Books: How weak was my arc

INTIMACY by Hanif Kureishi, Faber pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
"TONIGHT," writes Jay, the narrator of Hanif Kureishi's new novella, "my predominant emotion is of fear of the future." Jay is about to leave his partner, Susan, and their two children. Not that he has told her he's going; he intends simply to pack his bag and slink away in the morning, to find some floor space in his friend Victor's pad in a "fashionable, bohemian part of town" and to start anew. As he waits for dawn and a new life Jay reflects over his past life and loves and why "it is the human condition that we are ultimately isolated, and will die alone."

Intimacy takes us into familiar territory: that dreary landscape of male angst and put uponness to which everyone from Morrissey to Nick Hornby seems to have been drawn these past few years. "I must not descend into self-pity," Jay chides himself, "at least not for longer than necessary." Yet self-pity is the emotion with which he feels most comfortable. "I have lost my relish for living," he tells us. "I am apathetic and most of the time want nothing, except to understand why there hasn't been more happiness here." Even when he goes for a piss, he cannot escape his self- loathing: "How weak the arc of my urine is, and how I strain to send a respectable semicircle into the pan." When his boys were tiny, he abjectly notes, "the arc of their urine had a magnificent velocity."

He detests Susan because she doesn't share his weaknesses. "Unlike me," Jay observes, "she doesn't constantly lucubrate on the splendours and depths of her mind. She finds even interesting self-awareness self-indulgent." He worries that he has never "seen her girlish", that she is too much an "effective, organised woman". Every time he sees Susan, "I prepare two or three likely subjects, as if our conversations are examinations."

Intimacy speaks to, and for, a lost generation of men: those shaped by the Sixties, disoriented by the Eighties and bereft of a personal and political map in the Nineties. The kind of man who wants his women to be strong but fears being humiliated by them, the kind of man who wants to get in touch with his inner feelings, but loathes what he sees there. The kind of man who reads Frank, swears by Oprah and fears for his prostate.

Someone ought to tell middle-aged male authors that self-centredness is not the same as sensitivity and that there is not much mileage left in Men Behaving Insipidly. There are in Intimacy occasional flashes of the kind of stylistic brilliance and mordant wit that lit up Kureishi's early works, but these are all too rare. "I'm a professional businessman, not a professional Pakistani," an Asian landlord tells his Asian tenants as he evicts them in My Beautiful Laundrette. In a single phrase, Kureishi illuminated the experience of a generation and brought a fresh eye to a changing Britain. There is little of this in Intimacy. It is much staler, more downbeat, even plodding, especially when Kureishi's writing descends into pop sociology. "Between the deprivation of the post-war slump and the cruelties of the Eighties," he solemnly tells us, "we were the children of innocent consumerism and the inheritors of freedoms won by our seditious elders in the late Sixties. We were the kind of people who held the Labour Party back." Give me a break!

Intimacy is a small book, and not just because it is 118 pages long. Kureishi's is a circumscribed universe, claustrophobic and inward- looking and lacking any larger vision. "It is not how much that people demand that surprises me, but how little," Jay observes. The same could be said of Kureishi's novella.