Bring on the babes. Hanif Kureishi once had the potential to become a major writer. But something has gone wrong. Pankaj Mishra on a novelist lost in the labyrinth of his own ego

Gabriel's Gift

Hanif Kureishi <em>Faber & Faber, 192pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0571202713

Hanif Kureishi has been very prolific recently: three major books in as many years, not to mention film scripts, plays and short stories. The sources of such new energy in a writer's career are usually hidden; who knows, for instance, what inspires the current Philip Roth revival, the three unexpected masterpieces after the many indifferent books that had made many give up on him? And it is only fair that the more literal-minded among us are not allowed to intrude too deeply on the writer's privacy: what he writes has enough engaging mysteries.

Kureishi, however, has acquired the reputation of being a bold and fluent betrayer of family secrets in his fiction. This complicates our understanding of him, because the glib kind of moralising his work incites takes us further away from the questions more relevant for a writer: how, for instance, does he order his world? What is the nature of the vision he brings to it? How does that vision develop over time? In Kureishi's case, the austere prose and bleak vision of his recent books depart so radically from the wit and exuberance of his early novels, The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album, that you cannot help but wonder. It is as though the immigrant condition, or at least its more obvious and now slightly overplayed aspects - hybridity, cosmopolitanism, confused sexuality, intergenerational conflict, etc - have been overlaid, in middle age, by another, more intense experience of life and the world.

In his new novel, Gabriel's Gift, Kureishi seems to be looking back at himself, at the young man who first received the subtle invitations of art. The problem he wishes to dramatise is how people trapped in the most unpromising social and cultural circumstances can awaken to their artistic destiny. This is an intangible process, not easily defined; and, although people talk at great length and go to many places, Gabriel's Gift contains very little by way of essential action.

Gabriel's father, who was once a guitarist with a famous rock icon and is now an idler, leaves the family's north London home. Gabriel learns to deal with his mother's new boyfriend and au pair while hanging around with his father's buddies. He draws fresh inspiration and courage from his meeting with the rock icon; he grows more serious in his artistic intention.

All this is presented through a dizzyingly swift series of scenes and conversations. In fact, Gabriel's Gift reads like a film script for much of its length - it is safe to say that about 80 per cent of the book consists of dialogue - and, if turned into a film, it would probably be a vivacious spectacle. It would lose the flatness that becomes inevitable when the novelist surrenders his task of description and explanation, when he neglects the essential work of interesting his reader in a character or event, and relies purely on utterance. Consider this exchange between Gabriel and his teenaged friend:

"Oh, God, I've had enormous parent stuff going on," sighed Gabriel.
"Explains everything," Zak said. "Wounded, eh? Me too."

Two good actors with reasonably mobile faces might have pulled off the impossibly adult lines on screen, might even have made them sound like what they appear: children parodying grown-up talk. On the printed page, where few transitions of mood and place occur, they look fatally artificial. It is not that Kureishi can't evoke or suggest. Here, for instance, are Gabriel and his father, stepping into a posh hotel after negotiating a crush of groupies outside.

There was a deep hush in the hotel; the place was so stylish that there appeared to be nothing to disfigure the exquisite austerity of nothing piled on nothing, apart from - on an invisible shelf - a white vase containing a single white flower. In the distance, little figures in charcoal pyjamas and slippers started to unbend slowly, like Chinese mandarins coming out of hypnosis.

This is well observed, or remembered: the writer has recalled a stray memory of crowds and sudden silence and distance to near perfection. You wish there was more of this kind of thing, the fixing of time and place in clear, sharp prose, as the pages fill up wearyingly with one-line paragraphs in quotation marks. But the screenwriting side of Kureishi manages to suppress, for the most part, the good novelist in him.

And it is the screenwriter who triumphs in the end. Abruptly, Gabriel's parents get back together, and we leave him behind a camera, shooting his first film at age 16, with a pretty girl who reminds him of Degas's dancers. We have already been told about Gabriel masturbating over the Degas painting; Gabriel has also been advised by an experienced elder that "quite a lot of women like cameras"; and the message is clear. Confidence, success, fame, money and girls: all will flock to you if you can only get your act together. It is hard not to detect something too facile, if not coarse, in this conclusion. The growth of the imagination into talent, awareness of that talent, and its harnessing to a suitable artistic project - this may take a lifetime's work and still leave an artist dissatisfied (the girls will come and go, but won't console much). The relative ease and speed with which Gabriel embraces and starts to realise his gift is startling; and it appears to belong much more to the two-hour-long film than to the very long and unyielding thing that we know as real life.

The rawness of Gabriel's Gift illustrates the danger in the situation of the artist in mid-career who celebrates and exalts art while feeling too confident in his possession of it; its structure and theme betray a complacency that is the opposite of the skill, labour and patience required for any artistic endeavour. At its best, it is a minor work by one who has shown the potential to be a major writer - who will know how to make literary art once he gets over his privileged initiation into it.

Pankaj Mishra is the author of The Romantics: a novel (Picador, £6.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Democracy can be bad for you