Laura Miller reviews 'Intimacy' by Hanif Kureishi

Published March 3, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Hanif Kureishi once wrote well-populated books and screenplays that thrummed with the vitality of life in contemporary London -- multiracial, polysexual and politically raucous, with characters chasing after everything from money and sex to spiritual enlightenment, ironclad fundamentalism and even true love. His screenplays -- "My Beautiful Laundrette," "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid" -- and novels -- "The Buddha of Suburbia," "The Black Album" -- were fetching and lively, the work of a writer endlessly engaged in and amused by his world and undaunted by its myriad contradictions.

Now Kureishi mostly writes about himself. His recent collection of short stories, "Love in a Blue Time," and the slim, patently autobiographical novel "Intimacy" brood over midlife crises of a depressingly generic nature. In "Intimacy," Jay -- a writer who, like Kureishi, was once nominated for an Academy Award -- prepares to leave Susan, the mother of his two small sons, whom he's lived with for six years. Their relationship has degenerated into a loveless routine, the two partners playing roles straight out of a pop psychologist's case study. He's a romantic, boyish fuck-up; she's a scold. He relies on her "humdrum dexterity and ability to cope" while secretly resenting her for making him feel weak. She criticizes him constantly, then blames him for being emotionally remote. Without a doubt, their union is toxic and doomed. The night before he plans to move in with a divorced pal, Jay wanders the house, marinating in self-pity and guilt, occasionally mustering flashes of the opportunistic defiance of his much-mourned youth. ("Desire is naughty and doesn't conform to our ideals ... Desire is the original anarchist and undercover agent.")

Meandering and formless, "Intimacy" has the honest immediacy of an extended journal entry. It is surely an accurate portrait of the interior of a perpetual child, a man who has convinced himself that his fear of life's depths is actually a passion for its summits. But this sort of thing -- like a note left by a suicide -- can be crushing to read unless the author suggests some dawning of insight or perspective, and it's not even clear what, exactly, Kureishi believes about Jay's dilemma. He has Jay describe the youth culture he grew up in and still misses as "the apotheosis of the defiantly shallow"; he has a friend of Jay's observe, "You remind me of someone who only ever reads the first chapter of a book. You never discover what happens next." But none of these insights seem to stick.

As his hero heads out the door filled with puppyish hopes about Nina, the fuzzily idealized club girl he hopes will restore him, Kureishi ends on a note of uplift. The problem is, it seems painfully obvious that once Nina comes into clearer focus she'll be deemed just as unsatisfactory as Susan. So much frantic self-contemplation and so little self-knowledge make for a dispiriting tale -- doubly so when it comes from the same pen that wrote the saucily picaresque novel "The Buddha of Suburbia." Kureishi's admirers will just have to repeat the hopeful mantra that parents of teenagers and families of befuddled middle-aged men everywhere intone: It's only a phase

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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