"After a bit you realize there's only one invaluable commodity. Not gold or love, but time."
How far are we willing to go to stay young? Hanif Kureishi -- acclaimed author of The Buddha of Suburbia and Intimacy -- explores the possibilities in this provocative story of an older man whose brain is surgically placed in a younger man's body by a network of underground doctors.
Adam is offered the chance to trade in his sagging flesh for a much younger and more pleasing model. He tells his wife and son that he is going on an extended vacation. He immediately embarks on an odyssey of hedonism, but soon finds himself regretting what he left behind and feeling guilt over the responsibilities he has ignored. Sinister forces pursue him, wanting possession of "his" body, and he soon finds himself with nowhere to turn.
"A fluent, socially observant writer whose sentences move with intelligence and wit" (The New York Times Book Review), Kureishi presents us with both a fantastically vivid tale and hard-hitting questions about our own relationships with our minds and bodies -- and with time that is running out.
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Hanif Kureishi won the prestigious Whitbread Prize and was twice nominated for Oscars for best original screenplay (My Beautiful Laundrette and Venus, which starred Peter O'Toole). In 2010 Kureishi received the prestigious PEN/Pinter Prize. He lives in London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
He said, "Listen: you say you can't hear well and your back hurts. Your body won't stop reminding you of your ailing existence. Would you like to do something about it?"
"This half-dead old carcass?" I said. "Sure. What?"
"How about trading it in and getting something new?"
It was an invitation I couldn't say no to, or yes, for that matter. There was certainly nothing simple or straightforward about it. When I had heard the man's proposal, although I wanted to dismiss it as madness, I couldn't stop considering it. All that night I was excited by an idea that was -- and had been for a while, now I was forced to confront it -- inevitable.
This "adventure" started with a party I didn't want to go to.
Though the late 1950s and early 1960s were supposed to be my heyday, I don't like the assault of loud music, and I have come to appreciate silence in its many varieties. I am not crazy about half-raw barbecued food either.
Want to hear about my health? I don't feel particularly ill, but I am in my mid-sixties; my bed is my boat across these final years. My knees and back give me a lot of pain. I have hemorrhoids, an ulcer, and cataracts. When I eat, it's not unusual for me to spit out bits of tooth as I go. My ears seem to lose focus as the day goes on and people have to yell into me. I don't go to parties because I don't like to stand up. If I sit down, it makes it difficult for others to speak to me. Not that I am always interested in what they have to say; and if I am bored, I don't want to hang around, which might make me seem abrupt or arrogant.
I have friends in worse shape. If you're lucky, you'll be hearing about them. I do like to drink, but I can do that at home. Fortunately, I'm a cheap drunk. A few glasses and I can understand Lacan.
My wife, Margot, has been a counselor for five years, training now to be a therapist. She listens to people for a living, in a room in the house. We have been fortunate; each of us has always envied the other's profession. She has wanted to make from within; I need to hear from without.
Our children have left home, the girl training to be a doctor and the boy working as a film editor. I guess my life has had a happy ending. When my wife, Margot, walks into a room, I want to tell her what I've been thinking, some of which I know she will attend to. Margot, though, enjoys claiming that men start to get particularly bad-tempered, pompous, and demanding in late middle age. According to her, we stop thinking that politeness matters; we forget that other people are more important than ourselves. After that, it gets worse.
I'd agree that I'm not a man who has reached some kind of Buddhist plateau. I might have some virtues, such as compassion and occasional kindness; unlike several of my friends, I've never stopped being interested in others, or in culture and politics -- in the general traffic of mankind. I have wanted to be a good enough father. Despite their necessary hatred of me at times, I enjoyed the kids and liked their company. So far, I can say I've been a tolerable husband overall. Margot claims I have always written for fame, money, and women's affection. I would have to add that I love what I do, too, and it continues to fascinate me. Through my work I think about the world, about what matters to me and to others.
Beside my numerous contradictions -- I am, I have been told, at least three different people -- I am unstable, too, lost in myself, envious, and constantly in need of reassurance. My wife says that I have crazinesses, bewildering moods and "internal disappearances" I am not even aware of. I can go into the shower as one man and emerge as another, worse, one. My pupils enlarge, I move around obsessively, I yell and stamp my feet. A few words of criticism and I can bear a grudge for three days at a time, convinced she is plotting against me. None of this has diminished, despite years of self-analysis, therapy, and "writing as healing," as some of my students used to call the attempt to make art. Nothing has cured me of myself, of the self I cling to. If you asked me, I would probably say that my problems are myself; my life is my dilemmas. I'd better enjoy them, then.
