Book review: Hanif Kureishi’s The Nothing proves it’s a man’s world

Once a star filmmaker, the protagonist Waldo is now in his 80s, in terminal physical decline and obsessed with what his younger wife is up to.

Hanif Kureishi doesn’t give his misogynistic, selfish protagonist, Waldo, any redeeming qualities, which hurts the narrative. Getty Images
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Hanif Kureishi's men have long had difficulties with women. And often, as tends to be the way with men, the difficulties have involved their inability to see women as people. They are, rather, objects for men to think about, lay claim to, fetishise, pursue, control and generally get worked-up about. The narrator of Intimacy (1998) informs the reader that "women's bodies ... are at the centre of everything worth living for". In The Last Word (2014) an elderly writer named Harry treats us to the observation that "the body of the young woman is the world's most significant object". And in Kureishi's latest novel, The Nothing, women are again cast as objects to be owned, trophies to be won and brandished. As the book's protagonist, Waldo, puts it: "a woman is the ultimate luxury item; a diamond, a Rolls-Royce, a Leonardo in your living room".

We find Waldo in this seductively pensive mood because he suspects he is being betrayed. Once a star filmmaker, he is now in his 80s and in terminal physical decline. His “ruined” hips and legs keep him confined to a bed and a wheelchair. His sight is going. And he is host to a miserable array of additional ailments: “I have a stent. I also have most illnesses: diabetes, prostate cancer, an ulcer, early MS, constipation, diarrhoea ... a cough, phobias, addictions, obsessions.” He longs for one great and final project, for “something to fill me with creative hope”.

And, in a way, he gets one. It comes in the form of his wife, Zee, who is 22 years his junior and spends her days caring for her husband: “It is her responsibility”, he believes.

Waldo has started to nurture the suspicion that Zee is having an affair with Eddie, a film critic (and self-styled expert on Waldo’s career) he has known for about 30 years and who now spends an alarming amount of time at Waldo’s house, socialising with Zee. Waldo has started to hear strange sounds at night and believes it might be Zee and Eddie in an adjacent bedroom.

As the early stages of the novel develop, Waldo convinces himself that he was justified in mistrust. Initially, he spends quite a lot of time sitting around in languid and graphic contemplation of what Eddie and his wife might be up to during their trysts, and for a while this keeps him satisfied: “Suffering loses its horror if the victim finds a way to enjoy it.”

But before long Waldo concludes that the relationship between Eddie and Zee is a wrong that must be avenged. Accordingly, he sets about finding a way to bring about the downfall of his betrayers.

There is, as will already be clear, more than a touch of Hamlet to all this. But to make things excruciatingly clear, Kureishi furnishes Waldo with the reflection that "too much thinking turns you into that fool Hamlet". Thanks very much. Elsewhere he tries to lend weight to Waldo's realisation that his best days are behind him, and that his Edenic (Edenic for him) marriage to Zee has been sullied, by having him mention Paradise Lost.

These clumsy attempts to inject some intellectual meat into the gruel of his story are exacerbated by Kureishi’s inability to write effectively about unpleasant characters. Waldo really is revolting: misogynistic, selfish, sentimental, insecure. But handled correctly, such characters can be made to swing, and even feel appealing (one thinks of Martin Amis’s Keith Talent), on the page.

Kureishi never manages this, largely because his prose – characterised by such bewilderingly inert phrases as “whizzing about like Ironside on acid”; “Love doesn’t turn off like a tap when you want it to” – creates no distance between the author and his creation. Kureishi and Waldo seem to speak as one. And when an attempt is made to grant Waldo some likeable features – he is given a short paragraph about the decline of liberal values – it is so conspicuously unintegrated with his character as to be funny.

These shortcomings leave the novel feeling as nebulous and insubstantial as its title suggests. It’ll do fine as an item for your living room. But as literature it leaves you feeling nothing.

Matthew Adams is a regular contributor to The Review.