Hanif Kureishi, The Body(Scribner 2004)
Each piece of writing should be a risk; it would be
After first reading Hanif Kureishi’s new novel The Body, I thought it to be an anomaly in a career marked by iconoclastic writing. After all, the book is a work of science fiction and at times it reads like a thriller. But when I looked at The Body as the third of a trilogy of Kureishi’s work, I began to see it as a natural and daring step in his writing.
Kureishi’s trilogy begins with the much-lauded Buddha of Suburbia. In this novel, Kureishi takes an unflinching, facetious look at racism, classism and the art world in 1970s London. The protagonist-narrator, Karim, is a young actor who is half-Indian and half-English, like Kureishi himself. His identity and personality are inextricably linked to the era’s seemingly rebellious popular culture.
Part two of the series, Intimacy, is set in a post-Thatcher London characterized by greed and a decadent popular culture. In the work, the nameless narrator-protagonist is a screenwriter who takes hallucinogens before parent-teacher conferences and has regular affairs with young women. With cruel honesty, Kureishi portrays Mr. Screenwriter’s decision to leave his wife and young children, a decision that he himself made several years ago. The narrator tells us: "I am not leaving this unhappy Eden only because I dislike it, but because I want to become someone else."
In The Body, part three of Kureishi’s trilogy, the protagonist Adam also seeks to reinvent himself. However, Adam’s act of self-reinvention isn’t as simple as leaving his family for a new life. Instead, he has his brain transplanted into a new body, sending him on a voyage into the "future."
A successful playwright in his sixties, Adam is apathetic and sour. Unlike Kureishi’s previous protagonists, he’s an anachronistic figure in contemporary London:
My age, education and experience seem to be no advantage. I imagine that to participate in the world with curiosity and pleasure, to see the point of what is going on, you have to be young and uninformed. Do I want to participate?
Adam is content with his life. He’s in love with his first wife and enjoys his children. Despite his complacency, he can’t help but wonder what it would be like to live his life all over again.
At a party, he is introduced to a young actor named Ralph. Ralph is actually an elderly man in a young adult’s body. He invites Adam to undergo a procedure to transplant his own brain into a younger, more perfect body. Adam hastily agrees to become a "Newbody" for a six-month trial period.
Ralph takes Adam to a covert clinic at which specialized doctors carry out this groundbreaking procedure. Adam meets the doctor who will perform his surgery, and asks him about the physical and philosophical implications of the transplant procedure. "The thinking in this area hasn’t been done," the doctor responds.
Adam picks out a young body like a person shopping for a new car. He selects one that resembles an Italian soccer player— attractive, fit and slightly toasted. After the procedure, he falls in love with his new body. During Adam’s first encounter with his new penis, Kureishi’s ribald wit shines through. "When I peed, the stream was full, clear and what I must describe as ‘decisive.’ Putting my prick away, I gave it a final squeeze. Who wouldn’t want to see this!"
Adam then embarks on a haphazard odyssey across Europe. During his travels, he indulges any physical desire that surges through him. He tells us: "What were refinement and the intellect compared to a sublime fuck?" Adam flees from any emotional and intellectual intimacy. He takes ecstasy and goes to clubs, engrossing himself in contemporary youth culture. He embraces materialism and moves as far away from the cerebral life of a writer as possible.
But eventually, Adam becomes discontented with his reckless lifestyle. He observes that today’s young people are "a voice trying to be heard, but not being attended to." He even suffers an existential identity crisis, in part because the body that he is wearing is completely unrelated to his prior sixty years of existence. More importantly, he misses being a husband and father.
After tiring of his sexual rampage, Adam ends up at a self-help spa for middle-aged divorced women on a Greek island. Here, he does odd jobs for room and board and maintains an ascetic lifestyle. But Adam soon becomes entangled in a love triangle. It is amidst this love triangle that he reconnects with writing and literature, and perhaps with the emotions and dilemmas of his former self. Adam decides to leave the island; but returning to his former life is no simple task. The remainder of the novel is a riveting thriller, with several unanticipated surprises.
In The Body, it is apparent that Kureishi is a master storyteller who pays fastidious attention to his choice of words. His lexicon seems infinite but is not self-gratuitous. He knows when a person should be described as "impulchritudinous" or a fence simply as "wonky."
