‘I think I have become the adults in The Catcher in the Rye‘; this is a
defining moment in Hanif Kureishi’s brilliant new novel, Intimacy. A painfully
analytic breakdown of a breakdown, Intimacy makes a savagely contemporary statement.
The Catcher in the Rye generation, that group of readers for whom adolescence
first became a cult are now growing old, and as Salinger created a monument to
romantic, dispirited youth, Kureishi has given birth to its seemingly inevitable
offspring, the monument to the mid-life crisis.
Intimacy is a novel that begins with a conclusion. Kureishi’s narrator Jay has
made a decision, the kind of decision that is usually reserved for the end of a
novel, to leave his partner and his children. Jay has decided to walk out on
his cosy life of middle-class, Guardian reading domesticity, in order to pursue
his dreams. His dreams are nebulous, self-deluding and driven in the most part
by a desire for freedom, for blank pages in his diary and for a young girl around
whom he has built a rather shaky edifice of erotic and romantic fantasy. It is
early evening when the novel begins. He has resolved to leave in the morning.
This is a narrative of waiting, a long night of painful self analysis, of resentment,
confusion, love and fear. Its brilliance lies in Kureishi’s ability to allow the
reader total empathy with but almost no sympathy for his protagonist. Jay is by
turns childlike, childish, adolescent and bitterly adult. Above all, he is
unrelievedly self absorbed. He is a man so well acquainted with himself (though
sadly lacking in self-knowledge) that his painstakingly depicted masturbation
is like an act of tired, well-worn and loveless marital sex.
This is an almost unbearably sad novel, an appallingly honest and almost anatomical
dissection of ‘the modern relationship’. The novel’s central and irretrievably
broken partnership is balanced by the marriage of the narrator’s oldest friend,
a man evangelically committed to fine ideals such as life-long partnership, honour
and free education, a man who sits content in his conservatory whilst he and his
beautiful wife read Christina Rossetti to one another. Kurieshi, however, presents
this relationship as a kind of misplaced fragment of Victoriana, a sliver of
palatable fiction in the midst of his harshly realist and contemporary narrative.
If this novel is autobiography then one can only wince in sympathy for Kurieshi’s
partner (presumably now ex), exposed in all her flawed vulnerability by his childish
cruelty and unremittingly personal criticisms. If it is pure fiction then one must
admire Kureishi’s ability to project himself so entirely and convincingly into
the role of middle-class, middle-aged, middle-brow loser. If, as I suspect,
Intimacy, comes under the beautifully ambiguous genre of fictive autobiography,
then Kureishi deserves praise for resisting the temptation to aggrandise his own
fictional persona. No one comes out of this novel looking worse than the
protagonist himself. This is a book of unnerving honesty; disturbing, powerful
and intensely personal, a novel that runs on the aggressive energy of self-loathing.
Though occasionally bitterly funny, Intimacy is pretty much relentlessly dark.
he ambiguity of the ending does nothing to alleviate the gloom. Don’t expect too
much Kureishi’s usual charm from this novel. This is a real departure from the
norm. Don’t expect to be cheered or heartwarmed either. If you feel that you
need confirmation that the modern heterosexual relationship is an unsustainable
anomaly, then this is the book for you.
Reviewed by Polly Rance