Flakey raves with Popper and Prince

THE BLACK ALBUM Hanif Kureishi Faber £14.99
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The Independent Culture
In Hanif Kureishi's latest book, the young hero, Shahid, moves to London. He hopes to enquire further into Popper and Maupassant. He wants to understand himself, and also the meaning and purpose of the novel. He lands up in student digs where an ardent Moslem group meets, and where, "at all hours, though favouring the night, the occupants disputed in several languages."

This is the start of Shahid's real education. Kureishi soaks him in contradictory points of view, most of which appeal to him, but none of which is entirely convincing. Nor are those who represent these points of view stable. Shahid's mother turns away from him in all senses when he comes back bleeding and bruised from racist attacks at school, because the insult is intolerable, and what she knows is too much for her. Deedee Osgood, Shahid's college tutor and lover, teaches Madonna and Prince, refusing to sever lines of communication by dividing culture into high and low; yet being with her is like being "cut off from reality." Dr Brownlow, her ex-husband and a so-so socialist, is eventually reduced to sobbing when he lets slip that he considers the working classes to be "greedy, myopic c-cunts."

The novel's rambling plot feels as if it exists mainly so that these voices have something to ramble about. Bomb outrages, drug highs or moments of sexual triumph give an illusory impression of importance, but what is truly significant to Kureishi is the confusion of it all. "Sir, I am already having two jobs . . . I am flaked fully out," says one abused character, and Kureishi, at certain points, also flakes fully out under the strain of it all. He seems to abandon the challenge to describe a rave beyond the point where words are easy; he drops Deedee Osgood's speech for a mere summary of her arguments; and he happily throws in retrospective snatches of plot when he wishes to reinforce a line of thought. It is easy, as a reader, to be swept along, imagining that there can scarcely be too much jumble when jumble is the subject. Nevertheless, it begins to sink in that there will be no conclusion to this disorder, which is true.

There is, however, one question that propels the novel: will Shahid sacrifice his instinctive liberalism and uncertainty to become powerfully but pitifully single-minded? He faces temptation in two forms. The mosque provides him with a scene of secluded, unearthly tolerance, but this breaks down into book-burning and violence. Meanwhile, Ecstasy "bombs" help to engineer a rave of excessive love and acceptance, only to cause Shahid to disintegrate into near- fatal vomiting afterwards. How many "warring selves" are within him? he wonders. The problem is not that he cannot connect, but that he connects to too much. Everyone he knows is implicated in drugs, favours, religion and politics: bound up and unable to relax.

The Black Album is a prickly book, easy to read but not easy to digest. The scattered multiple points of view and the despair of the character who wishes to span them constitute familiar Kureishi territory. Prince is an ideal emblem to Shahid, because he is half of everything, man, woman, black and white. If The Satanic Verses was banned and burnt, Prince, the creator of the original "Black Album," not only issued but also withdrew it himself. In the end such mutability is the only thing that makes sense to Shahid; and while the novel is funny, it is more noticeably bleak: Kureishi's misfit hero has only half-formed affection to accompany his desires.