Hanif Kureishi has the knack of whipping up media interest in his novels long before they hit the bookshelves (and in this case, apparently, before he'd finished writing).
Controversy sells books and there are at least two potential literary spats brewing in The Last Word. Is it based perilously closely to the life of VS Naipaul and that writer's relationship with his biographer? And has Kureishi exploited his own life and family once again? (Intimacy and The Buddha Of Suburbia pulled the same trick, provoking his sister, among others, to rail against him airing dirty family laundry in public, and thereby prompting more column inches).
In The Last Word, Harry is a young unpublished writer somewhat implausibly commissioned to write the biography of elderly Indian-born literary star Mamoon Azam. From then on everything is increasingly implausible. Kureishi creates a dystopian England in the tradition of Swift and Hogarth and not a million miles from The League Of Gentlemen. The nearest town to Mamoon's country pile is inhabited entirely by racist thugs, inebriated single mums and buxom wenches sitting in grubby bars waiting for men like Harry to come along and have their way with them. Ingerland, as one character has it. Does Kureishi's gift for publicity extend to timing his novel's release with the hype around Channel 4's Benefits Street?
In Mamoon's rustic retreat there are more Little Britain characters: Ruth the alcoholic servant; Scott, her tattooed BNP son; and Julia, who beds floppy-haired Harry the minute he gets there. Liana is Mamoon's Italian third wife, all heaving bosom and Latin longing. It's terrific knockabout fun. But is it anything more than that?
Much of the novel is played out in Harry's interviews with Mamoon. The great man is, we are told, "a maker of worlds" and "a teller of important truths", but we never get any sense of this. What were these worlds he created, what truths did he impart? When we do get snippets of his writing, they're from his essays. Calculated to annoy and confuse, Mamoon declares his love for Mrs Thatcher and is snooty about other Asians and blacks.
Mostly Harry and Mamoon talk about sex. Harry is the only one who ever gets any and Kureishi, perhaps oddly for a man who began his career writing erotica, closes the bedroom door firmly. He much prefers the boys' boasting, trading vulgarities and fantasies.
But the more extravagant The Last Word gets, the more you suspect that something else is indeed going on under the surface; that perhaps it is only a matter of perspective that makes it far-fetched. If you lived in the metropolitan literary bubble, the world might seem a bit like this. Fatuous tiffs between great but vain maestros (I interviewed Naipaul just after he had been knighted. He requested that I call him Sir Vidia on air. I didn't call him anything for the entire broadcast); academics and wannabes more interested in dissecting a writer's life than his work.
The rise of Ukip in the south suggests Ingerland may exist. Hapless Harry's life is one enormous disconnect from the world around him. He complains of poverty, but it's the kind of poverty that only kicks in after buying his girlfriend designer clothes, trips to Paris on a whim and whingeing about his house in not trendy enough Acton. Kureishi's farce totters on the crumbling foundations of Broken Britain.
This is a world where the literati sneer at "minor poets"; where the only measures of artistic success are fame and inflated advances. Amid Mamoon's sexist and phobic outbursts, calculated to generate heat not light, he occasionally weeps for his contaminated world and trade: "these days there were more writers than readers. Everyone was speaking while nobody heard, as in an asylum. The only books people read were diet books, cookery books or exercise books. People didn't want to improve the world, they only wanted better bodies."
Writing is the devil, Kureishi says here. The Last Word has devilry in abundance. Swiftian and Hogarthian, this would be gloomy reading, a tale of shattered communities and the imagination monetised, were it not for the delicious wickedness of the lampooning. Ignore the empty controversies, and laugh at the nightmare of it all.