Something To Tell You, by Hanif Kureishi

The interpreter of dreams
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The Independent Culture

Behind the guilty-secret plot and the historical flashbacks, behind the sex and the satire (lashings of both, of course), Hanif Kureishi's third large-scale novel follows the slow repair of a fractured marriage. Its narrator, the famous if heterodox psychoanalyst Jamal Khan, starts to talk again to his estranged wife as well as to patients, family and friends. Josephine gives him advice on the essays that fill his cultish books. "Keep them odd and quirky," she says. "That's their uniqueness, their unconventionality. No one else can do it."

Indeed. Since the time of My Beautiful Laundrette, getting on for a quarter-century ago, the "odd and quirky" Kureishi – a great comic writer, and a peerless connoisseur of the human mystery hidden in "the depths of the everyday" – has rubbed along beside the way-we-live-now chronicler of fashion, politics and love. Sometimes these twin modes blend perfectly, as when The Buddha of Suburbia teased the fusions and confusions of scrambled, spiced-up Britain out of the bedroom of a Bromley boy; or the family dynamics in "My Son the Fanatic" plumbed the home-grown jihadi mind years before the suits caught up. Sometimes, as in the gloomy mid-life diagnostics of the stories in Love in a Blue Time or Midnight All Day, the voice-of-a-generation shtick seems to cramp his more wayward and skittish style.

Something To Tell You does not, in the end, call a truce in the long quarrel between the comedian and the historian, the surrealist and sociologist. Jamal – the source of the lightly-worn psychoanalytic ideas that punctuate the action – might argue that such a fruitful dispute could only end in death.

And Kureishi delivers a prose, and a perspective, that throbs with unruly life. The wonderfully droll and touching affair between Jamal's wacky but heroic sister Miriam – with her New Age "channellings", chairs draped in in whiffy dogs, and multiply pierced features ("'Avoid magnets' was the only cosmetic advice I felt was applicable") – and his posh but puzzled mate Henry, a burnt-out theatre guru, is worth the admission price alone.

Jamal, semi-divorced, strapped for cash, tenderly devoted to his son Rafi and to his (and Kureishi's) scruffy west London patch, is sufferer as well as healer when it comes to "the disorders of desire". Secrets may be "his currency" in the consulting room, but he has a few himself. The heart of the matter lies in the haunting fate of the abusive father of his first love, Ajita – the boss of a suburban sweatshop involved in Grunwick-style 1970s dispute. Cue a triple-tracked, wandering apologia. Jamal's narrative segues between a long-buried death and its alarming resurrection, his own erotic progress, and snapshots of the decades that frame it – from Seventies tat through Thatcher bling to New Labour glitz, and the fearful hangover of the Iraq war and 7 July bombs.

This Zeitgeist-by-numbers material sporadically lets the book down in its lazy rehash of period clichés, and sometimes pulls characters away from their credible course. So, in the aftermath of 7/7, the sophisticated, globe-trotting Ajita dons a burka to sample the racist revival in London, then promptly sheds this born-again militancy like last year's Prada bag.

The rambling, info-heavy dialogue, in which figures from Jamal's past loom into view and explain themselves, have a stagey quality that reminds you of the author's Royal Court beginnings. They also lend to this parade of ghosts the feel of a waking dream. Critics like to compare Kureishi's heady cocktail of history and libido with Philip Roth's; do I spot an improbable affinity with the talky reveries of Iris Murdoch?

Analysts expect to attract projections. So, too, should novelists. Whatever one's image of Kureishi, this magpie's mosaic of novel will confirm it. The foremost fictional cartographer of London as a mingled and mangled "world city"? Check. The fearless explorer of lust and yearning in the mid-life male, which runs its goaty gamut here from a basement brothel to a fetish club beneath the railway arches ? Check. Not coincidentally, in this shrink's confessional, subterranean dives and secret passageways abound.

The shameless recycler of transformed family history, and of the past work that drew on it? Check. In fact, the novel works on one plane as greatest-hits compilation album, from Jamal's Kentish suburban boyhood and wistful Indian Muslim father to the messily unpicked wedlock of Intimacy and other tales. The apprentice boho Karim Amir (from Buddha) crops up as a famous thesp just out of rehab; the washday entrepreneur Omar (from Laundrette) as a gay New Labour peer. Now that's what I call a spin cycle.

Two further qualities stand out. One is that ceaseless crackle of wit, from the look of a fox crossing the road ("like a collection of brown elbows") to the high farce of desire in the mind, and loins, of ageing roués with dodgy backs: "I was keen to try most perversions, provided you could sit down for them." The other is a dialectic between erotic energy (and the psychoanalysis that helps it speak) and the finished work of art. Which tells the deeper truths? Can they co-habit?

As a fledgling analyst, Jamal believed, with Schopenhauer, that "the sexual passion is the kernel of the will to live". Creative detachment, though, makes ever-firmer claims. His training analyst thinks literature swallows psychoanalysis "as a whale devoured a minnow". Henry returns to planning a new production of Don Giovanni and proclaims art "the still point – a spot of sense – in a thrashing world".

Aptly, we leave Jamal with a stand-off between art and eros, reading poetry, and Freud, to a stripper in the mephitic old boozer he frequents, and "happily misunderstanding each other". Another plot strand brings in a drawing of a hand by Ingres, stolen by Henry's rebel daughter – a creation "luminous with intelligence, tenderness and beauty. Ingres, for one, hadn't been wasting his time." Though he steers clear of the polished coherence that may mean death to him, Kureishi, for another, hasn't wasted his.

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