A psychoanalyst represses a murder in Hanif Kureishi’s Something to Tell You
Those who believe that shrinks are as neurotic and deluded as their patients—hey, it isn’t always true—will find supporting evidence in Hanif Kureishi’s new novel, Something to Tell You. Its narrator, Jamal, is a gentle London psychoanalyst who loves gossip and secrets. “I deal in them for a living,” he tells us on the first page. “The secrets of desire, of what people really want, and of what they fear the most.” Needless to say, Jamal himself is wrestling with each of these subjects. His biggest secret? Murder.
No spoiler alert required there: The murder thing is mentioned in the book’s third paragraph. It’s quickly put aside to introduce other characters, including his patients who provide momentary distraction. One is afraid of drinking water; another likes to masturbate over his mother’s artificial leg. Jamal resides in the background while making astute observations (“Speaking is intercourse for the dressed”). Still, the suspense in the book’s first section revolves around the identity of the victim even as Jamal seems to avoid the subject. We’re led to believe that Something to Tell You turns on the curious lives of Jamal’s family and acquaintances. There’s the plush canvas of his much-tattooed sister Miriam, his overly theatrical friend Henry (Miriam’s lover), and Henry’s daughter Lisa, who is so natural that “even her dildos are organic.” Pleasure is their central pursuit. Jamal’s son Rafi provides contrasting normalcy. Jamal’s love for his son is just more distraction.
Jamal’s emphasis on others is just a sideshow, and by the time he begins his own visits to a psychotherapist, he’s eager to divulge “hallucinations, panic attacks, inexplicable furies, frantic passions and dreams.” But not the murder. We learn that his lifestyle isn’t the professional model of decorum he wants us to believe. He pays for his sessions by betting on the horses and spends the surplus on a prostitute known as “The Goddess,” whom he prefers costumed as a British Airways stewardess.
Kureishi is the Oscar-nominated screenwriter and playwright whose 1985 film, My Beautiful Laundrette, illuminated the life of Pakistani immigrants in the U.K. Like his previous, semi-autobiographical novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, Something to Tell You weaves the immigrant experience with pop culture and British social politics to make a larger statement on life in England. Ethnicity plays a small role here at first, more so after the 2005 bombing of the King’s Cross subway station makes everyone with brown skin suspect. Despite the racism, Kureishi’s targets seem more equitable: the shared weaknesses and misconceptions that plague us humans, no matter our origins or economic status.
The unseen character who figures throughout the book is Sigmund Freud. “Freud’s revolution was in the fact he didn’t drug people, hypnotise them or give them advice, which would have infantilised them,” Jamal tells Lisa. “He listened. He wrote down their stories.” This link between storytelling and psychology—Freudian psychology—drives the tale forward, from Lisa and Miriam’s rivalry over Henry to Jamal’s relationship with his father and the father of Ajita, his lost love.
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Kureishi may spend too much time circling Jamal’s story, but then he has a lot of ground to cover. Some of the personality-divulging symbolism can be a bit obvious, as in the passage in which Jamal’s eager ass-kissing of a prostitute underscores his life-long anxiousness to please. Still, Kureishi makes even the smallest details count large. Jamal’s habit of taking something away from each of his experiences—be it heartbreak, pride, or some sexual inclination—eventually leads to his undoing. In the murder scenario, it’s a stolen timepiece.
Cultural decadence parallels the personal failings. Somethingto Tell You isn’t about making it as an immigrant. That’s the back story. It’s about what one does having made it. In a scene that involves an after-concert party with Mick Jagger, Kureishi suggests that once one has arrived, there’s nothing left but to become a bore. In Jamal’s case, success also means becoming cold, self-absorbed and even brutal. Freud, observer of the subconscious, would recognize the mind that keeps all these shortcomings under wraps.
Somewhere in the middle of the book, Jamal explains to Lisa that “the difference between therapy and analysis is that in therapy, the therapist thinks he knows what’s good for you. In analysis, you discover that for yourself.” As an author, Kureishi seems to embrace both paths. There’s plenty of quotable material in the book (“Culture . . . aren’t these extraordinary feats of imagination, the only negation of the human desire to murder?”). But the lasting lessons come from the simple act of his storytelling—the “dirty work,” as Jamal calls it, “of getting closely acquainted with the human.” It’s this dirty work that makes Something to Tell You so delicious.
Something to Tell You by Hanif Kureishi; Scribners. Hardcover, 376 pages, $26.