If Alfred Hitchcock were still alive and challenged to outdo his film noir oeuvre with a new work that’s more menacing than ever, he would have been tempted to adapt Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Nothing (Faber&Faber, 2017). Its narration could be the toughest on any medium, and could have produced great result in the one Hitchcock worked on. It’s from the point of view of a man literally trapped in his room, his mobility restricted to crawling, at best, from his bed to a wheelchair and back. Though his body disintegrates steadily, his perceptions are not as restricted as you might think. Adverse physical circumstances fail to conquer this alpha male’s indomitable artistic will that takes on a vengeful route to reclaim his love.
Rear Window (1954) had already given Hitchcock all the luxury of dealing with voyeurism, but The Nothing would have given him more to explore in a different manner. The short novel is as much about the life seen through the window/mirror/lens frames as it is about your own eyes - where they belong, where their perceptions reach, and what exactly they look for, and get.
The story takes place between two points of grave realization that are well contained in the remarkable first and last sentences. The first refers to the protagonist Waldo’s concern for the noises in his own house at night that indicate the loss of what he considers the most precious achievement of his life, the love his wife has/d for him,
“One night, when I am old, sick, right out of semen, and don't need things to get any worse, I hear the noises again.
I am sure they are making love in Zenab's bedroom which is next to mine.”
And the last is about what many of us would fight for life to stay away from,
“… Dying's not so bad. You should try it sometime.”
Waldo is a film-maker who had tasted all the success one could dream of. It just turns out that his thoughts in this particular phase favours something else over the artistic talent he is blessed with and praised for:
“If you've once been attractive, desirable and charismatic, with a good body, you never forget it. Intelligence and effort can be no compensation for ugliness. Beauty is the only thing, it can't be bought, and the beautiful are the truly entitled.”
He is burdened by the presence of Eddie, the ambitious/pretentious younger man in the life of his even younger wife Zenab, fondly called Zee. Zenab is burdened by the prospect of spending the good years of her life bedsitting for her slow-dying husband who is content that his tongue can still move a bit and that could be a contribution to their marital bliss. And Eddie is burdened by life in general that he has no other way of getting around it than being a con man, pretending a love affair with Zenab and doing a film project on Waldo’s works in retrospect all the while.
You might notice that this has all the ingredients for not just a tightly woven film noir narration but also a sizzling Hanif Kureishi plot inhabited by edgy characters who deviate into self-deprecating playfulness and epiphanic bouts of depression at every turn.
What works the best in the novel is Waldo’s restricted point of view. The readers are kept in the dark on a few pieces of information that Waldo is aware of, but there is the convincing focus on his emotional turmoil than the mastermind that keeps ticking behind that façade. A careful reader might appreciate how this saves the novel from cheap twists, though those who look for something profound, in physical terms, to happen in the end might be a bit disappointed. The revenge is more symbolic in nature, addressing a set of moral concerns that are seemingly lacking in Waldo’s thought process. It might be a hard task to find compassion or a sense of justice in the selfish, bitter, possessive mind of Waldo, but it’s worth the trouble if you could.
Whenever Kureishi gets a work published, the whole world seems worried more about what the author has ‘taken’ out of his real life than what he has worked so hard to ‘create’. This seems to be the norm especially after Intimacy (Faber&Faber, 1998), for obvious reasons. For those who are still interested in all that, The Nothing has everything. Eddie the con man can be the real one who stole the author’s life savings, and Waldo could be a self-projection of the author himself having a revenge in a world of imagination. But Kureishi has already addressed this issue in his thoughtful long essay published as Theft: My Con Man (Faber&Faber, 2014) and also included in Love+Hate (Faber&Faber, 2015). Perhaps it would be better to look more at the development of ideas that connect Kureishi’s body of work than the real incidents that are connected to the books. After all, it’s real life experiences that are often the inspiration/trigger for all works of art and literature and hadn’t it been our concern all these years to see how life and art inspire each other?
The extra angle of the ambivalent relationship between Waldo and Eddie in The Nothing could be perceived as an extension of what is dealt with in Theft: My Con Man. There could be an uncanny resemblance between the duo and the V.S Naipaul-like character Mamoon and his biographer Harry of The Last Word (Faber&Faber,2014) as well. Despite the role reversals and power shifts among the characters, all of them could belong to the same fictional realm of Kureishi. “Self-plagiarism is style”, says Hitchcock.
A recent work that explored an even more claustrophobic narrative sphere was Ian McEwan’s Nutshell (Jonathan Cape, 2016). A reworking of Hamlet with a foetus as the protagonist, it achieved a lot in exploring the Oedipal angst to a range even higher than Shakespeare could have consciously thought of. Add to it the Freudian precepts that could perhaps be extended to the prenatal stage. Nutshell had an intriguing plot set in contemporary London as well. However, McEwan had to compromise a lot on the linguistic expressiveness of the narrative from a foetus’s perception, demanding a suspension of disbelief in most parts. The Nothing has no such challenge, as it is from an adult perspective that could afford clean sentences that sparkle. The idea of Waldo going beyond his restricted real perceptions with the help of the camera in his hand, mirrors, ipad, and candid cameras contributes a lot to the plausibility of the plot.
The Nothing might not end up being a remarkably popular single work as The Buddha of Suburbia (1993), but it forms an integral part of Kureishi’s latter set of significant works that speak a lot to us if they are taken together. They might even help us make some sense of the changing world, and the moral chaos that are already upon us. In his recent BBC Newsnight discussion with Stephen Smith, Kureishi said, “One of the things I’ve noticed that has happened in the culture recently is that the criminals are not really any more on the margins. The criminality has moved, as it works at the centre.”
Go grab The Nothing if a sex-obsessed old man as a protagonist, sandwiched between his irresistible wife and a con man, doesn’t offend you as much as this criminality at the centre.
Jose Varghese is a bilingual writer/editor/translator from India. He is the founder and chief editor of Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts. He has been working as the sole short fiction editor and curator for the magazine from early 2013, choosing hundreds of stories from a staggering amount of submissions. He is the author of the books Silver Painted Gandhi and Other Poems (2008) and "Silent Woman and Other Stories (forthcoming). His poems and short stories have appeared in journals/anthologies like The Salt Anthology of New Writing 2013, Unthology 5, The River Muse, Chandrabhaga, Kavya Bharati, Postcolonial Text , Dusun and Spilling Cocoa Over Martin Amis.
He is a contributing writer for Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel and is in the advisory board of Mascara Literary Review. He was the winner of The River Muse 2013 Spring Poetry Contest, a runner up in the Salt Flash Fiction Prize 2013, and a second prize winner in the Wordweavers Flash Fiction Prize 2012. He was shortlisted in Hourglass Short Story Contest and was commended in Gregory O'Donoghue International Poetry Prize 2014. He has done research in Post-Colonial Fiction and is currently working on his first novel. He writes for Thresholds: The International Short Story Forum, Chichester University, UK and was a participating writer at Hyderabad Literary Festival 2012 and the 2014 Vienna International Conference on the Short Story in English.