Kureishi's 'The Body' -- trading in the aging

February 29, 2004|By Craig Nova | Craig Nova,Special to the Sun

The Body, by Hanif Kureishi. Scribners. 160 pages. $20.

The Body, which is Hanif Kureishi's account of the everlasting human struggle against mortality, seems to come out of the tradition of such novels as The Invisible Man. Both of these books deal with the dangers and seductions of technology, and yet somehow The Body seems only partially realized. This is mystifying. Kureishi is a talented writer, good with language, adept with ideas, and whose heart, which is the critical item for a writer, seems to be in the right place.

The Body starts with enthusiasm and skill, but soon Kureishi seems to have gotten bored, and after the first third, the book reads as though it was finished by a kind of literary stand-in. In fact, this book reminds me of the story of Alexandre Dumas, who had a literary factory in Paris where he sketched out the plots for new books and then had hacks do the actual writing. One day Dumas' son met him in the street, and Dumas said to him, "Have you read my latest?" and the son replied, "No, father, have you?"

This, I think, is the problem with The Body in a nutshell: The author of it seems remote from the finished product, although at one time he may have been engaged by the idea.

The Body is the story of a man who avails himself of the opportunity, late in life, to turn his aging body in for a new one. He takes his brain with him, and leaves his old body behind. This allows the author to consider youth and age, mortality, and how it is that one confronts the essential fact of being human, which is, of course, our knowledge of where we are going to end up.

Adam (but, of course) is a successful literary man, and after his transformation, he has a series of adventures, mostly sexual but also social, too, in a kind of New Age / Feminist retreat in Greece. Finally, he confronts a matter of capitalism, or, at least, the desire of someone else to acquire his new body.

All of this, aside from the beginning, seems pedestrian. One of the difficulties is the mismatch between structure and length, in that the book operates as a picaresque, in which one thing more or less follows another in a haphazard way, but in a novel of 149 pages, with generous leading, there isn't a lot of room for anything aside from precise scenes, with crisp details, all arranged without any hesitation. And then, too, the book has one of the great failings of the modern sensibility, in that, as far as I can tell, there isn't a sympathetic character among the lot.

When he is at his best, the author mentions a witty and intriguing theory that maintains the modern notion of self began with the invention of mirrors, in Venice, in the early 16th century. It is dropped into this book with one of those bits of grace that you can only admire, but such moments are rare and lost in the rest, which reads like an outline prepared with some passion but yet written with exceedingly little interest.

Craig Nova is the author of 11 novels, including The Good Son, Tornado Alley and Wetware. His Brook Trout and the Writing Life was published in 1999. His new novel, Cruisers, will be published in June.

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