After Chariots of Fire got the Oscar in 1982, America decided to lie back and think of England. Awash in lavish fantasies of the vanished Empire — A Passage to India, Gandhi, A Room With a View, Brideshead Revisited — we were lost to the present until Hanif Kureishi came along to wake us up. Kureishi (koor-EE-shee) wrote the screenplay for Stephen Frears’ film My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) — the rude jolt of street realism that blew British nostalgia to bits. A slum love story about a Pakistani cocaine-and-detergent entrepreneur and his neofascist white boyfriend, Laundrette was followed by a still more subversive slice of London life, Kureishi and Frears’ Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987).
Both movies were disturbing and chaotic enough to outrage nearly everyone — left and right, Asian and Anglo. In a grim portent of what was to befall Kureishi’s friend and mentor, Salman Rushdie, there were even Islamic bomb threats against one theater. But for all the confusion whirling around his work, Kureishi’s essential message was simple: We’re heeere! The Empire has come home to roost, and England is no longer a white man’s land.
Now Kureishi, 33, has switched to fiction. Proud as he was of Sammy and Rosie’s anarchic structure, he resented the restrictions of screenwriting. ”I couldn’t develop anything much in it — I felt constrained by how much I’d shoved in,” he says. To fit Kureishi’s multiple love story into a 100-minute movie, Frears sometimes split the screen into three horizontal bands — an effect critic Pauline Kael called ”a sexual pousse-café.” Kureishi prefers the form of the novel, he says, ”because it can be as long as you like.”
He hopes his first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia (Viking), will do for British fiction what his screenplays did for British film: blast out some imaginative space for once-forbidden topics. ”The contemporary British novel excludes a lot of things,” he complains. ”Politics, the lives of immigrants, the changes in British society — and also pop culture, which isn’t just a trivial sideshow.”
The book is far from another droll, delicately nuanced novel about adultery among the literati. It’s a gob of spit in the eye of the genteel tradition. Evidently England doesn’t mind Kureishi’s impudence: The Buddha of Suburbia hit the British best-seller lists immediately on its release.
Kureishi’s semiautobiographical narrator announces his predicament in the book’s first sentence: ”My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost.” It’s a laconic echo of the famous opening of Saul Bellow’s Augie March (”I am an American, Chicago born…and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style”), with ironic self-deprecation in place of pugilistic Chicago confidence. Born (like Kureishi) to an Anglo mom and a dad from Bombay, Karim’s legacy is cultural confusion.
Karim comes of age during the great Asian immigrant influx of the 1960s. He’s a kid stranded between cultures, neither of which likes him any better than he likes them. His father (the Buddha of the title) makes a ludicrous but lucrative living giving mysticism seminars for his neighbors. Karim despises both the Wisdom of the East and the soul-deadening South London suburbs. When he flees to the big city to make it as an actor, his first break only reinforces his humiliating otherness: He lands the role of Mowgli in an adaptation of Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Forced to fake a Paki accent and smear himself with dung-colored shoe polish, he winds up caricaturing his heritage even more foolishly than his dad’s guru act does.
Karim assembles himself by picking up shreds of identity from various cultures — right and left, light and dark, homo and hetero. He loves boys and girls alike: ”I felt it would be heartbreaking to have to choose between one or the other, like choosing between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.”
Kureishi assembled his own literary identity in an analagous way: Rejecting such middle-class British novelists as Iris Murdoch and Anita Brookner, he modeled himself on American writers, especially the ethnically marginal ones. He’s probably closest to the young Philip Roth, mercilessly satirizing his own folkways, obsessively questing after sex, poised at a culture’s edges ready to strike at its center. He also resembles James Baldwin. After reading The Fire Next Time, in which Baldwin explains why he rejected black separatism, Kureishi wrote The Rainbow Sign, an essay that explains why he can’t go back to Pakistan.
But plenty of fellow Englishmen would be glad to see him go. England never fancied itself a melting pot, and third-world immigration is so new that in Kureishi’s youth, Pakis were routinely beaten on the streets and ridiculed on the BBC. Even the Beatles commented on the anti-immigrant feeling prevalent in the late ’60s, satirizing it in Get Back, the working title of which was Don’t Dig No Pakistanis.
The ideology of pop continues to haunt Kureishi. The Buddha is centrally concerned with the switch from ’60s hippiedom to ’70s punk — one character is partly inspired by his old schoolmate Billy Idol — but Kureishi is not capable of credulity. He knows the radicalism of both styles was mostly for show.
Kureishi is a strange farceur; his scenes are excruciatingly funny, bitter, and silly, politically pointed yet with no discernible moral center. Always, the author keeps his distance, peering through the diminishing lens of irony. ”All of the characters are slightly absurd in, I hope, a tender way,” Kureishi says. ”In Waugh, in Kingsley Amis, the social commentary involves somebody moving from class to class — that’s English comedy, moving from one milieu to another. Not that I’m like Waugh or Amis in other ways, but that not fitting in is the comedy in my work.”
Does The Buddha of Suburbia match, in the literary arena, the achievement of the Kureishi-Frears movies? Not quite. Kureishi has characteristically refused to make it one thing or another — it’s neither a traditional novel nor a freewheeling spree along the lines of his splendidly messy movies. The Buddha has a picaresque novel’s raffish drive and a certain first-person immediacy, but the story sprawls without rhythm or reason. It has a movie’s inability to pause, analyze, or probe the motives locked in a character’s heart. In bright, brisk, sometimes slapdash prose, Kureishi evokes a wonderfully fascinating world without betraying any deep interest in it himself.
His tale lurches aimlessly from subplot to subplot, his set pieces don’t connect, and the amusing orgy scenes, as even he admits, have ”maybe a little bit” in common with the porn he wrote as a young man. (His pen name was Karim.)
And yet despite these sins, The Buddha of Suburbia is an irresistible page-turner because it brings us urgent news from an undiscovered country. Kureishi can’t make us care about any particular character, but we’re hooked on his people in general, keen to find out where and how their weirdness will strike next. A leftist feminist knuckles under to her father’s hunger strike and agrees to an arranged marriage; the immigrant bridegroom turns out to be lazy and daft, a father-in-law’s nightmare (and a novelist’s dream come true). The bride declines to sleep with him; her mother, once a Pakistani princess, is enraged that her husband has blown their sole chance for a grandchild and so poisons his curry to make him eternally constipated. Tempers flare; ultures clash; worlds collide.