Masks and rituals

By Paul Binding
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Midnight All Day by Hanif Kureishi (Faber £9.99)

Midnight All Day by Hanif Kureishi (Faber £9.99)

'From a certain point of view the world was ashes," thinks Alan, in one of the best of the short stories assembled here, "Morning in the Bowl of Night". "You could also convert it to dust by burning away all hope, appetite, desire. But to live was, in some sense, to believe in the future. You couldn't keep returning to the same dirty place."

These could be the thoughts of almost any of the male protagonists of this book (which is not to say that they are interchangeable; on the contrary they are sharply and subtly differentiated). Self-aware, alert to the qualities of other people and to the culture in which they have found themselves, articulate even when laconic, Kureishi's men are not able to escape from the predicaments they have helped to bring about. They are aware of causes, of intimate details, of a multiplicity of implications; they usually avoid the crude apportioning of blame. But all this doesn't, however, make them any better at dealing with the situations in their particulars, any more than their high intelligence and sharp sensitivity prevented them from avoiding them in the first instance.

Invariably the difficulties have been brought about by sexual desire - their own and that which they have aroused in women not their wives. But perhaps talk of "dealing with" is false thinking. The only way forward, as suggested in the passage quoted above, lies through the proper living through of situations, with no disguises, fantasies, or evasions into generalities.

In all these stories except the last (a, to my mind, failed piece of grotesquerie about a porno stud, "The Penis") the couples with whom we are concerned have come together at the expense of other partners. Perhaps love is at its very furthest from purity in "That Was Then"; Nick, once a pop journalist, now a broadsheet arts correspondent, relives with Natalie, his lover of former freer years, the dark, dionysiac, destructive rites that once kept them together. Their reunion over, and carrying its memento of the cord-marks of bondage on his wrists, Nick realises that there was one thing he should have said to Natalie and didn't: "There are worlds and worlds and worlds inside you." The bondage of S M rituals neglects - or obscures - this important fact as much as the bondages of respectable life: the household or parental chores, the exigences of career. We are all pluralist beings.

Not that this fact has escaped these short stories' characters. Almost all of them are concerned with the media, and usually in the performing arts. Alan in "Morning in the Bowl of Night" works in theatre; Ian and his friend Anthony in the title story run a small film company; Larry, the narrator of the almost novella-length "Strangers When We Meet", is an actor. While this doubtless reflects a social milieu of which Kureishi has thorough knowledge, thematically the daily commercial familiarity of his people with role-playing and illusion is of his work's essence. It tells of a world that thrives on these, spawning more and more elaborate versions of them - too often jettisoning in the process the rooted, the solid or the atavistic. Small wonder then that the love-act has to establish a flirtation with dying and death, just as the expensive and chic home (Anthony's in "Midnight All Day") has stripped bare floorboards and walls painted a primordial white.

For all Kureishi's saturation in pop, in the more hedonistic and lavish aspects of late Sixties and Seventies culture, he wields a singularly pure and classical style, at times a dissecting instrument more reminiscent of the French tradition (from Constant forwards) than the English. It is one of the paradoxes that makes his art successful, this contrast between the severity of his authorial mind and the luxuriance of much of the life he depicts. Of the stories the first and the last, the longest and the shortest, are, I think, the least effective, the governing idea behind "Strangers When We Meet" not having quite the weight for the story's length. The rest are of remarkably consistent quality, but there is special feeling - and welcome revelations of warmth - in the two stories which have women as the central consciousness, "Girl" and "Sucking Stones". In the former Nicole takes her much older Indian lover, Majid, to visit her derelict mother on a run-down estate. The second concerns a lonely teacher, single mother and would-be novelist, who is anxious to get taken up by an older writer, famous Aurelia Broughton; she is to appreciate that Aurelia is only interested in finding out about her teacher's life - for copy. Marcia's disillusioned decision to write no more is eminently understandable. "After a time there might be new things." We on the other hand have to be grateful that Kureishi finds these new things while refining, not abjuring, his art.