Hanif Kureshi – The Tale of the Turd

The brilliance of this short story is getting us to empathise with a truly embarrassing situation while simultaneously disliking the person in it. 

Told through the voice of a guy who is visiting the parents of his girlfriend for the first time, it tells of his excruciating experience dealing with a turd that won’t go down the toilet. It’s funny and embarrassing and you can sympathise entirely with his predicament.

But at the same time the guy is thoroughly unlikable – the girl is 18, he is 44. She is experimenting with drugs, he’s helping her do it. He, it turns out, preys on young girls like her, effectively grooming them and turning them into addicts whose lives are most likely ruined. That we can sympathise with him is a real mark of Kureshi’s ability.

“I’m crying inside too, you know, but what can I do but stick my hand down the pan, into the pissy water, that’s right, oh dark, dark, dark, and fish around until my fingers sink into the turd, get a muddy grip and yank it from the water. For a moment it seems to come alive, wriggling like a fish.”

Hanif Kureshi, The Tale of the Turd

My Son the Fanatic – Hanif Kureshi

A really powerful short story that shows the lack of mutual understanding that can grow between generations.

It is told in the third person from the point of view of the father Parvez. His son, Ali, has begun to sell his possessions and Parvez quickly realises he is turning to fundamentalist Islam. After working so hard as a taxi driver to provide everything Ali needed for a good life in Britain, Parvez is distraught.

He tries to talk to his son but everything he does makes it worse, showing that Parvez drinks and has struck up a close friendship with a prostitute who he gives lifts to and looks out for at night.

What comes through strongest in this simply written story is the complete lack of understanding between the two. Parvez is a sympathetic guy who just wants his son to take the advantages he is being offered and get on, and cannot comprehend why Ali would give up on any of that. Ali is less sympathetic, but you can see his complete frustration with his father who seems to lack self-awareness and believes in nothing bigger than the day to day of life. 

It ends with a sad scene, where Parvez defends his prostitute friend from the insults of Ali, in the end hitting his son, who replies, “who’s the fanatic now?”.

“In other versions I am a ghost or a doctor. Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts and crows. We can do things other characters can’t, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God. I was friend, excuse, ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.”

Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers 

Cocaine Nights – JG Ballard

Ballard’s nightmare version of our world is as astute as ever in Cocaine Nights.

Charles Prentice has gone to Estrella de Mar, a British expat resort on the Spanish coast, where his brother Frank, who runs the resort health club, has pleaded guilty to an arson attack on the Hollinger’s house that killed five people. Charles can’t believe hid brother’s guilt and begins to investigate to find the truth.

What he discovers is a resort that appears on the surface a model of middle age Britains abroad – all tennis clubs and amateur dramatics societies – but underneath is a sordid world of drugs, petty violence, prostitution and rape about which nobody speaks.

He becomes more and more involved in the world, and discovers the ambiguous figure of Bobby Crawford is behind much of it. Ostensibly a tennis coach, he had worked with Frank and a group of others to bring life into the town. What Crawford saw was that the resort was dull and desolate, populated by people just waiting to die, but that he could inject life into it with crime. Through ongoing petty crimes – from vandalism to horrific porn – Crawford provoked an enthusiasm for life that made Estrella de Mar such a thriving place.

Charles becomes more involved with and enthralled by Bobby Crawford – part gangster, part messiah figure – until he himself begins running a resort, his brother Frank’s plight almost forgotten.

What Ballard portrays through a cast of corrupt professionals and a characterless expat backdrop is the dark side of the ideal of the ‘leisure society’, a much discussed concept that many in the West have at different times seen as the consequence of technology and capitalism creating a world where work becomes a small part of our lives. What replaces work has always been the question: poetry, arts, personal relationships, fun, debauchery, laziness…?

Ballard offers a psychoanalytic critique of the leisure society, pointing to how there is always something unknowable repressed and smouldering underneath apparent order, and this repressed element will always find ways to manifest itself. We will always find the ‘return of the real’ as Lacan might say and it is this which we’re seeing ignited by Crawford, as the repressed desires of the expats are provoked and spill over, creating a criminal underground that makes life both deadly and worth living once again.

