All about the babe they lack

LOVE IN A BLUE TIME by Hanif Kureishi, Faber pounds 9.99
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There is a photo of a young woman on the cover of Hanif Kureishi's new short-story collection. She looks like a cross between Kate Moss and Chloe Sevigny, and she is overlaid with a tint in trendy cobalt blue. But what is she doing on a book by a middle-aged male writer? "All week Bill had been looking forward to this moment. He was about to fuck the daughter of the man who had fucked his wife ..." Some men visualise their mid-life crises in terms of their own bodily decay. And some imagine them, like Kureishi does, in the form of the babe they lack, and want, and shamingly often get.

There are few sights in the world less appealing than the sort of men Kureishi writes about in this book. You know the type: the awful ageing bohemian lecher, stranded in his forties without having learnt anything about self-discipline on the way. Perhaps he is rich, a film-maker who has prostituted his art to make money from TV: "Bergman, Fellini, Ozu ... The radiance! Often Roy would rise at five in the morning to suck the essential vitamin of poetry in front of the video." Or maybe he is poor, like Jimmy, an alcoholic and a genius maudit, apparently, first seen being kissed by his young girlfriend in a drug-ridden Chelsea squat.

The most chilling story in this collection is called "The Tale of a Turd". It's about a 44-year-old roue, at dinner with the parents of his 18-year- old girlfriend. "I've been injecting my little girl," he boasts, as he tries and fails to stuff his droppings down the toilet. "It breaks my heart but I've got, maybe, two years with her before she sees I can't be helped and she will pass beyond me into worlds I cannot enter." It's like Milton's Satan: the sin that cannot be forgiven is the agony despair. And yet, can anyone really feel sorry for a man who spreads about him such bitterness and useless floating waste?

It was only seven years ago that Kureishi published The Buddha of Suburbia, a book which trembled all over with tender feelings, like the body of the boy-man it was all about. What has happened to Kureishi's writing since that it has become so dead and sour? I kept searching these stories for some chink of self-awareness, genuine concern for one's children, maybe, or even for one's wife. But no, "He had wanted a baby because it was something to want," as the matter is put in the volume's final story. The rapacity, the blindness, the self-pity, remains entirely unredeemed.

But if it's not very nice for the reader to watch a young dog getting older, only imagine how much worse it feels to be the dog oneself. "There are few creatures more despised," as Kureishi says, "than middle-aged men with strong desires, and desire renews itself each day, returning like a recurring illness, crying out, more life, more!" The world is full of men like the ones Kureishi writes about. And Kureishi has certainly looked at the phenomenon long and hard.

Kureishi's writing is polished and technically competent in the classic New Yorker mode. (One story, "My Son The Fanatic", first published in the New Yorker, has in it an easygoing Asian-British father who is horrified to find his son converting to Islam, and is cosy and comic up to its disconcertingly violent end.) The stylistic polish makes the tales seem stable and grounded, when the point, of course, is that their narrators are anything but that. It also makes a book full of unpleasantly shallow and broken characters seem curiously pleasant and straightforward to read.