The Buddha of Suburbia was one of the more difficult reading experiences I enjoyed this holiday. As so often is the case with a challenging read, its ideas have stayed with me more than I thought they would. I found the characterisation surprisingly off-putting. It was difficult to care for almost any of these characters, with questions of race initially seeming almost incidental when set against class. Reviewing the notes I made, however, contradicts that experience. Maybe it is because these characters operate in a semi-privileged and wholly-reflexive London demographic that is outside my lived experience that might disdain tallows to the surface. So while I never really found this story that funny, at least it didn’t take itself too seriously.
There appear to be many transgressions in this story that are purposefully shocking. All are narrated through a strange focalization of the style (which never really sounds at all like a teenager I’ve ever met) that attacks the very kind of readers who will likely finish the book:
The writers took it for granted that England, with its working-class composed of slags, purple-nosed losers, and animals fed on pinball, pornography and junk-food, was disintegrating into terminal class-struggle. These were the science-fiction fantasies of Oxford-educated boys who never left the house. The middle class loved it.
I think this notion is telling: while the text is transgressive and visceral in many places, it is aimed more at those who suffer safer, duller environments, bereft of the supposedly rude vitality of working-class degradation. I’ll address a little more of that later.
The descriptions of London punk culture must be nostalgic for those who grew up in the 70s. A delightfully extended piece of narrative focalizes the appearances of this ‘other’ with a strange detachment:
The houses were built for another era, I thought, looking at Terry’s place. They were five-storey places; they overlooked pretty parks; and they were rotting as this part of the city was rotting even as it flourished in the cracks. The kids here were wilder than anywhere else in London. The hair which Charlie had appropriated and elaborated on – black, spiky, sculptural, ornamental, eveningwear not work-wear – had moved on: to the Mohican. The girls and boys wore solid rainbows of hairy colour on their otherwise tonsured skulls. The black kids had dreadlocks half-way down their back, and walking sticks and running shoes. The girls wore trousers which tapered to above the ankle; the boys wore black bondage trousers with flaps and buckles and zips. The area was full of shebeens, squats, lesbian bars, gay pubs, drug pubs, drug organizations, advice centres, and the offices of various radical political organizations.
It is this attraction to, and yet distance from, coherent artistic communities that characterises both Karim’s laconic detachment and hedonistic yearnings. Plot-wise he is able to move into remarkably successful acting circles in which he experiences a mixed reception: on the one hand he appreciates the chance to succeed and express, yet on the other he suffers the arrogance of a colleague who disregards his characterisation of an actual man (Azad) as unrealistic. Laid against this is the equally arrogant and self-serving statement of another white British actor that ‘if [they] weren’t white and middle class [they’d] have been in Pyke’s show now. Obviously mere talent gets you nowhere these days. Only the disadvantaged are going to succeed in seventies’ England.’ It must be almost undoubted that this sentiment was experienced by Kureishi on many occasions in his acting and writing career. In contrast, the racist epithets hurled at Karim by the uneducated father (who shouts, and maybe supports ‘‘ammers!’) are just a nod to the very real racial violence suffered in 1970s inner city London. It seems class, rather than caste, frames this story.
This disdain for class and art also plays awkwardly with both the narrator’s father and his best friend Charlie. Following the continued desire to reject middle-class insipidness, Charlie becomes bizarrely famous by embracing an inauthentic face of working-class anger. Karim’s disdain drips thick: ‘amused that here in America Charlie had acquired this cockney accent when my first memory of him at school was that he’d cried after being mocked by the stinking gypsy kids for talking so posh.’ Of course, similar to Elvis’s success fronting an acceptable white face that played blues music, Charlie’s middle-class connections actually gives him the opportunities denied to more authentic working-class youngsters. Given the author’s background, and the London-centricity of the teenager narrator’s perception, this is psychological realistic and (from my Midlander point of view) entirely damning. Of course, this breakdown in expecting integrity in the arts is a common thread in post-modern 1970s art. In this place, the casual sexual violence of the inner-city London school (you’ll have to read it to find out) is a suitable foil for why it is perhaps better to culturally appropriate working-class culture than perhaps having to live through it.
This difficult relationship with class continues with his father’s desire to read Russian playwrights: ‘Chekhov was Dad’s favourite all-time writer, and he always said Chekhov’s plays and stories reminded him of India. I never understood this until I realized he meant that his characters’ uselessness, indolence and longing were typical of the adults he knew when he was a child.’ Such social realism seems most authentic to Karim when portraying the failings of human nature. Karim’s narrative follows in the same vein – all are pretty indolent if not entirely laconic.
Alas, as I’ve said, narrative voice often feels self-consciously inauthentic in that it is self-absorbed and surrounded by other narcissists. In reflection, that may be the purpose of Kureishi. However, for me, this feels like a missed opportunity to demonstrate at least some semblance of moral ambition or integrity, something especially surprising for someone who benefitted from social position and opportunity. Still, nothing like the liberation of rejecting prior-enjoyed privilege… In its place, the amount of portrayed bedroom fumbling is purposefully provocative, perpetually vacuous and obviously pre-AIDS. The glib philosophy of Karim is a brief, life-coachingly post-modern Buddhist destruction of ego: ‘Oh yes. Trying is ruining you. You can’t try to fall in love, can you? And trying to make love leads to impotence. Follow your feelings. All effort is ignorance. There is innate wisdom. Only do what you love.’ These are the shortest sentences in the whole book, fragments of thought and value.
I thought that the issues of the father could have been explored more; his relationship with Eva is not focalized or even really presented much. His father is a self-interested as Karim, somewhat funny, but always at the expense of others. An interesting neocolonialist image that we are left with is of Eva, the father’s partner who is ‘taking over England one party at a time’. Such aggressive conquest says much about the perception of the narrator in this world where people are free game to be used and abused. There isn’t much at peace in this text.
I still haven’t decided how sardonic these portrayals are; they certainly aren’t easy. And that is a portrayal delivered with skill by Kureishi. Eva’s final neoliberalist philosophy would resound with any Thatcherites, or those connected with larger corporations who succeed under our current political mood and economic philosophy: ‘We have to empower ourselves. Look at those people who live on sordid housing estates. They expect others – the Government – to do everything for them. They are only half human, because only half active. We have to find a way to enable them to grow. Individual human flourishing isn’t something that either socialism or conservatism caters for.’ The journalist nodded at Eva. Eva smiled at her. But Eva hadn’t finished; more thoughts were occurring to her. She hadn’t talked like this before, not with this clarity.’
Whether any of the characters grow, or indeed gain any insight, is especially debatable. Karim wishes, in this wonderful mess of a family, that ‘perhaps in the future [he] would live more deeply.’ This choice of adverb here is at the heart of his text: what kind of adverb is deeply for the act of living? Deeply effective? Deeply meaningful? Deeply stood in waste? Deeply stacked with unspoken and unacknowledged privileged? It is up to decide how we want to limit our interpretation.