Kureishi carries out the cumbersome task of explaining the "science" in his science fiction with moderate success. I felt I knew enough about the (not so) fantastic technology that is being introduced, without being diverted from the narrative. However, at times, Kureishi manipulates his characters’ conversations to explain the science of Newbodies. These conversations sound strident to those accustomed to his ear for natural, effective dialogue. Such are the challenges of a new genre.
In The Body, poignant dialogue and narration are also forsaken to make room for philosophical inquiry and stylistic experimentation. As a result, Adam’s travels through Europe— especially before he reaches his Greek island— are narrated with a passivity that is uncharacteristic of Kureishi’s work. His sketch of Adam also lacks the twists of character, conversation and situation for which Kureishi has an incomparable gift.
In Buddha of Suburbia, for example, a racist man sics his dog on young Karim. But instead of attacking Karim, the dog falls in love with him, and ends up ejaculating on his jacket. Or in Intimacy, the protagonist-narrator describes masturbating in the bathroom as his wife sleeps outside. He’s about to come into her underwear, and questions whether this will be an act of love, or an act of hate. Such situations and narrative turns are not only entertaining, but they also bring us directly into the sordid entrails of our consciousness— places that many people and writers avoid or can’t break into. They provide humorous and cruel contexts in which readers can contemplate Kureishi’s commentaries on racism, desire or even the idea of the self.
When considering this book in the context of Kureishi’s career, the following questions naturally arise: is Kureishi turning his back on the type of writing that defined so much of his earlier work; and is Kureishi in some way becoming a propagator of the decadent culture that he criticizes?
The answer to both is not at all.
The Body can be seen as part of a trilogy that examines the complexity of contemporary individual identity. In Buddha and Intimacy, Kureishi scrutinizes the social constructs that define a person: race, class, sexuality or family. In this new novel, Kureishi is still trying to understand individual identity and what makes people happy. But now he tackles identity issues on a more philosophical plane. He simply asks— what is a person? Is a person a body, a mind or an amalgamation of the two; will we live in a society in which everyone is the same age; what will happen to the world when "death is dead," and when with enough money, a person can buy a new body and immortality? In some ways, the questions are as relevant as the answers.
Kureishi’s series also examines the relationship between individual and society, and between artist and society. It is apparent that in each book of this trilogy, Kureishi’s artist-narrator becomes progressively more disillusioned with society and popular culture. But although Karim in Buddha is critical of contemporary British society and the art world, he finds his salvation in popular culture and the arts. To the same effect, Intimacy’s narrator takes comfort in society’s decadent conventions. In contrast to the previous two, although Adam isn’t misanthropic, he has lost his faith in society. "There was religion, once, now replaced by spirituality, or for a lot of us, politics— of the ‘fraternal’ kind; there was culture, now there is shopping." Maybe Adam is antiquated and nostalgic. But even as a Newbody who indulges in all that contemporary youth culture has to offer— drugs, sex and self-help— he is discontented and hopeless about the state of culture. In The Body, perhaps we glimpse at Kureishi’s own disenchantment with the popular and youth cultures of our age.
But this novel isn’t simply a forum for Kureishi’s nostalgic complaints and criticism. Rather, in writing The Body, Kureishi imbues one of popular culture’s manifestations— the sci-fi thriller— with depth, intelligence and critical inquiry. Some critics assert that writers like Kureishi have re-appropriated the English language novel to tell the tales of immigrants and their children. Now Kureishi is using popular culture’s own forms to criticize popular culture itself.
The Body engages with the pressing concerns of our age in a form that is both comprehensible and palatable to the very society he is criticizing. It tells us that modern society’s problems are not only defined by racism, relationships and drugs, but also by technology and different forms of progress. Technological advancement— plastic surgery, stem cell research, the Internet— will test the boundaries of right and wrong, and thus demands intellectual as well as artistic scrutiny.
Kureishi has proven that an artist can be liberated from society’s tendency to construct walls around its citizens and artists— walls based on ethnicity, religion, sexuality and other aspects of individual identity. I celebrate the fact that an author who rose to fame writing about British South Asians and racism can write a novel that has nothing with being Indian or Pakistani, and a novel that is not a conventional work of literary fiction. Kureishi is one of the world’s greatest living writers— not a great ethnic writer. In writing The Body, he transgresses the boundaries of his own career.