The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

I got The Buddha of Suburbia a few years ago, when I was taking a class in British Fiction at U Mass, but we didn’t actually get far enough in the syllabus to read it. I tried to read it a few months ago, but couldn’t get past the opening page. This week, while I was deep in the throes of book indecision, it caught my eye and I decided to give it another shot. Good thing for book indecision because it was surprisingly good.

This is one of those books whose back cover copy is not really an accurate description of the plot. What the marketing copy makes out to be the whole story actually takes place in the first ten pages, and the rest of the story unfolds from there. The novel follows a young boy, Karim, from the end of high school through adulthood, as he navigates family, sex, friendship, and politics in 1970s London. At the start of the book, Karim’s father, an Indian immigrant, becomes a kind of improvised guru to the needy suburban middle-aged, falls in love with a hippy, and leaves his wife. This family upset becomes the background against which Karim moves as he tries to figure out who he is and who the people are around him.

Full of bitterly funny skewerings of the art world, and the bourgeois explorations of sexuality and vice that seemingly prevailed in the 70s, Kureishi’s novel captures something a lot of other books don’t: believable and moving character development. This novel unfolds the coming of age process in the subtle, slowly-eye-opening way that people actually experience it. Karim’s relationships with the people around him, especially his own parents, change in the same slow and irreversible way they do for most people, before he even realizes it. It’s impressive, this accuracy and insight.

I suspect we were going to read this novel in my British Fiction class specifically to look at the role of Indian immigrants in postcolonial London, and being that that is my main area of study, of course I paid attention to that in my personal reading, as well. What I liked about this aspect of the novel is that no one was beating you over the head with the “this is a novel about race” cudgel. Rather, it was incorporated throughout deftly, like a string woven through the whole thing, visible only occasionally, but you know that string somehow ties the whole thing together.

The only thing that prevents me from loving this book to death is that in some areas the narrative felt too jumpy, too unsettling. You don’t yet know the characters, or understand anything about them, before Kureishi tears their lives apart. It felt jarring, and I wasn’t sure whether specific events were meant to be meaningful or whether anyone was supposed to care. And it was, at times, quite difficult to like Karim, though that’s likely meant to be the point. Some of the characters’ motivations don’t always make sense, because Kureishi doesn’t quite give you enough to work with (the strange scene in which Terry, a fellow actor, drunkenly bullies Karim into some unspecified and confusing political action for the communist/socialist party feels very unlikely and strange).

Kureishi makes up for these short comings by giving us a character that we can, perhaps, grow up a little bit with, and showing us in the end that the growing-up process is never quite over. All of this with seedy, luscious prose and a distinctive narrative voice, and you have a unique and accomplished piece of fiction, well worth reading even outside of class.

2 thoughts on “The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

  1. Eric

    I absolutely loathe “The Buddha of Suburbia.” More than loathe. There are not words to describe the revulsion on a mental and spiritual level that this book aroused within me. It is by far the worst book I’ve ever read. And this is coming from someone who’s read thousands.

    I read it about five years ago. It’s taken me that long to cool down to write this more level-headed review.

    When I first began “The Buddha of Suburbia,” this book struck me as ridiculous, if nothing else. By about page 100, when it was clear that things were not beginning to brighten, this book simply became MONOTONOUS. By page 150 I had reached the THIS AUTHOR IS SERIOUSLY DISTURBED point. By page 200, I was literally gagging and sick at heart.

    What, you may ask, provoked this response? Page upon page upon page of lovingly described ugliness and perversion, bestiality and superficiality, orgies, stupidity and sex. On and on and on and on and on. NOTHING ELSE. The characters are all the lowest, basest dregs of society, doing the worst imaginable things to each other and to themselves. The author seems to have no real rationale or purpose, other than drenching us with sex and idiocy. I see little difference between this and a porno.

    I cannot even fathom the state of mind necessary to write something like this. It must be excessively unpleasant. Diseased and repulsive. Just like this book.

    I’m usually quite understanding of books. I often display more tolerance than most people for the little idiosyncrasies that many authors have. But honestly, this book was nothing BUT one huge idiosyncrasy. The extremity to which the author took things just got under my skin. And it has an unpleasant atmosphere that I don’t like at all.

    This book is also very unoriginal and dull, arising, no doubt, from the repetition of the above-mentioned mayhem.

    Presenting sexual excess/ugliness and its consequences realistically is one thing, but this is wallowing in it, loving it, and holding it up as a wonderful experience. Never before have I encountered such an attitude taken to the extremes presented here. No matter what his stated rationale may be, the author (I hate to say it) is apparently a very sick individual, who adores and glorifies perversion and bestiality (at least at one point), wrapping himself up in a warm blanket of orgies and meaningless sweat. Absolutely sickening.

    I vowed to myself that I would finish this stupid book, and I did. I then promptly tore it in half, and then into tiny pieces, and then threw it in the garbage where it obviously originated. It is the only book I have ever deliberately damaged or mistreated in any way, and it deserved it. Ptui.

    1. lkrier Post author

      It’s been a few years since I read this book, but clearly I didn’t have the same reaction. One of my favorite things about literature is how people can take very different things from the same book.

      I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about which I could say it was “absolutely sickening.”


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