The brooder of suburbia

Michael Arditti sinks into an indigo mood; Love in a Blue Time by Hanif Kureishi, Faber & Faber, pounds 8.99
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The title of a book may no more indicate its content than its cover. Yet by calling his first collection of short stories Love In A Blue Time, Hanif Kureishi appears to be mapping out a territory midway between Love In the Time of Cholera and Love In A Cold Climate - marrying Marquez's depiction of a decaying culture to Nancy Mitford's tart exploration of British mores.

Kureishi's eye for the zeitgeist is as sharp as ever (although its blind spot is an irritating tendency to define people by decades). With his finger on the pulse of society - and the rest of his hand on more intimate parts of the anatomy - he extends the themes of romantic, racial and cultural alienation familiar from his previous work. Three of the stories centre on Asian experience in post-war Britain, two of these on the mixed-race families familiar from The Buddha of Suburbia. "We're Not Jews" is a persuasive account of racism both overt and ingrained, and "With Your Tongue down My Throat" a cross-cultural variant on the classic plot of twins divided at birth. The third story, "My Son the Fanatic", is a compelling portrait of a taxi-driver's despair as his son is lost to Islamic fundamentalism. Faced with the boy's mindless attack on his Western values (symbolised by a fondness for pork pies), the father betrays his principles and fights back.

Apart from "The Tale of The Turd", an Irvine Welsh-like scatalogical fantasy of disrupting a middle-class meal, the stories focus on male- female relationships. To judge by those depicted, the titular colour is not lapis lazuli but an inky blue-black. The gulf between the sexes is bridged only in the first story, "In a Blue Time", where Roy, a would- be film director, discards his adolescent self and accompanies his wife to an antenatal class. Other husbands casually hit their wives as they reach orgasm, work at nights to avoid them, cheat on them, or simply run off. Elsewhere, the inevitable death of passion compels a couple to commit their love-making to film.

The story which best epitomises the collection is "Nightlight", in which a man whose world is disintegrating has sex once a week in a basement with a woman he interviewed for a job. They meet without drink or music (always a vital force in Kureishi's world), barely able to see each other and never speaking each other's names. As soon as she leaves - in a cab she has kept waiting - he starts to masturbate.

This lack of connection is typical of Kureishi's protagonists. Several are unemployed, while able to afford a rich pharmaceutical life. Of those in work, the majority are thirtysomething media types at the bullshit end of the artistic spectrum: commercials directors, TV scriptwriters, photographers. Their work is second-rate and second-hand: the director repackages Bergman or Fellini; the scriptwriter expropriates an Asian girl's experience; the photographer snaps the couple having sex. Only the drug dealers enjoy job satisfaction, making their deliveries as routinely as milkmen.

The most powerful expression of this spiritual malaise is the final story, "The Flies", an absurdist fable with shades of Sartre and Kafka that portrays the pestilential forces of late-20th-century life and in particular the cloying commitments of marriage and domesticity, as a plague of ravaging insects. Otherwise, apart from an unnecessarily obfuscating narrator in "With Your Tongue Down My Throat", Kureishi eschews literary devices in favour of direct statement and uncluttered narrative. The result is prose which has immense immediacy but lacks resonance.

In one of his rare analytical passages, Kureishi comes close to encapsulating his theme when Laura, a disillusioned drummer, despairs of a London "full of drugged, useless people who didn't listen to one another but merely thought all the time of how to distract themselves". With a disarmingly light touch, he highlights some of our major dilemmas: how to prevent our post-Sixties freedom degenerating into hedonism; how to maintain both our sense of ourselves and our commitment to others, and how to maintain personal and social morality without resorting to the fundamentalist fallacy. By his unblinking, unblinkered witness, he makes a forceful contribution to our fin-de-siecle debate.