Tag Archives: Freud

Review: Hanif Kureishi’s Something To Tell You

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Hanif Kureishi’s latest novel is a startlingly clear-minded, often hedonistic, but ultimately believable look at the complications of life, love and sex. Jamal, a middle-aged psychoanalyst, remains obsessed with the loss of his college girlfriend Ajita and lives in guilt over his own participation in the murder of her father. Despite his own neuroses, or rather, because of it, he has experienced great success in his field, and enjoys an intimate all-access pass into the lives of the wealthy and popular. As if in contrast, his sister Miriam, some variant of a spiritualist with too many children and piercings, lives in disorder and filth, and he shares a typically middle-class relationship with his son, Rafi, who lives with his estranged wife Josephine. His Pakistani father is dead, and his elderly English mother is in a relationship with a woman she knew as a child.

Jamal’s famous director friend Henry suddenly embarks on an affair with Miriam, which serves as a sort of turning point in excavating the past. It turns out not only that Ajita is alive and well, but her brother Mustaq – once also in love with Jamal – has reinvented himself into a flamboyant, affluent celebrity musician. As things take their course and it becomes clear that Jamal needs to confess to his crime, what remains to be seen is whether his desperation to absolve himself of his errors will tear them apart or bring them together.

Although Jamal is both narrator and default protagonist, every character is so persuasive, so larger-than-life yet perceptively etched, that at most times the book feels like a vehicle for an ensemble cast. And there are many – exes, offspring, lovers, cameos both by real celebrities and characters taken from Kureishi’s earlier fiction. No relationship has a denouement, be it to a ghost made from guilt or a girlfriend. Everyone is fair game in this complex web of selves past and present – and a declaration of love is inevitably a declaration of war.

Sex, of course, levels everything out, from class to race to religion (the evil paterfamilias – for what’s a Freudian analyst without one? – that was Ajita’s father is replaced by the Bush-Blair empire, and its effects on an England just about to be hit by terrorism). Miriam and Henry indulge in orgies at clubs; the same occurs in Mustaq’s home. Jamal and the preadolescent Rafi discuss sex, violence and psychology as they watch cats copulate. Jamal has a less terrible, yet equally detrimental secret in his past: a career as a pornographer. Sex is everywhere, with little hint of scandal – unrealistic perhaps, but how refreshing.

The humour, when it appears, hits chords of brilliance, as when Henry’s adult daughter Lisa visits Jamal at his office, calls his work “patronizing analyst quackery”, then says, “Freud’s been discredited over and over. Patient envy… Penis envy, I mean. Jesus.”

Slips, Freudian and otherwise, abound aplenty in this novel. Accidental pregnancies and murders have their place, but above all else are the slips of the heart – who is loved or desired, who stays loved or desired, and why.

Despite their superficial dysfunctions and exaggeratedness, its characters are innately human. Children are loved, oppressors are hated, death and age catch up. At its heart, the simplest truth remains: hell is other people, certainly, but it is also their absence.

Most commendably, the novel is neither soap-operatic nor stuffed with psycho-philosophical ramblings. For a story that could so easily have lapsed into either direction, populated as it is by a veritable circus of characters and narrated by a man preoccupied by the psyche, Something To Tell You avoids those pitfalls. This is not drama. It is contemporary life, with its mish-mash of sexual expressions, unconventional domestic arrangements and relationships that do not ever fall apart completely, only reincarnate to accommodate what life brings along. Kureishi does nothing but tell it like it is in this utterly delicious read.

An edited version appeared in today’s New Sunday Express.

The Venus Flytrap: At The Mercy of Her Bite

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Let me just tell you straight up that I have penis envy. Every Rorschach test you could possibly give me will prove it. Like O’Keefe, like Freud, like – Oh! – Hinduism, I can’t get the nethers off my mind. I discern shapes, nature and various abstractions as phallic or vulval. The latter I find sexy, spiritual, artistic, but complex, unlike the former. The former make me laugh, they make me ogle. The former have me fascinated by their humour, simplicity and ultimate alienness. For a pretty ballsy woman, my lack of supplementary equipment entertains and holds my attention to no end.

There, now that that’s out of the way, feel free to celebrate my complete discrediting from the feminist movement by lighting up, very aptly and traditionally, a cigar.

It was a cigar and a conversation with a male friend surprised by the sight of a woman smoking it that got me thinking about my penis envy and expressions of it. Coming to consider this, it surprised me too how few women take to the cigar. Like all the usual paradoxes of the more tasteful vices, it seems the premise of only sophisticated men and strange women.

From Che to Churchill, bastions of masculinity seem to like sticking big long objects in their mouths and sucking on them. Cigars are sexier, less subtle versions of the sceptres and swords of yore. The underlying motivation is practically kindergarten-level Freud to analyse, but worth the giggle.

Yet it remains risqué for women. Someone suggested it’s the gracelessness of it; essentially, one fellates a cigar. But if that were the case, we wouldn’t eat in public, either. Anything involving the mouth – including speech – is inevitably sensual.

After all, it’s mainly a decorative accessory; cigar-smoking is an art, not an addiction. And what could possibly be more sensual than a woman sitting by herself in a dress too fancy for the bar she’s in, sipping a gin and tonic, wearing shoes to tango in, exhaling from a Cuvee Rouge as she looks you in the eye?

I heard your breath still. See what I mean?

But back to business – do other women not smoke cigars because they do not have penis envy? Or could it be because – let me just throw this wild card in – the idea of a woman controlling a phallic object, having it literally at the mercy of her bite, is too disturbing to the (male) viewer to digest?

It’s important to note, of course, that as far as phalluses being evocative of power go, only the erect ones count. So good girls can eat spaghetti, no matter how long and uncut, without conjuring up any primal images in the onlooker. This is also why the cigarette, too skinny to be of consequence, is invalidated. Penis envy is not sex – on this count, size definitely matters. If it’s not obscene, it’s not an expression.

Let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that the rooster-synonym is king. Men have their walking-sticks, their neckties, their Papua New Guinean penis sheaths. As well as their fleshly counterparts. What’s a woman with penis envy to do to take her power back but put a symbol between her teeth? What better way to deal with an object that can’t be owned than to objectify it?

A parting-shot defense of penis envy, then (because while it may be true that I’m a gay man stuck in a woman’s body, I’m thrilled it happens to be this one): war, after all, is just a manifestation of menstrual envy.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.