The characters – Charles, Frank, Bobby, Paula, Sangar, the Hollingers – might be unlikable but the ideas, the imagery and the unfolding dram in which they are cast make this an excellent piece of fiction that is at once dystopian and eerily accurate.

Raven Black – Ann Cleeves

Raven Black is a solid British police procedural – well drawn characters, quality dialogue and an almost believable plot. It is in the realist tradition, aiming to draw readers in through its likeness to real life.

The story is set on the isolated island of Shetland, and uses the murder of two young girls over a long period to explore the tensions on the island.

After a teenager, Catherine, is murdered, and another goes missing, suspicions fall on Magnus Tait, an old local loner suspected of killing a child twenty or so years ago for whom there was never justice. 

The local police officer, Perez, leads the investigation, vying with outside police forces for control of the case and discovering a lot about the people of the island on the way. 

The spoiler is that Tait didn’t kill either girl, though is covering for his mother who killed the first, and Catherine’s murderer and the kidnapping is in fact the work of her best friend, Sally, who envied and disliked Catherine equally.

The high quality writing and the exploration of island life make this a strong piece of crime fiction. 

The Ocean at the end of the lane – Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the end of the lane is many things – part fantasy; both heartwarming and, in parts very dark; part reflection on the wonder of childhood and the hazy memories adults have of those years; and part a look at what it is to be a child who feels feel distant from and misunderstood by their parents and the adult world.

A man (I’m not sure we even learn his name, actually, despite being the protagonist) visits his rural childhood home, which conjures up memories of a time when he was seven and entered into some surprising and terrifying adventures.

His parents had recruited a childminder, Ursula Monkton, who charmed everyone but the protagonist. It turns out her perfect body was a shell for a monster who wanted to devour him, and nobody but he could see her true nature. There is a shocking scene in which the boy’s Dad – who often shouts but is not normally murderous – tries to drown him whilst, it appears, under the thrall of Ursula.

He enlisted the help of the Hempstock family from the farm down the road, who it turns out are thousands of years old and have magical powers. Together they fought off the ‘hunger birds’, which wanted to kill the boy too. Gaiman has a brilliant concept here, with these birds who eat the very fabric of reality:

“Where it devoured the grass, nothing remained – a perfect nothing, only a colour that reminded me of grey, but a formless, pulsing grey… This was the void. Not blackness, not nothingness. This was what lay behind the thickly painted scrim of reality.”

One of these ‘vultures of the void’ as he calls them, kills Lettie Hempstock rather than the boy – or, not kills, but temporarily drains her of life and the she enters the ocean at the end of the lane to regenerate, which is where 40 years later he finds the Hempstocks, with Lettie still in repair.

It ends with an exchange in which Ginnie Hempstock says to him “Lettie did a very big thing for you. I think she mostly wants to find out what happened next, and whether it was worth the sacrifice.”

“Did I pass?” he aks

She replies: “You don’t pass or fail as a person, dear.”

It is these nuggets of brilliance combined with the story itself, which so subtly evokes the sense of being a child in adult world, of your imagination and inner life being beyond the grasp of your parents, that make this an incredible book. 

The Concrete Island – JG Ballard

Read Jan 2016

The Concrete Island is a fantastic premise. Maitland – a successful architect who divides his time between work, family and mistress – crashes into a large traffic island in the middle of a series of motorways and slip-roads. He is injured enough to get stuck and can’t get off the island. Despite being in the middle of the city nobody notices him, and because his life is so split it appears even those closest to him aren’t searching for him.

He eventually finds two misfits living on the island who are trying to get away from modem life. And, in fact, the book is quite hard going and descriptive until these characters turn up and some inject some life into things about a third of the way through. Initially he appears to be their captive but the life skills and material goods he has acquired through ongoing engagement in the capitalist world enables him to turn the tables on them.

In the end Maitland drives them away – one of them dies and the other leaves – creating an apt metaphor for how we corrupt enclaves of relative innocence when we touch them with capitalist society. 

Gradually, as he drives the others away, Maitland becomes accustomed to the island. It ends with him choosing not to leave the island immediately, with the help of the other two, but to do it on his own, in his own time. Again, what Ballard is presenting here is a nice metaphor for the individualism of modern capitalism, with Maitland refusing help and deciding that if he leaves the island it must be on his own terms and done entirely by himself.