I wouldn't have considered attending this party if Margot hadn't gone out to dinner with a group of women friends, and if I hadn't envied what I saw as the intimacy and urgency of their conversation, their pleasure in one another. Men can't be so direct, it seems to me.
But if I stay in alone now, after an hour I am walking about picking things up, putting them down, and then searching everywhere for them. I no longer believe or hope that book knowledge will satisfy or even entertain me, and if I watch TV for too long I begin to feel hollow. How out of the world I already believe myself to be! I am no longer familiar with the pop stars, actors, or serials on TV. I'm never certain who the pornographic boy and girl bodies belong to. It is like trying to take part in a conversation of which I can only grasp a fraction. As for the politicians, I can barely make out which side they are on. My age, education, and experience seem to be no advantage. I imagine that to participate in the world with curiosity and pleasure, to see the point of what is going on, you have to be young and uninformed. Do I want to participate?
On this particular evening, with some semi-senile vacillation and nothing better to do, I showered, put on a white shirt, opened the front door, and trotted out. It was the height of summer and the streets were baking. Although I have lived in London since I was a student, when I open my front door today I am still excited by the thought of what I might see or hear, and by who I might run into and be made to think about. London seems no longer part of Britain -- in my view, a dreary, narrow place full of fields, boarded-up shops, and cities trying to imitate London -- but has developed into a semi-independent city-state, like New York, and has begun to come to terms with the importance of gratification. On the other hand, I had been discussing with Margot the fact that it was impossible to get to the end of the street without people stopping you to ask for money. Normally, I looked so shambolic myself the beggars lost hope even as they held out their hands.
It was a theater party, given by a friend, a director who also teaches. Some of her drama school pupils would be there, as well as the usual crowd, my friends and acquaintances, those who were still actively alive, not in hospital or away for the summer.
As my doctor had instructed me to take exercise, and still hoping I had the energy of a young man, I decided to walk from west London to the party. After about forty-five minutes I was breathless and feeble. There were no taxis around and I felt stranded on the dusty, mostly deserted streets. I wanted to sit down in a shaded park, but doubted whether I'd be able to get up again, and there was no one to help me. Many of the boozers I'd have dropped into for a pint of bitter and a read of the evening paper, full of local semi-derelicts escaping their families -- alcoholics, they'd be called, now everyone has been pathologized -- had become bars, bursting with hyperactive young people. I wouldn't have attempted to get past the huge doormen. At times, London appeared to be a city occupied by cameras and security people; you couldn't go through a door without being strip-searched or having your shoes and pockets examined, and all for your own good, though it seemed neither safer nor more dangerous than before. There was no possibility of engaging in those awful pub conversations with wretched strangers which connected you to the impressive singularity of other people's lives. The elderly seem to have been swept from the streets; the young appear to have wires coming out of their heads, supplying either music, voices on the phone, or the electricity that makes them move.
Yet I've always walked around London in the afternoons and evenings. These are relatively long distances, and I look at shops, obscure theaters, and strange museums, otherwise my body feels clogged up after a morning's desk work.
The party was held not in my friend's flat but in her rich brother's place, which turned out to be one of those five-floor, wide stucco houses near the zoo.
When at last I got to the door, a handful of kids in their twenties turned up at the same time.
"It's you," said one, staring. "We're doing you. You're on the syllabus."
"I hope I'm not causing you too much discomfort," I replied.
"We wondered if you might tell us what you were trying to do with -- "
"I wish I could remember," I said. "Sorry."
"We heard you were sour and cynical," murmured another, adding, "and you don't look anything like your picture on the back of your books."
My friend whose party it was came to the door, took my arm, and led me through the house. Perhaps she thought I might run away. The truth is, these parties make me as anxious now as they did when I was twenty-five. What's worse is knowing that these terrors, destructive of one's pleasures as they are, are not only generated by one's own mind but are still inexplicable. As you age, the source of your convolutedly self-stymieing behavior seems almost beyond reach in the past; why, now, would you want to untangle it?
"Don't you just hate the young beautiful ones with their vanity and sentences beginning with the words 'when I left Oxford' or 'RADA'?" she said, getting me a drink. "But they're a necessity at any good party. A necessity anywhere anyone fancies a fuck, wouldn't you say?"
"Not that they'd want either of us too close to them," I said.
