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This reminds me profoundly and deeply of Zadie Smith's White Teeth, and yet I bounced off that within about seventy pages when I tried to read it earlier this year, and this caught me. I'm not sure why. It may be the difference between first-person narrative, which Kureishi uses to produce irony, and third-person limited omniscient, which as near as I can tell Smith was using to remove all irony.

The narrator here, Karim, starts the book at seventeen in a suburb of London in the late nineteen-seventies. He's smart, bored, frequently stoned, the son of a first-generation immigrant from India, ambitious but with no clear aim for his ambitions, unconflictedly bisexual and deeply conflicted about his place in the world-- specifically his place in the suburbs, the class system, and the intersection of racial politics with life in general. In short, he's pretty much an ordinary teenager, only getting laid more often. And his parents' marriage is breaking because his father has started openly having an affair with an unreconstructed hippie-type and also set up as a guru and yoga advisor to white yuppies from the surrounding area.

There are really two thrusts to the story here: there are the adulteries, jealousies, confusions and recombinations of Karim's immediate family, which are pretty much exactly what one expects from a certain kind of literary novel and which leave me cold; and then there's a travelogue of London and environs through the end of the sixties and the rise of punk, as seen by a young man who is perpetually an outsider even from being an outsider (his race does not make him loved in the counterculture-- asked anxiously about the conditions of the working classes, yes; loved, no). And the travelogue is very good. I read Derek Jarman last week writing autobiography about the same time period and the same general sorts of people, the music scene, the film scene, the experimental theatre groups and the overlap between all those. Kureishi is recognizably talking about the same milieu and literally about some of the same people but from a totally different (and differently bitter) angle. This being a novel, he's exaggerated some of the characters for parodic effect, of course. One hopes that no experimental theatre director has been quite as enthusiastic as the one here about trying to sleep with dental hygienists from Wisconsin in hopes of garnering the real, unvarnished Middle American experience... but I won't say it isn't possible.

And Karim himself is an interesting person to spend time with, a terrible person in a lot of ways and decent in others (like anybody), aware of several directions in which racism and homophobia are hurting and twisting him and unaware of others that are clearly visible. I particularly like the trajectory in which he drifts away from higher education and then several years later realizes what the point of it actually was, but also knows perfectly well that staying in the school he was in would not have helped anything. The book spans years and he grows convincingly through them, although occasionally I think his voice is a little older than he is supposed to be at the time.

The voice of the book is consistently enjoyable, though I'm not sure it actually works. This was Kureishi's first novel, following several successful film scripts, and you can tell he's used to writing scripts and not novels. There are scenes here that feel like a well-executed and professional script, the way the blocking works, the way that people are physically described when the first appear in a manner that would do beautifully for a casting call. I'm not sure this is a problem with the book per se, but there are clearly passages where he's trying to be lyrical and/or subtle, and the flat-out tell-not-show language of instructing actors does not handle that. The book is at its best when it is reveling in having no subtlety at all, and when it's doing that it can come close to brilliance.

So this is a messy, flawed, idiosyncratic novel that I liked almost despite myself, which took me a long time to get into but which I find myself respecting. I do recommend it; it is its own book and not trying to be a book someone else has already written, which goes a long way. And I'll probably read more of Kureishi's laternovels to see where he was going, because a writer starting with this novel could have gone any of a very great number of directions, and it will be interesting to see which one he went with.
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A present from [personal profile] sovay. This contains the final-draft shooting script for the 1985 movie My Beautiful Laundrette, written by Kureishi and directed by Stephen Frears; note that I did not say it contains the actual script of My Beautiful Laundrette, as it was one of those films where the writer dashed frantically around the set scribbling new dialogue "before," as he says, "the cast could make it up themselves". At any rate, it's an interesting script, though I would want to have the book open and the film playing in front of me before actually comparing the two too thoroughly, as otherwise I would be bound to misquote something somewhere. The film this script would have produced is I think a good one, a resolutely non-commercial look at the tangles of class and race and money and identity among a large family mostly from Pakistan and mostly living in an English city; it's also (the reason I first heard of it) one of the first movies I can think of containing a gay romance that does not also contain massively depressing amounts of internalized homophobia leading to externalized ranting, suicide, etc. on the part of the people involved. (This couple's depressing circumstances tend to center around one of them being Pakistani and the other ex-National Front, which is a giant social problem for them in all conceivable directions, including internally.) In these elements I consider the script to match the actual film. Closer comparison I will not attempt.

The book also has several of Kureishi's essays. )


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