on 8 June 2012
For years I was put off reading this book, I thought it had some kind of agenda in mocking suburbanites from an Asian perspective. Well, it does have an agenda - it takes the mick out of pretty much everyone, yes, the Abigail's Party brigade with their worship of central heating and double glazing, the world of Margot and Jerry Ledbetter. But it is even more damning of the Asian community, or perhaps I should say the older generation, who of course would be grandparents today. In particular their misogyny and patriachal nature, and we witness the ebb and flow of power between the sexes.
Some on this site complain about a lack of a plot. Well, I suppose they'd say the same of The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis, it's that sort of narrative. Mainly, it's about a young suburban teenager, Karim, who finds his cosy existance blown apart when his dad, a first generation immigrant who never quite made good, is coopted by the charismatic and ambitious Eva into giving lectures of buddhism and enlightenment. The book is wonderfully observed, and it charts the way Karim hopes to use the tailwind of this development to get away from the boring, suburban life and taste the exotism of the city. There are some very funny lines here, but it's true that the lead narrater doesn't propel events, usually stuff happens to him.
Being a bloke, I'd call it out for a couple of things. Firstly, the narrator has a superiority complex. This is amusing if you also have a bit of a superiority complex. Just about everyone he meets, he skewers in the prose, although of course if Karim were such a naive fellow, coming of age, he wouldn't be that insightful. Really, it's the author who is delivering these verdicts. It is a very satisfying method, it's the old Clark Kent/Superman duality, where one minute you can step out of your put-upon self and feel supreme. Even PG Wodehouse did it, as a lot of the very funny lines ('She had a laugh like the cavalry crossing a tin bridge') would be beyond a chump like Bertie Wooster. To be fair, Karim would be the sort who slyly keeps his own counsel about certain types, a goalhanger in life.
Secondly, the sex is a bit out there. Kureishi seems to using promiscuous sex to turn on the reader, fair enough, but it's as if he being less well observed here. I'm not sure the type of bloke we have depicted here would get it so much, even if he is good looking. Certainly he's very relaxed about his bisexuality, there never seems to be any doubt if another bloke will be up for it.
Thirdly, the timeline is a bit out of wack. The events seem to call for a story over a two-year period, but we go from Beatles Abbey Road period to Bowie, then punk and The Pretenders. The Pretenders only got going in 1978! The author's reach seems to exceed his grasp, as if he's aiming for an epic along the lines of Our Friends in the North. I wasn't too sold on one of the characters becoming a major rock star either, it breaks the suspension of disbelief, we know it didn't happen, unless it's true the guy is Billy Idol (it seems to fit) and the author didn't want to get sued.
Anyhow, I read this in a week and loved it. Surprised to see it is on the syllabus, more books like this should be in my view. It shouldn't be all Dickens and Austen.