This was a strange book: all the reviews say how honest and uncompromising it is, and yet in the end I didn’t believe it. The basic plot is very simple. A man, Jay, is leaving his long-time partner, Susan, and their two young sons. The book is an extended inner monologue by Jay covering the last night before he leaves.
Why didn’t I believe it? For me, the character was too extreme. Plenty of people get bored with their partners and leave them. But things like leaving Susan in the hospital after she’s given birth to his first son, taking the champagne her father has left for her and drinking it with his girlfriend? Ending one section by thinking to himself ‘Cheerio, bitch’? Apparently feeling no guilt at all for abandoning his two young sons, even though he is aware of the horrible effects it will have on them from conversations with his friends Victor (who has also left his wife and kids, one of whom tried to kill himself) and Asif (who is a teacher of many kids who’ve been damaged by their parents)? All this is too much to believe, as are some of Jay’s reported sexual exploits with younger women, which sound more like a middle-aged male writer’s pornographic fantasies than the believable actions of the character Jay.
It feels as if Kureishi is straining very hard to make Jay as reprehensible as possible. Clearly he is trying to convey a sense of the isolation and lack of moral compass that many people feel, as well as the sexual frustration and powerlessness that many men feel in a feminist age, particularly those old enough to have been brought up in a more male-dominated world. But I think in trying to do so he goes too far, and makes Jay more of a caricature than a character.
What I liked about the book, actually, were the parts that sounded less like fiction and more like an essay on the social development of Britain from the seventies to the nineties. For example he characterises his generation (those who came of age in the seventies) as ‘particularly priveleged and spoilt’, enjoying the freedom won by their elders in the sixties before the ‘cruelties of the eighties.’ He talks of the political convictions of his generation, ‘the last generation to defend communism’, but also of its inability to see the appeal of Thatcherism and therefore to fight it effectively.
“We were left enervated and confused. Soon we didn’t know what we believed. Some remained on the left; others retreated into sexual politics; some became Thatcherites. We were the kind of people who held the Labour Party back. Still, I never understood the elevation of greed as a political credo. Whey would anyone want to base a political programme on bottomless dissatisfaction and the impossibility of happiness? Perhaps that was its appeal: the promise of luxury that in fact promoted endless work.”
I think he really has captured some important ideas here, and in other similar monologues. But between the islands of political and social truth there is a sea of very unbelievable fiction. While it was not a struggle to get through it, I wouldn’t say it was particularly rewarding either.