THE LAST WORD, by Hanif Kureishi, Scribner, 294 pp., $25.
Writers often insist that their personal lives don't matter, only their books. Human curiosity being what it is, however, the public begs to differ. What would be truly strange -- in fact, downright inhuman -- would be not to care what's behind the curtain, whether the writer is J.D. Salinger or Harper Lee.
Contemporary literary biography has ripped aside the veil, revealing portraits as fractured and alarming as a cubist Picasso. All the dark undergrowth of the human soul is exposed to view, from political hypocrisy to sexual misadventure to drug addiction, and more. Shock is the name of the game.
When the biographer seeks cooperation from a living subject, he's the one subject to possible mischief. Will the author steer his stalker away from any misdeeds, or shamelessly wallow in the mire? Is a whitewash the price of access?
In his latest book, Hanif Kureishi, British novelist ("The Buddha of Suburbia") and screenwriter ("My Beautiful Laundrette"), explores all these issues while having a grand old time. "The Last Word" is a hoot, a farcical take on the lit'ry life as dreamed up by Monty Python. Kureishi's antic glee spares no one, not author, not biographer, not publisher, nor various hangers-on.
Rob Deveraux is the devilish London publishing maverick who sets this wacky circus in motion. He recruits Harry Johnson, an ambitious thirty-something with one biography under his belt, to tell the inside story of Mamoon Azam, an aging curmudgeonly British-Indian novelist, playwright and essayist. Think V.S. Naipaul, the real-life Nobel Prize-winner and certified ultraconservative.
As Rob says of Mamoon, he believed that "domination, particularly by the educated, informed, and intelligent -- people, oddly, who resembled himself -- was preferable to universal stupidity, or even democracy." And Rob's advice to Harry? Mamoon should be "dead meat on the skewer of your insight. That's where the public like their artists -- exposed."
Once Harry settles in at Prospects House, Mamoon's inner sanctum in the English countryside, Mamoon and his second wife, Liana, a spirited Italian 20 years his junior, alternately cajole and bully the younger writer. Wary of his intrusions -- they hope to keep scandal to a minimum -- they nonetheless need the money that renewed publicity and book sales will yield.
Before Mamoon deigns to grant any interviews, however, Harry must serve time as odd-job man and tennis coach. Eventually, the biographer does gain access to the diaries of Mamoon's first wife and then travels to America to interview his former mistress. Mamoon dismisses these long-suffering muses with an artist's pitiless self-justification: "It is hard work, betraying others in order not to betray oneself."
Soon enough, a mother-daughter cook-housekeeper duo and Harry's fiancee, Alice, a fashionista airhead, are crammed into the household. Kureishi spins this merry-go-round with joyous abandon. Sexual desire has rarely looked sillier.
Of course, these characters are cartoons. The novel is a farce, after all. But what delicious cartoons they are. What elevates them into the realm of wit is Kureishi's bracing dialogue, gilding the outrageous with merriment. Here's Harry, speaking to Alice about the household help: "I haven't lifted a finger all the time I've been here. I've found the indolence utterly enervating."
One way that writers can refuse to take themselves too seriously is to write books like "The Last Word." It's a close cousin to Michael Chabon's "Wonder Boys" and David Lodge's "Small World." The first channels a fiction-writing workshop, the other literary academics. Their common theme: egghead nuttiness.
Given the title of Kureishi's novel, you know he's saving a surprise for the end. And I've promised not to tell.