Theologian Tom Wright understands hell as a process of dehumanization as people reflect the image of God less and less and come to resemble the things they worship. I don’t agree with him, but if he was looking for a modern day Dante’s tour of such a hell, he would find it (without Dante’s genius) in Hanif Kureishi’s Something To Tell You.
There is not a nice character in sight. Jamal is the narrator, and perhaps the most detestable of them all. Now a famous middle-aged therapist, he obsesses over his first love thirty years earlier, which ended with him murdering someone. Meanwhile, his hedonistic playwright best friend Henry embarks on an affair with his hedonistic underworld sister Miriam, and we are mildly amused by a clash of manners. Jamal himself vacillates between his estranged wife Josephine, a prostitute named Goddess he likes to confide in and his former lover Lisa, who’s always ready to get into bed with him. Things are complicated further when three of the figures from his past return.
We learn about halfway the ‘terrible secret’ in Jamal’s past, and from then on it feels the drug-addled sex-obsessed characters are dragging themselves sluggishly from scene to scene. They’re not entirely self-focused; as left wing intelligentsia they do complain about Blair’s Britain from time to time, but the complaints are not very convincing.
I’ve been trying to put my finger on my own snobby, classist tastes in film and fiction – the fact that I tend to be bored by ‘kitchen sink’ working class realism, my resonance with John Fowles’ line in his journals about ‘to hell with the inarticulate hero’. I would have said that I tended to identify more with middle class characters, with articulate middle class angst. This book proves that I can’t generalise too much; it reminds me of how boring the middle class can be.