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Nov 2015
The Last Word - Hanif Kureishi - Faber & Faber, 2015

*
This book is a perfect example of everything that is wrong with so much of British literary fiction. It is set in a narrow middle-class social milieu that ignores the vast majority of the country, has main characters who are both smug and utterly unlikeable, thinks it's funny when it's not, is obsessed with class and sex but has nothing new to say about them, and has a plot that is tedious in its predictability. About the one thing to be said in its favour is that there is no post-modern self-referentiality. Though since one of the main characters is a much-lauded but fading mixed-race writer, even that may not be entirely true.

As I have remarked before, I consider books with writer protagonists to be a sign of laziness on the part of the author, and this book has not one but two. Harry Johnson is a young, smug, public school-educated and priapic budding author who is persuaded by his alcoholic publisher Rob to write a biography of Mamoon Azam, an eminent novelist with a protective younger wife called Liana and an allegedly spicy past. Rob wants a sensational tale that will become a bestseller. Harry wants to get paid so that he can settle down with his girlfriend Alice. Liana wants to protect Mamoon's reputation and maintain her upper middle class lifestyle. Mamoon wants company and admiration. With all these competing motivations, who will come out on top? How will the biography turn out?

If rich literary types are people you can care about then you may be interested enough to want to know the answer, but I certainly wasn't. The problem is that they are all horrible human beings who express themselves in pompous epigrammatic prose. Take this exchange between Harry and Mamoon, talking about their love lives:

"It's been a bad run, Mamoon, sir. But at times it seemed worth it."
"In what way?"
"The women were spectacular."
"How?"
"One of them had big eyes," he said. "Every time she opened them wide, it was as though all the clothes were peeling from her body. She was a violinist who'd play Bach and sing to me."
"Ah."
"So you see, they required the sacrifice. I knew I'd be a fool to follow them, but more of a fool not to."
"Good. A man who hasn't left behind him a string of broken women has hardly been alive. [

Kureishi may have this intended to be satirical of his profession, but the awful attitude to women expressed here is also found in the structure of the book, both in Harry's affair with the servant-cum-cleaner Julia and in Liana's sexual suggestiveness towards him. It's just vile and unfunny.

I have gone on too long about this book, but largely because it has had so many positive reviews from the likes of Mark Lawson and other literary critics. They simply don't seem to have noticed its misogyny, limited social setting and lack of big themes. Too much of British literary fiction is smug, unimaginative and unambitious, and its writers are not being held to account by the backslapping critics. It is about time that they were.

Date: 2016-09-02 09:52 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ingaborg.livejournal.com
That sounds ghastly! Yeah, I've given up reading anything 'literary'. Apart from anything else, they don't seem to have proper stories any more.

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