Intimacy is the most unapologetic and autobiographical work to date from Hanif Kureishi (b. 1954) and was published in 1998 to a roar of controversy. Critics were appalled by what they saw as the novella’s barely veiled depiction of Kureishi’s real-life breakup with partner Tracey Scoffield. Like Kureishi, Intimacy’s narrator Jay is a successful British-Asian writer who, also like Kureishi, leaves the mother of his two children for a much younger woman who plays in a rock band. Jay is an unrepentant philanderer and self-obsessed misogynist whose callousness to his wife and children is only occasionally mitigated by moments of narcissistic concern for the pain they will feel on losing him. Their loss, by contrast, barely seems to register to him. In one of the novella’s most notorious and frequently cited lines, Jay opines “there are some fucks for which a person would have their partner and children drown in a freezing sea” (96). During a brief moment of guilt about his imminent and unannounced departure, Jay consoles himself by imagining that his partner Susan will eventually find another man and forget her pain. “Not that there will be a queue,” he thinks. “Nevertheless, the most grotesque people get laid, and even married” (95). This vicious contempt for a character seemingly based on his own former partner has proved too much for many reviewers to stomach. More generous critics have recognized the book as an ironic critique of the way egotism is justified through the popular bourgeois mantra of fulfilment, self-expression and creativity and as an important contribution to the burgeoning genre of male confessional writing popularized by writers such as Nick Hornby, Blake Morrison, and Andrew O’Hagen.
Like much of Kureishi’s recent work, Intimacy departs dramatically from the writer’s earlier thematic investment in issues of postcolonialism, race, and sexual identity. In its style and psychological purview, the novella seems to have far more in common with the work of the great 19th-century Russian realists whom Kureishi (and Jay) admires so much than it does with the politically charged explorations of ethnicity and gender in the writing of other British-Asian contemporaries such as Monica Ali, Suhayl Saadi, and Meera Syal. There is no “plot” in a conventional sense: The narrative is composed of Jay’s internal musings on the night before he is set to leave his family for good. As he spends what this family little suspects is his last few hours with them, he contemplates both telling Susan about his plans and calling them off entirely. Jay is a character too enamored with the contemplation of “the splendours and depths of [my] own mind” (29) to make decisions easily. He rationalizes his numerous infidelities and his recent besottedness with the young “part-woman” (117) Nina on the basis that he still believes in “the possibilities of intimacy. In love” (106). This alleged faith in idealized love seems unconvincing when read against Jay’s frequently evinced dread of emotional closeness and committed monogamy. He castigates Susan because she, unlike himself, “lacks detachment” (88), a failing he ascribes to all the women he has been with: “Whenever I was with a woman, I considered leaving her. . . .” Given this psychology, it seems unlikely that Jay, as he himself seems only too aware, will ever find enduring happiness with anyone. The narrative seems to hint that his flight from the domestic home is less of a liberating rejection of middle- class values than the very epitome of them—what, after all, could be more clichéd or depressingly routine than the midlife crisis–induced confusion of novelty with real change and growth? Jay occasionally approaches this realization—“what is the point of leaving if this failure reproduces itself with every woman?” he wonders—but ultimately remains caught in his own illusions, declaring as he walks hand in hand with the nubile and accommodating Nina that “the best of everything had accumulated in this moment. It could only have been love” (123). The draw of Intimacy lies in its brutally honest depiction of the often humorous albeit repellent extent of human narcissism and in its ambiguous position between the intimacy of autobiographic confession and the greater detachment of fictional satire.
Kureishi, Hanif. Intimacy. London: Faber, 1998.