Kureishi’s latest novel, “Something to Tell You,” which will be published in the United States later this month, is his most ambitious book since “The Black Album.” A sprawling romp set in London, it centers on Jamal, an Anglo-Pakistani Freudian analyst confronting certain unresolved questions about his past. Along the way, his best friend, Henry, takes up with Jamal’s sister, Miriam, a petty drug dealer and distributor of porn videos and other items that fell off the back of a truck. Everyone is swept up in a wave of late-onset kinkiness. As in so much of Kureishi’s work, there’s a lot of sex here. Little is left to the imagination. At one point, Jamal goes to a basement sex club, its walls covered in whips and costumes, and asks a prostitute to dress like a British Airways hostess. While he waits for the Viagra and the painkillers to kick in, the prostitute tells him she’s working toward a master’s degree. “She was ‘doing’ decadence and apocalypse, always a turn-of-the-century preoccupation, along with calls for a ‘return to the family,’ ” Kureishi writes. “Unfortunately, this millennium, our fears had turned out to be realities. It had been worse than we imagined.”
In our conversation, Kureishi described the novel as “a critique of the notion of limitless pleasure,” a re-examination of the sexual revolution. “Is this what we thought we would be in the ’60s when were dancing around with flowers in our hair wanting a more erotic and a more sexual life?” he said as he drank his peppermint tea. “If the society doesn’t install the values anymore,” he went on to say, “your happiness and your pleasure is entirely up to you; you have to work and earn it and install your own moral values.” This, he pointed out, accounts for a common “complaint of the West against radical Islam: ‘Why do they have to keep asking God? Why can’t they, as it were, make up their own minds?’ Well, it’s much harder to install your own moral values than to have them imposed by other people or by the system.” Things were “miserable” when he was growing up in the ’60s before the sexual revolution, Kureishi said, but now, he added, “we’ve moved from repression to unrepression” — which comes with its own strictures.
As is clear from his new novel, Kureishi often uses a psychoanalytic lens. He himself has been in therapy since the ’90s — “you start to feel better after about 10 years,” he joked — and related that it has been “very stimulating in terms of ideas” and “ways of seeing the world.” But for him, the return of the repressed transcends Freudian cliché. It’s a crucial theme, a key to understanding recent history, not just family dynamics. In Kureishi’s view, radical Islam and radical sexuality intersect. “They produce each other in some way,” he said. Indeed, to Kureishi, the rise of radical Islam is nothing less than the return of the repressed writ large. “You can’t help but laugh,” he told me. “The project of the West, the Nietzschean project, has been to drive out religion and to produce a secular society in which men and women make their own values because morality is gone. Then suddenly radical religion returns from the Third World. How can you not laugh at that? How can you not find that a deep historical irony?”...
Writing runs in the Kureishi family. Hanif’s father, who worked for decades as a civil servant at the Pakistani Embassy in London, was an aspiring writer who remained unpublished. Kureishi wrote “My Ear at His Heart,” his 2004 memoir about his father, after his agent, Deborah Rogers, gave him a manuscript his father once submitted to her. Fathers and sons remain a deep and abiding theme. Kureishi’s own family life is not uncomplicated. His 1998 novella, “Intimacy,” is a brutal account of a man on the eve of leaving his partner and two small sons for a beautiful younger woman — as Kureishi himself had done. (Over the years, Kureishi has been criticized for misogyny and emotional cruelty, not least for the number he does on the woman left behind in “Intimacy.”) Today, Kureishi lives in a row house with his partner, Monique Proudlove, and their 10-year-old son, Kier, while Sachin and Carlo, his 14-year-old twin sons from his earlier relationship with Tracey Scoffield, a film-and-television producer, are often around.
After breakfast at the local cafe, I persuade Kureishi to let me see his house and study. Earlier, he told me he was reluctant to have me “round” since “the missus” doesn’t like journalists, but it quickly becomes clear from Proudlove, a self-possessed woman with slate-gray eyes who greets us in the entrance hall, that it’s Kureishi who’s protective of his privacy. In the living room, which is dominated by a drum kit, I was struck by the juxtaposition of books on the shelf: some novels by Henry James, Caroline Moorehead’s biography of Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Situations” next to Naipaul’s “Among the Believers” next to Roger Scruton’s “Sexual Desire: A Moral Philosophy of the Erotic.” Definitely guidebooks to Kureishiland. The writer works in a roomy study upstairs, its walls filled with images: a photo of the young John Lennon, a poster of a painting by William Blake, a Matisse-like painting of Monique. There are stacks of CDs on the desk — Prince, Jeff Buckley, the soundtrack to “Trainspotting” — and some photos of Kureishi’s sons. Above the desk I also notice a small black-and-white image: a man on his knees, his face firmly planted between the legs of a naked woman.
