BY HANIF KUREISHI
Scribners; 128 pages; $22
Scribners; 128 pages; $20
Size matters in fiction, but so does lack of size. Everything else being equal, fat novels tend to be perceived as serious, very thin ones as more honest, more real. Writers address these age-old expectations by filling their big books with philosophy and cramming their little ones with feeling. Lately, it’s the massive efforts that have gotten more attention, but that may be changing. Witness two new miniatures published by the same company, Scribners, and promoted for their supposed authenticity. Sized to fit on a key chain and packaged to resemble tiny fashion accessories, one book is said on its jacket to be “searing,” the other “wrenching.” Appearances deceive, though.
The searing novel is Hanif Kureishi’s Intimacy, whose title is both immodest and modest at once, in the slickest contemporary style. The title is a good guide to what’s inside: a cold little slice of marital agony set in media-savvy upscale London, where passionless unions are hardly news, particularly among the rich and educated. From movies such as Sunday Bloody Sunday and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, we already know the story, if not the characters and 90 percent of the terse, inhibited dialogue. All is disconnect and fractured silence, the atonal music of never-meeting minds. The tone is stinging and contemptuous, the atmosphere one of bloodless luxury, the moral that there can be no moral. Indeed, what allows the novel to be so short is that its immaculate familiarity and total dependence on received ideas relieves it of the traditional obligations to make a world, draw characters, stimulate expectations, and cast a mood. With the tricky business of creation taken care of by his predecessors, Kureishi is free to concentrate on compression.
Intimacy is nothing if not elegant. The story inhabits a suspended moment between a momentous personal decision and its inevitable execution, announcing its ending the moment it begins. The narrator, Jay, a self-hating screenwriter whose job is to turn classic literature into pap (do fictional screenwriters ever do otherwise?), has decided to leave his wife the following morning. This won’t be hard because she’s such a pill. Susan, a yuppie neat freak who works in publishing (another big no-exit career in fiction), is given not a single attribute that anyone would want to stick around for, making Jay’s decision to split the marriage about as interesting as the reflex to spit out a mouthful of curdled milk. Harder for Jay will be leaving his children, whom he claims to love and adore, despite the fact that the book’s domestic vignettes are tinged with such ennui and boredom that neither the kids nor Jay’s alleged feelings for them are anything more than narrative postulates meant to provide a jumping-off point for Jay’s woolly meditations on abandonment.
The result is a paradoxical entity: a very short novel that still feels hugely padded. Proceeding by means of portentous interjections between longer descriptive passages (“In the morning I will be gone”; “I am kicking over the traces”; “Tomorrow I will do something that will damage and scar them”), Intimacy aspires to a terrifying, fatalistic flatness, but what it achieves is just handsome tedium. The pages are riddled with epigrams and axioms that spring fully formed from Jay’s tortured, literate mind and sound like karaoke Shaw: “Patience is a virtue only in children and the imprisoned.” “I figured that doing nothing was sometimes the best way of doing something.” The case Jay makes for sex and self-expression over a life of impotence and duty is treated like revolutionary thought instead of seventies Fear of Flying kitsch, and when, after more than 100 pages of sterile dialectics, he finally flies the coop, we wonder what took him so long.
The wrenching short novel is Lila Says, by Chimo. Given our two countries’ history of embracing what’s most embarrassing about each other’s cultures, it’s no surprise that this best-seller from France (“The most sensational foreign novel in recent memory,” the cover tells us) should land in the United States. The book purports to be something more compelling than your ordinary first novel. It’s a work of outsider art, allegedly, plunked down on the doorstep of its publisher in the form of two messy, scrawled-on notebooks. Chimo, the name of the 19-year-old narrator, is a pseudonym for the unknown author, and there’s a strong suggestion that the book is some sort of real-life cri de coeur composed in obscurity by an urban wolf boy. Undoubtedly, this is all a lot of bull, though. Had Lila Says – which verges on kiddie porn – been submitted all typed and tidy, it could only have been presented to the public as a piece of unfiltered exploitation rather than as a publishing event. (To add to the novel’s air of primitivism, the editors reproduce a page of the sloppy original manuscript.)
Lila is 16, a resident of a suburban housing project whose hopelessness and spiritual squalor are endlessly editorialized about by our working-class hero, Chimo. She flashes her privates at him on their first meeting and then goes on, in triple-X detail, to tell of her couplings with older men. (Maybe it’s the translator’s fault, but her war stories sound like the bogus letters printed at the front of Penthouse.) Hardened by poverty and ugliness, yet untouchably innocent within, the two young waifs seem skillfully designed to appeal to leftist intellectuals infatuated with the noble-savage myth. If they were real, Norman Mailer might well adopt them, especially the Genet-like Chimo, who, when he isn’t comparing Lila’s genitals to everything from “one of those paper airplanes kids make in school” to “golden grass in fairy tales,” is describing his lonely, underdog struggle to lift himself out of despair through daily journal writing.
This transparent attempt to elevate what boils down to a graphic game of doctor finished off with a flourish of ultraviolence feels like the stunt of a middle-aged journeyman, not the passionate outburst of a new Rimbaud. The story is tidily structured, with mounting action and a final obligatory scene that gathers all the principals in one room. What’s more, the prose – a comma-studded pileup of naïvely poetic sentence fragments – is so elaborately loose that it must be counterfeit. Unlike Intimacy, whose brevity is meant to convey claustrophobia and tension, Lila Says uses shortness to seem sincere. Both efforts seem like cunning attempts to fob off used goods on a gullible reading public. To neatly shrink-wrap stale material doesn’t entitle one to label it fresh.