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Book Review

End-of-Love Tale Both Trite and Terrific

INTIMACY: A Novel by Hanif Kureishi; Scribner $16, 118 pages

April 22, 1999|SUSIE LINFIELD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Love dies. This most ordinary of facts never ceases to transfix us. Indeed, our fascination with the end of love may be directly connected to the mundaneness, or at least the frequency, of the event itself. We are drawn to countless songs, films, plays, operas, poems, novels and memoirs charting the demise of other people's loves precisely because we know: This could be me. This has been me. This will be me.

It is increasingly difficult, though, for writers to find fresh angles from which to view the wreckage. Hanif Kureishi's new book, "Intimacy," is essentially a gimmick: It surveys the end of a relationship from the vantage of the so-called guilty party--the one who leaves--on the very night before he walks out on his partner and children. The gimmick works. "Intimacy" is not profound, but Kureishi has created a sharp, nasty, compelling little novel.

Jay and Susan live in prosperous-bohemian comfort in London. Jay (like Kureishi) is a successful screenwriter; Susan, whom we see entirely through Jay's eyes, is firm, competent, accomplished--and cold, controlling, unimaginative. She is also the woman Jay no longer loves, or even likes very much, the "woman I know almost everything about, and want no more of." Yet even as Jay has stopped loving Susan, he has--somewhat to his own surprise--fallen ever more deeply in love with their two "ebullient and fierce, happy and affectionate" young sons.

Jay's problem isn't Susan. It is Jay. Because his marriage feels like a prison, Jay has developed the attributes of a model prisoner: He is fearful, passive, weak, obsequious, duplicitous, isolated, cooperative. He hates this person. He hates Susan for wanting him to be this person. He hates, too, the "redundant and fearful dance" their relationship has become, "as if our feelings are weapons that could kill." Though Jay knows that he will "damage and scar" his beloved sons, he wants out. He is acutely aware that his actions, on some level, are "inexplicable and cruel," but he is "not ready for the wisdom of misery."

Jay is enough of a modern man, though, to know that finding intimacy involves more than switching partners. Jay is in love with Nina, a vacuous, aimless young woman who may or may not be waiting for him when he leaves Susan. He has no particular reason to believe that his affair with Nina will work out, or that he will become the "someone else" with her that he desperately wishes to be. But he is either too wise or too stupid to let that stop him. "Desire is the original anarchist," Jay notes. "[I]t makes fools of us all. Still, rather a fool than a fascist."

"Intimacy" is an odd blend of insight and banality. Kureishi gets some things right: the way Jay smells his sons' discarded clothes before folding them, or the way that falling in love--whether with a lover or one's children--is "an accumulation of amazement." But the book is full of trite observations, too; must we be told that "once the lights on a love have dimmed, you can never illuminate them again, any more than you can reheat a souffle"? And Kureishi drops the names of his favorite Marxist theorists in the same lazy, pretentious way that Gen-X writers drop the names of their favorite clothing designers and antidepressants. Is this what passes for intellectual life in Britain today?

The reaction to "Intimacy," which apparently closely mirrors recent events in its author's life, has been fascinating. In London, where Kureishi is a well-known literary figure, "Intimacy" has been met with vituperative rage by female critics, who seem to view Jay and his creator as moral scum. This is odd. For at least several decades, female novelists from the canonical (Doris Lessing) to the middlebrow (Sue Miller) have been creating female characters who walk out of stifling marriages in search of love, freedom, transformation, intimacy and, yes, good sex. These characters are usually depicted by their creators, and viewed by female critics and readers, as brave, independent, authentic. Is it possible that women who leave unhappy relationships are strong and honest, but that men who do likewise are monstrous? "Intimacy" is not a pretty tale, but to attack Kureishi's Jay is simply to kill the messenger.

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