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Hanif Kureishi: The Nothing review - a glittering chamber of ice | reviews, news & interviews

Hanif Kureishi: The Nothing review - a glittering chamber of ice

Hanif Kureishi: The Nothing review - a glittering chamber of ice

A taut, brittle and witty view inside the mischievous head of an ageing misanthrope

Hanif Kureishi: captivating, pared-down malice

Kureishi is mostly loved for his bittersweet panoramas of suburban London, ribald and piquant with satire. The Nothing discards that broad canvas and creeps into a glittering chamber of ice, in which the only subjects are the dying urges of the manipulative, voyeuristic narcissist Waldo, told in brittle, epigrammatic style. All that’s left from Kureishi’s earlier fiction is the sex, and even that is desperate and third-hand.  

Waldo is a much-garlanded filmmaker in his declining years, his body gradually giving up in protest at years of hedonistic abuse. His younger wife Zee, between stints nursing Waldo, appears to be warming her nights with Waldo’s friend Eddie, a shiftless, failing film writer. Appropriately for a retired and infirm giant of cinema, Waldo copes by immersing himself in the sound and image of their affair, bugging, spying and filming his quarry and creating endless compilations on the kaleidoscope of screens around his flat.

Kureishi has more than film in mind, too. The title is surely a reference to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, in which “nothing”, pronounced “noting” in the late 16th Century, meant both the act of annotation (something Waldo does continually on his various digital devices), and the female genitalia, which are, in the form of Zee as desired object, the novel’s central image. Though Kureishi’s tone is much darker, more Measure for Measure.

The Nothing coverTo pursue the title’s imagery further, Waldo is a sour old cunt, jealous, vengeful, scatalogical and controlling. There are passages in which some readers will stall at the grim misanthropy of proceedings. It’s entirely in character, for example, that Waldo would exploit his knowledge of Eddie’s abusive childhood in order to unsettle him at a crucial moment.

Eddie and Zee, meanwhile, are less accomplished villains, but hardly sympathetic. Zee repeatedly threatens to smother Waldo with a pillow, while Eddie turns out to have a veritable caravan of jilted wives, unfunded children and unsatisfied creditors trailing in his wake. Both appear to be planning a life together on Waldo’s money as soon as they can cajole him into a one-way trip to Switzerland. There’s no one to root for if you like wholesome closure.  

A sense of humour and mischief is Waldo’s only redeeming feature, amid the schemes. Kureishi gives a bravura performance as his ventriloquist, and Waldo’s senile terseness (quite different from so many of Kureishi’s rather baggy creations) is the perfect foundation for eruptions of aphoristic glee. “Narcissism is our religion. The selfie stick is our cross,” he notes. Or: “Sexual feeling might decline, but I have learned that the libido, like Elvis and jealousy, never does.” Shorn of his power to make anything else, Waldo makes phrases.

There’s a sardonic glance at inter-racial politics insofar as Zee was lured to Waldo from a stifling marriage to a Pakistani Muslim. “From a Muslim heritage of modesty… under my tutelage she became sexual,” Waldo boasts. Yet - unlike so many of Kureishi’s characters - the cast is essentially a rootless, international crew, their chameleonic identities defined by the location of a film set they’re working on or nationality of restaurant they dine in. That no one in the novel has much of a hinterland helps draw together the entire focus to the view from Waldo’s feverish, blinking eyes.  

That taut focus makes it all work. The reader has a ringside seat in Waldo’s diseased but still rather brilliant head, convulsing with fury and resentment as the consequences of impotence, in all their forms, assert an asphyxiating grip.   

@matthewwrighter

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