Vogue called this book "tolerant". Perhaps the reviewer didn't read it. It must be the most intolerant book I have read for years. Bhupinder hates his fellow humans. Sometimes he has reasons. Two boys bullied him at school; in revenge he started supplying solvents from his dad's shop for them to sniff. Now he thinks: "Hopefully they'd graduated from lighter fuel onto heroin, lived as rent boys then died from syphilis, or maybe starvation." (p 118) [Leaving aside the ungrammatical 'hopefully'; a death sentence for being a school bully does seem disproportionately Draconian.] But more often Bhupinder hates whole groups of people.
He hates ethnicities:
- "I hate poor white people. No one is more stupid or useless." (p 115)
- "Eastern Europeans ... make niggers look smart" (p 67)
- "The French! That bunch of cunts" (p 60)
- "I felt the shiver of disgust I sometimes feel when I look at white people." (p 236)
He hates the rich:
- "She once said her dad must be paying her Filipino cleaner a fortune: 'Why else would she do such a shitty job?'" (p 55)
- "an old white man and his young, highly passive-aggressive oriental wife. She probably wangled herself whatever she wanted: in return she'd look good and provide fellatio. That, no doubt, was the sum of their sex life; his heart wouldn't take much more and she was probably frigid. Women who like getting fucked don't marry old men." (p 207)
He hates the poor:
- "There's nothing better for the people at the bottom than having a bunch of other saps brought in and dumped beneath them." (p 67)
- "They're just another bunch of tramps, fighting the rest of us in this pigpen for the same fucking crap." (p 68)
He hates gays:
- "pussy-loathing queers ... shit-head fag hags ... fruits" (p 195).
- "faggamuffins and homeysexuals ... The love homos have for straight guys is the love that dares not speak its name. Like any other girl, the homosexual longs for a real man." (p 211)
He even hates DJs:
- "DJs are, in essence, children's entertainers, but speak about their work as if it has substance and value in the world." (p 164)
Most of all he hates the ugly:
- "The flesh is draped loose and rumpled over his bones; his shoulders poke obscenely from either side, his breasts hang like soggy dishrags. There's a hideous dignity to him, like an expensive, now haggard and disused, leather bag." (p 4)
- "Fat and lazy people often use steam baths and saunas as a substitute for exercise, equating sweating to weight loss." (p 75)
- "His dour face and parched complexion he'd achieved through hard drinking and a million cigarettes." (p 91)
He is obsessed with genetics. There are a lot of comments about how genetics make beauty, how slavery created a black man that white women long for, that Bhupinder's own ancestral home at a cultural interface has developed a mix of genes that has made him beautiful. Beauty, for Bhupinder, is the ultimate blessing. "I was grateful I wasn't ugly; I didn't have to strive for wealth to avoid a life of substandard sexual partners." (p 139) Beauty is often equated with blackness: "The magic of miscegenation: genes alchemised by a slap of the tar brush, even the ugliest honky can have enchanting offspring." (p 209)
There are times when he is absorbed in self-pity or self-loathing
- "I could see the red sun setting on the corner of the city. Several million people were out there, ploughing several million furrows. Barely a handful knew or cared anything about me." (p 168)
- "Most of all, I cried for me, the desperate first-born son who'd now have to pick up the tab, but couldn't afford the bill." (p 138)
- "Nothing I've ever wanted has come true; I was tired of being let down. I was tired of my lingering, lifelong sense of incompletion. ...I hadn't wanted much from life: love, safety, a sense of belonging to somewhere or someone. Instead I had nothing." (p 162)
- "I'm just a tourist ... I just look at the view." (p 85)
But normally he is unable to reflect on his own behaviour. "I'm a man of few talents; the one skill I have is the acceptance of disappointment." (p 162) he tells us but this is manifestly untrue. Every disappointment fuels his hatred of the human race. Whilst sitting in a steam bath recovering from a hangover he muses "I hate steam baths. I see no benefit in subjecting myself to unnatural heat, basting in my own fluids" (p 75) although two pages later he recognises that the steam is helping him "sweat out more toxins". In a gay club he thinks "It was inevitable that gay culture should fuse with that of rap music; they had so much in common: licentiousness, conspicuous consumption, misogyny and body fascism." (p 211) although this whole book is a misanthropic rant revelling in body fascism.
Why does he hate? Presumably because of his repeated failure. He is very bright (of course!) and should have become a doctor but he deliberately failed his A-levels. He then dropped out of University. He only goes home to his mother for a financial bailout. He can't even commit to attending his brother's wedding. He is desperate to escape. In one stunning image he observes a wasp and this does seem to reflect upon him (although he doesn't realise it): "A wasp raged against the glass, leaving dabs of venom on the pane as it fought to get out." (p 63)
If all this hatred is supposed to describe a portrait of a trapped wasp this book can scarcely be bettered.
It is a strangely unbalanced plot. It starts with the author (September 2003) in self-imposed exile. He then begins to tell the story of why he's there. In May (by implication 2002?) he starts an affair with white Sophie because she is best friends with Indian Sarupa whom he has been ogling in night clubs. Sophie and Sarupa represent an upper class London which Bhupinder angrily envies. Things happen although not a lot develops. He hangs out with black Michael (who hates even more virulently than Bhupinder), alcoholic rich pretty boy Luca, and gay Rory and his boyfriend restaurateur Sham. More things happen. Out of the blue a deus ex machina arrives that enables him to get hold of some money and go abroad. It is only in October 2004 that he finds out by email that he is a father (of a baby conceived in summer 2002 or at the latest summer 2003 suggesting either an extraordinary long pregnancy or a very slow email).
So this book has an unconventional plot and a lot of intolerance. It also has a substantial amount of utterly explicit sex. And it has moments of pure magic in some of its descriptions which, at best, are totally original and drill down to the essence of the thing itself:
- "Sometimes she'd be the perfect ingenue, unsure of her wonderful new body." (p 3)
- "Her pose unfolded into a mass of angles ... I slouched against the sofa as she stooped ridiculously in mid-air, her thin arm extended towards me ... she collapsed back into her seat, her magazine pose in shambles, a muddle of long limbs and bony joints." (p 21)
- "her nostrils flared, showing empty hairless sockets." (p 47)
- "Here I can see evening fall, like watching a scrap of paper held up by the air drift slowly down to earth." (p 7)
- "He wore an ancient pin-striped suit and sipped a glass of Scotch, a forgotten cigarette cindered between his fingers." (p 11) I love 'cindered'!!!
- "his idea of an alcoholic was a man who was too drunk to work" (p 108)
- "I sat and listened to the people around me laughing and joking with one another: was anyone happy, or was everything a shroud, hiding one's mediocrity and sadness?" (p 162)
- "Michael had ordered the mixed grill - glistening shapes of processed offal steamed on the plate before him" (p 68)
- "The boys loitered and threw me caustic stares; stymied by religion, their love lives consisted of bitter, solitary masturbation." (p 74)
- "I felt leaden and uncomfortable, utterly sullen." (p 75)
Julie Burchill has called this book "shocking and touched with genius" and I would agree. There are brilliant insights but too often the author's intent seems to provoke. I know I shouldn't judge a book by my dislike for the characters but there is so much naked misanthropy in this book that it detracted from the experience of reading it.
April 2018; 246 pages