This is not surprising. Kureishi’s books are extremely raunchy. Nearly every page you turn, someone is being fellated, spanked, tugged on — or is thinking about it. Nipples are clamped. Wax is dripped. Things are inserted into places you would hardly have imagined possible. In the ’70s, Kureishi even wrote literary pornography under the pen name Antonia French. I ask him about his interest in pornography, which seems to go beyond the strictly anthropological. “When I was a kid and you wanted to come into contact with something sexy or dirty, you’d read a book,” Kureishi said. “Can you imagine?” Harold Robbins, Henry Miller, the Marquis de Sade. “D. H. Lawrence, can you imagine, as a sexual aid?” Today, literary pornography is a lost art, he says, but dirty pictures are available everywhere. “The much more interesting question might be, ‘What else is it that people need to make a life?’ It might be very easy to find sexual satisfaction, but getting someone to love you for a long time or loving someone might be more interesting.” This is a thoughtful observation — but it doesn’t entirely answer the question.
On a cold and dreary day last winter, I met Roubini over lunch in the TriBeCa neighborhood of New York City. “I’m not a pessimist by nature,” he insisted. “I’m not someone who sees things in a bleak way.” Just looking at him, I found the assertion hard to credit. With a dour manner and an aura of gloom about him, Roubini gives the impression of being permanently pained, as if the burden of what he knows is almost too much for him to bear. He rarely smiles, and when he does, his face, topped by an unruly mop of brown hair, contorts into something more closely resembling a grimace.
When I pressed him on his claim that he wasn’t pessimistic, he paused for a moment and then relented a little. “I have more concerns about potential risks and vulnerabilities than most people,” he said, with glum understatement. But these concerns, he argued, make him more of a realist than a pessimist and put him in the role of the cleareyed outsider — unsettling complacency and puncturing pieties.
Roubini, who is 50, has been an outsider his entire life. He was born in Istanbul, the child of Iranian Jews, and his family moved to Tehran when he was 2, then to Tel Aviv and finally to Italy, where he grew up and attended college. He moved to the United States to pursue his doctorate in international economics at Harvard. Along the way he became fluent in Farsi, Hebrew, Italian and English. His accent, an inimitable polyglot growl, radiates a weariness that comes with being what he calls a “global nomad.”
As a graduate student at Harvard, Roubini was an unusual talent, according to his adviser, the Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs. He was as comfortable in the world of arcane mathematics as he was studying political and economic institutions. “It’s a mix of skills that rarely comes packaged in one person,” Sachs told me. After completing his Ph.D. in 1988, Roubini joined the economics department at Yale, where he first met and began sharing ideas with Robert Shiller, the economist now known for his prescient warnings about the 1990s tech bubble.
The ’90s were an eventful time for an international economist like Roubini. Throughout the decade, one emerging economy after another was beset by crisis, beginning with Mexico’s in 1994. Panics swept Asia, including Thailand, Indonesia and Korea, in 1997 and 1998. The economies of Brazil and Russia imploded in 1998. Argentina’s followed in 2000. Roubini began studying these countries and soon identified what he saw as their common weaknesses. On the eve of the crises that befell them, he noticed, most had huge current-account deficits (meaning, basically, that they spent far more than they made), and they typically financed these deficits by borrowing from abroad in ways that exposed them to the national equivalent of bank runs. Most of these countries also had poorly regulated banking systems plagued by excessive borrowing and reckless lending. Corporate governance was often weak, with cronyism in abundance.
Roubini’s work was distinguished not only by his conclusions but also by his approach. By making extensive use of transnational comparisons and historical analogies, he was employing a subjective, nontechnical framework, the sort embraced by popular economists like the Times Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz in order to reach a nonacademic audience. Roubini takes pains to note that he remains a rigorous scholarly economist — “When I weigh evidence,” he told me, “I’m drawing on 20 years of accumulated experience using models” — but his approach is not the contemporary scholarly ideal in which an economist builds a model in order to constrain his subjective impressions and abide by a discrete set of data. As Shiller told me, “Nouriel has a different way of seeing things than most economists: he gets into everything.”
Roubini likens his style to that of a policy maker like Alan Greenspan, the former Fed chairman who was said (perhaps apocryphally) to pore over vast quantities of technical economic data while sitting in the bathtub, looking to sniff out where the economy was headed. Roubini also cites, as a more ideologically congenial example, the sweeping, cosmopolitan approach of the legendary economist John Maynard Keynes, whom Roubini, with only slight exaggeration, calls “the most brilliant economist who never wrote down an equation.” The book that Roubini ultimately wrote (with the economist Brad Setser) on the emerging market crises, “Bailouts or Bail-Ins?” contains not a single equation in its 400-plus pages.