By Hanif Kureishi
New York: Scribner, 1998
ISBN # 0-684-85275-6
118 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
September 2010

Jay, a middle-aged man living with Susan and their two sons 5 and 3 is about to simply walk out, leaving with hardly a word, but, seemingly with some decent financial help.

The opening sentence sets the stage: “It is the saddest night, for I am leaving and not coming back.”

It is the present time in London. Jay is a successful screen writer for TV and even films, but not of the first rank. One friend points out he changes classical literature into popular trash and Jay doesn’t much disagree. But it pays well.

He is deeply conflicted by his decision to desert his family. Life with Susan has not been great. She, too, is economically successful. They live in a nice apartment, are not married, but that doesn’t seem to make any difference, at least not to Jay.

He is disturbed by this coming abandonment of his family and tells us:

What could be more important? Lost in the middle of my life and no way home, what kind experience do I imagine I am forfeiting this for? I have had a surplus of emotional experience with men, women, colleagues, parents, acquaintances. I have read, thought and talked for years. Tonight, how will any of it guide me? Perhaps I should be impressed by the fact that I haven't attached myself to things, that I am loose and free enough to walk away in the morning. But what am I free for? Surely the ultimate freedom is to choose, to dispense with freedom for the obligations that tie one to life - to get involved.

The entire novel is the series of his thoughts about the coming break and his battles with himself.

“It is easy to kill oneself off without dying.”

Is it happiness he seeks? What is he running from and what is he running to? It is happiness he says he wants.

"Susan and I cannot make one another happy. But the failure scars one, until it seems inevitable that such failure will attend all one's endeavours - if it is indeed happiness that one wants, rather than success, say, or sanctuary. My robust instinct, therefore, wasn't to give up but to persevere."

There is another woman, sort of. Nina has been and on-and-off lover, but she doesn’t seem seriously interested in anything resembling a committed love life and doesn’t seem a likely source of long-term happiness.

Jay both wants her desperately but seems convinced she is not what he is really needing and wanting long-term.

He does love his sons and worries about his role as father. He thinks is was much easier in the culture of his own father.

“He thinks of his own: “It wasn’t a question Dad had to ask himself. Being a father wasn’t a question then. He was there to impose himself, to guide, exert, discipline, and enjoy his children. We had to appreciate who he was, and see things as he did. If we grew up to be like him, only better qualified, we would be lucky. He was a good man. He didn’t flee, though perhaps he considered it.”

One of his friend’s tries to convince him there is some responsibility to stay, sort of a “rules of the game” argument.

[Jay] “’I would say that there is a new restlessness about.’

[Friend] ‘Yes, it makes me feel unique for loving the same person continuously for a number of years and not covertly planning an escape. But I do love it here. Every day something is built upon. There is increase. Without it I would be just a man walking down the street with nowhere to go.’

[Jay] ‘At home for me there is no movement.’”

Jay is caught in the conflict of his time. Most likely born in the early 1960s, he looks back on that culture he never really experienced, idealizes it, yet knows he is a man of his own time and couldn’t embrace that world.

“I think I have become the adults in THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. Why do I envy these people? In the late sixties and seventies I did feel that I belonged to something, to other young people, and to some sort of oppositional movement. The earnestness I disliked; I was too awkward to join things. But there is something I miss: losing-oneself, yes, in a larger cause.”

The entire novel takes place in less than a 24 hour period and is almost entirely his meditations on what he is about to do, and on the nature of love and lust.

I found it to be a gripping read. Jay is selfish and self-centered. He is wedded to sex and sexual thrills, drugs and his notion of the good life. He seems sure to make this break. We are left wondering will it work? Will the kids bring him back? Will Nina reject him and he go creeping back to Susan? We just don’t know.

I was totally taken in like a voyeur at a vulgar scene, and I couldn’t stop reading. A challenging, disturbing and worthwhile read.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett