you could do to Kureishi would be to read these stories before you turn thirty-eight.
“I used to like talking about sex,” says the narrator of Blue, Blue Pictures of You. “All of life, I imagined — from politics to aesthetics — merged in passionate human conjunctions… . I did, at one time, consider collecting a ‘book of desire’, an anthology of outlandish, melancholy and droll stories about the subject.” What a book this would have been, if Kureishi had brought himself to write it; but instead, Kureishi country turns out to be a more familiar, if still complex, world. The stories from Love in a Blue Time have dated better than Midnight All Day, and while The Body retains something of the force of Kureishi’s grand talent for subversion, its speculations about the future of desire, and a race of “wax immortals” who possess new bodies, have been overtaken not just by science fiction but by avatars, robots and other modern paraphernalia.
In his short stories, Kureishi allows himself an intimacy and an openness that can be absent from his longer fiction, where he is always an observer of desire, of break-ups, love and its fault lines — rarely a participant. There is nostalgia here, and regret mixed in with the rebellion: this is the territory of middle-age, populated by therapists (perhaps the ultimate inaccessible lovers of our time), the ebbing of desire, and the frustrations of apparently fulfilled desire. If rebellion has failed — or, more accurately, remains the domain of the young — there is always art, and political engagement; but both are as transgressive, and as elusive, and as unsatisfactory, as desire.
The stories that work best are his earlier work: the classic My Son The Fanatic remains a stark exploration of the gulf between those who are capable of faith, and the fanaticism of deep, implacable belief, and those who are helplessly wedded to reason. Perhaps the best of the most recent work is the brutal Weddings and Beheadings, where the narrator films beheadings “common in this war-torn city, which is my childhood home”. It’s a short story, just three pages long, but it is essential reading for anyone interested in our culture of the violence of media voyeurism: “To make it work on television, it helps to get a clear view of the victim’s eyes just before they cover them.”
Taken as a whole, Collected Stories is not a monumental work. Too many of the stories here have not dated well, or remain fixed to a particular place and a particular time; the London of Kureishi’s youth, so startlingly different and emblematic of the shifting politics of Britain, has been replaced by other Londons, other Britains. And far more than his novels or his films, his short stories expose the very limited range of Kureishi’s writing. But you’ll still read this for his insights, for their precision and wry wisdom: “We are unerring in our choice of lovers, particularly when we require the wrong person. There is an instinct, magnet or aerial, which seeks the unsuitable. The wrong person is, of course, right for something — to punish, bully or humiliate us, let us down, leave us for dead…”
For those of us who have aged and greyed almost alongside Kureishi, or at any rate, in his energetic, angry, peripatetic wake, Collected Stories will still be an essential addition to the bookshelves, despite its limitations. We need Kureishi’s worn gaze, and his cynical but heartfelt reminder: “Thank God, even now I am capable still of rebelling against myself.”