In Hanif Kureishi’s brief and caustic novella The Nothing, Waldo is a celebrated filmmaker who is confined to his apartment because of illness and advancing age.
He has lately begun to suspect that his wife Zee, younger by 22 years, has begun an affair with Eddie, “more than an acquaintance and less than a friend for over thirty years”. This is the story of Waldo’s descent into paranoia, obsession, and sexual jealousy.
Eddie is a scamp, an itinerant shifty dude who has done some film journalism and written about Waldo. Currently, because of money troubles, he is largely living with Waldo and Zee on the pretext of assisting Zee with caring for Waldo. And care for Waldo he does; he has even given the old man a bath.
Waldo has tolerated him and enjoyed his company all these years, to an extent, because Eddie has interesting things to say about movies and “adores the famous” and is a “dirty-minded raconteur” – in fact, Waldo describes in detail why he tolerates Eddie and keeps him around, but his exact words cannot be reproduced here.
It is that kind of a book. It’s always a pleasure to read Kureishi, and this is shot through with vivid descriptions and black humour on every page.
It’s obnoxious, clever, and bawdy, much like its main character. The whole novel is told from Waldo’s extremely graphic and increasingly paranoid first person point of view. As Waldo says of his detailed, obsessive fantasies, “I like to think I can see it. I was always a camera”. The reader is reminded that “the imagination is the most dangerous place on earth”.
A glimpse into Waldo’s character can be seen in this nugget: “If you’ve once been attractive, desirable, and charismatic, with a good body, you never forget it. Intelligence and effort can be no compensation for ugliness. Beauty is the only thing, it can’t be bought, and the beautiful are the truly entitled. However you end up, you live your whole life as a member of an exclusive club. You never stop pitying the less blessed. Filth like Eddie.”
If this makes you want to suffocate him with a pillow, you wouldn’t be the first in line. Certainly his wife is tempted to do the same. But as Waldo reveals more of himself throughout the book, one starts to wonder if all this philosophising is just a cover for an underlying fear: the slow, creeping realisation by someone on their death bed that all that they hold dear might not be what makes the world go around.
If beauty and desirability are the true forms of entitlement and the ugly are to be pitied by someone who has always had both, then what makes an average-looking man like Eddie such a hit with the ladies, even his own wife?
Waldo would certainly bristle if you called him a misogynist; he might counter that he does in fact love women, and would probably privately write you off as a prudish, repressed feminist, which in turn would affirm the fact. That’s the kind of man Waldo is.
He does love women, but only if they’re pleasing to his eye and sexually alluring. If they’re not, they’re dispensed with in one sentence, like Maria, “the kind Brazilian maid”.
Waldo’s appreciation of his friend Anita, one of the actresses he has directed, is summed up in an assessment of a physical feature of hers that also cannot be reproduced here.
If you love sharp, snappy writing with a keen sense of rhythm and pacing, this book has it. Waldo’s bon mots are clever and provoking – but the whole thing can often feel like one giant quip.
And that might be the problem with the book: while Kureishi has established an incredibly vital sense of character through Waldo’s voice, there’s never a sense that anything is truly at stake.
The obsession with his wife stays on the surface, though when Waldo tries to contextualise how a rogue like him fell in love with this one deserving woman, it sounds a bit hokey, like something he’s memorised from a Hallmark card.
Thus one isn’t quite sure what was Kureishi’s intention in this character study. Perhaps a man who values looks, charm, sexual allure, and glamour like Waldo can always only skate on the surface.
As always, I was left wondering about the women in the story, whom I can only see through one man’s eyes. I want to know more about them and why they are this way.
Seen by Waldo, Zee veers from petulant to crazed and fulfils all the stereotypes about attractive women who are constantly threatened by the presence of women who are considered more attractive. Yet she is fascinating; Kureishi gives her some amazing lines.
The book ends abruptly, with a bleak solution. Waldo is no fool and he hasn’t had the wool pulled over his eyes, but things have certainly gone his way in a sense.
Waldo’s voice is memorable and I will probably think about his pitiful masculine ways for some time.
“You have savage eyes,” Zee tells her director husband, and the same could be said of the male gaze in general, as well as of Kureishi’s. Whether or not you enjoy this book depends quite a bit on how much of this savagery you are willing to sit through.
Author: Hanif Kureishi
Publisher: Faber & Faber, contemporary fiction