"Oh, I don't know," she said.
She took me out into the garden, where most people had gathered. It was surprisingly large, with both open and wooded areas, and I couldn't see the limits of it. Parts were lit by lanterns hung from trees; other areas were invitingly dark. There was a jazz combo, food, animated conversation, and everyone in minimal summer clothing.
I had fetched some food and a drink and was looking for a place to sit when my friend approached me again.
"Adam," she said. "Now, don't make a fuss, dear."
"What is it?"
My heart always sinks when I hear the words "there's someone who wants to meet you."
"Who is it?"
I sighed inwardly, and, no doubt, outwardly, when it turned out to be a young man at drama school, a tyro actor. He was standing behind her.
"Would you mind if I sat with you for a bit?" he said. He was going to ask me for a job, I knew it. "Don't worry, I don't want work."
I laughed. "Let's find a bench."
I wouldn't be curmudgeonly on such a delightful evening. Why shouldn't I listen to an actor? My life has been spent with those who transform themselves in the dark and make a living by calculating the effect they have on others.
My friend, seeing we were okay, left us.
I said, "I can't stand up for long."
"May I ask why?"
"A back problem. Only age, in other words."
He smiled and pointed. "There's a nice spot over there."
We walked through the garden to a bench surrounded by bushes where we could look out on the rest of the party.
"Ralph," he said. I put down my food and we shook hands. He was a beautiful young man, tall, handsome, and confident, without seeming immodest. "I know who you are. Before we talk, let me get us more champagne."
Whether it was the influence of Ralph, or the luminous, almost supernatural quality that the night seemed to have, I couldn't help noticing how well groomed everyone seemed, particularly the pierced, tattooed young men, as decorated as a jeweler's window, with their hair dyed in contrasting colors. Apart from the gym, these boys must have kept fit twisting and untwisting numerous jars, tubs, and bottles. They dressed to show off their bodies rather than their clothes.
One of the pleasures of being a man has been that of watching women dress and undress, paint and unpaint. When it comes to their bodies, women believe they're wearing the inside on the outside. However, the scale of the upkeep, the shop scouring and forethought, the possibilities of judgment, criticism, and sartorial inaccuracy as, in contrast, the man splashes water on his face and steps without fear into whatever he can find at the end of the bed and then out into the street, have never been enviable to me.
When Ralph returned and I busied myself eating and looking, he praised my work with enthusiasm and, more important, with extensive knowledge, even of its obscurer aspects. He'd seen the films I'd written and many productions of my numerous plays. He'd read my essays, reviews, and recently published memoirs, Too Late. (What a dismal business that final addition and subtraction had been, like writing an interminable will, and nothing to be done about any of it, except to turn and torture it in the hope of a more favorable outlook.) He knew my work well; it seemed to have meant a lot to him. Praise can be a trial; I endured it.
I was about to go to the trouble of standing up to fetch more food when Ralph mentioned an actor who'd played a small part in one of my plays in the early 1970s, and had died of leukemia soon after.
"Extraordinary actor," he said. "With a melancholy we all identified with."
"He was a good friend," I said. "But you wouldn't remember his performance."
"But I do."
"How old were you, four?"
"I was right there. In the stalls. I always had the best seats."
I studied his face as best I could in the available light. There was no doubt that he was in his early twenties.
"You must be mistaken," I said. "Is it what you heard? I've been spending time with a friend, someone I consider Britain's finest postwar director. Where is his work now? There can be no record of how it felt to watch a particular production. Even a film of it will yield no idea of the atmosphere, the size, the feeling of the work. Mind you," I added, "there are plenty of directors who'd admit that that was a mercy."
He interrupted. "I was there, and I wasn't a kid. Adam, do you have a little more time?"
I looked about, recognizing many familiar faces, some as wrinkled as old penises. I'd worked and argued with some of these people for more than thirty years. These days, when we met it was less an excited human exchange than a litany of decline; no one would put on our work, and if they did it wasn't sufficiently praised. Such bitterness, more than we were entitled to, was enervating. Or we would talk of grandchildren, hospitals, funerals and memorial services, saying how much we missed so-and-so, wondering, all the while, who would be next, when it would be our turn.
"Okay," I said. "Why would I be in a hurry? I was only thinking recently that after a certain age one always seems to be about to go to bed. But it's a relief to be done with success. I can lie down with the electric blanket on, listening to opera and reading badly. What a luxury reading badly can be, or doing anything badly for that matter
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