EN 4262 The Body Seminar Notes

Hanif Kureishi’s 2002 novel The Body on the face of it does not appear to be what we would call an Indian Diasporic novel (apart from the fact that it is written by a diasporic Indian), and might not even appear to belong on this module.  In a direct and overt way of reading, it probably does not belong.  (Even Kureishi’s other works, which are very different from Body, would have made a better fit: My Beautiful Laundrette which is about inter-racial and gay relations; or Buddha of Suburbia, which has issues of religion, inter-racial marriage; or The Black Album, about inter-racial violence and Asian youth identity).  However, in a symbolic, allegorical and unconscious way, this novel is entirely driven by considerations of race, transnationalism, inequality, discrimination – many of the major issues that have been driving our reading of the other novels on this module.

             In that sense, Body can be classified together with something like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (NLMG), and possibly Remains of the Day, or Unconsoled.  Perhaps this is simply the problem of the Asian diasporic writer, who either writes explicitly racialised novels (like Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Timothy Mo), or else writes something which does not feature an Asian protagonist or the typical Asian issues (of homeland longing, family tensions, money and business problems, religious values etc), yet still gets read as an “Asian” novel.  There may indeed be truth in the accusations that Ishiguro (in his non-Japan novels) writes in “whiteface” (Sheng-mei Ma, The Deathly Embrace: Orientalism and Asian American Identity) – i.e. a white exterior covering an Asian identity and ethos – and that this is not merely a problem of readers’ expectations of all Asian writers.

             Firstly, we can argue from the centrality of a “racial unconscious” in most of human activity, which also creeps into cultural documents even when race is not the explicit or intended theme.  EPL or Serie A soccer should not be about race, yet racial taunts still periodically creep into fan and player behavior, to the (unwarranted) “shock” and “surprise” of officials and disciplinary bodies.  In a lot of futurist and tech-heavy speculative fiction, where the markers of race (skin colour, socio-economic and cultural disadvantages, DNA characteristics) can presumably be corrected, race still features as prominent determining factors: Blackness in Richard K. Morgan’s Black Man, Arab culture in Frank Herbert’s Dune, Japaneseness/East Asianness in William Gibson’s “Sprawl” novels or Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, Indianness in Ian McDonald’s Cyberabad Days or River of Gods.  Promotions, firings, marriages, friendships, often have some racial basis to them, even when it is not apparent or easily discernible; and even affirmative action is of course a form of race consciousness.  There is thus some justification for applying a kind of “hermeneutics of suspicion” in reading a racialised unconscious in most if not all cultural documents, although it may be more remunerative an interpretative strategy with some particular texts.

             Secondly, there are a lot of instructive and useful parallels between Body and our other texts: there are one or two small explicit references to race-markers (“we enjoyed them looking at us – those, that is, who didn’t regard us dark-skinners with fear and contempt,” p. 61) that may be hints or clues as to how to read the novel overall.  As with Ishiguro’s NLMG, in Body there is a general trope of bodily exploitation, a commodification of bodies that seems inescapable and non-negotiable, that (I would suggest) inevitably invokes issues of the abjection of foreign/racialised labourers that we see in CC, TWT, and other such novels.  The central device – of a white protagonist who lives for a while in an explicitly racialised body (whose previous owner happened to be gay) – bears similarity to the “passing” that we see in Londonstani and the “body snatching” that we see in CC (and also explores sexual differences and prejudices as a theme parallel to racial difference/prejudice).  The trope of travel, of moving to and from “home” and across border – both literally (as Leo wanders through Europe) and metaphorically (the “home” of his old body and life) – inevitably invokes the phenomenon of diasporas (albeit not necessarily Asian), of the diasporic individual’s movement out of “home” and yet constant consciousness of it, the perpetual question of “which is better?” (India or Britain, Singapore or Australia, Vietnam or Singapore).

             Thus we have evidence (apart from Kureishi’s own biographical background, and the overt British Asian themes in many of his other works) to read Body as a symbolic, allegorical treatment of the diasporic experience.  The somewhat surreal, fantastical nature of Body is not much different from CC, or even parts of Londonstani. As has often been pointed out, surreal or magic realist writing can have more of a pointed critique of socio-political reality than can realist fiction (which is often restricted by the particulars of realism and reality – names changed to protect the innocent, actual historical events etc).


Reading The Body: Genre, Plot, Archetype

In some ways this is a simpler narrative structure than GST, TWT and perhaps even Londonstani.  A short tale (more a novella or longish short story than true novel), not much by way of traditional characterization, first person throughout, with a kind of quasi-epic journey (6 months, self-discovery, home-away-(nearly) home). 

             However, identifying its literary kin might open up some of the textual problems for greater critical leverage.  There is the obvious influence of the mystery-adventure story, short stories or novellas very much structured around an individual’s encounter with and manoeuver through mysterious circumstances, told through a first-person narrative or else a third-person voice that closely identifies with and sees through the eyes of the main protagonist/agent.  Think of the stories of G. K. Chesterton, Algernon Blackwood, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe.  More recent versions might be the short stories of Philip K. Dick (speculative fiction), or Zulfikar Ghose (Asian diasporic magic realism) – or even CC as seen from just Murugan’s perspective, or Antar’s, without the narrative jumps and layerings.  An individual encounters a hidden world/society/place/entity, often the protagonist is male and there is a female love interest or protégé (literally a protected person), and the individual must try as much to just survive the ordeal as to try to understand or solve the mystery of the hidden realm.  Endings are often ambivalent and/or ambiguous, and often the hidden realm/circumstances stay hidden or mysterious. 

             The cultural history of the mystery-adventure story, arising from the late 19th C onwards, suggests its entanglement with modernity, capitalism, urbanism, transnationalism, technology.  New/covert societies or groups seems the logical theme for a society in constant transition, with increasing diversity, pluralism of politics/economics and causes.  Urban sprawl and crowdedness give rise to increasing anxieties about “hidden” and mysterious neighbourhoods/buildings and what they might contain.  Capitalism creates wealth divides and mutual mistrust (a sense of exploitative elites on the one hand, and depraved abjects on the other), while market society creates increasing abstraction of human relations, the dehumanization of humans.

             It then becomes quite easy and logical for the mystery-adventure story to become used in transnational contexts.  Transnationalism, from at least the early era of exploration in the 16th C onwards, brings the exotic and unknown into proximity and contact – think of Tempest and the sailors’ plans to export and exhibit Caliban, and the actual exhibits and shows of the 17th and 18th C in Europe, from which we get the term “monster” (Latin “monstrare,” to show or exhibit).  The transnational mystery-adventure novel heightens the strangeness, dis-ease and mystery of “Other” cultures, persons, circumstances, taking it out of the realm of realist social interactions, into that of the symbolic, mysterious, unresolved.

             One key feature of the mystery-adventure novel, which certainly applies to Body, is that by virtue of being mysterious and cryptic, in the final analysis it is not only the “Other” that is questioned (who is/was “Mark”?  What kind of life did he lead?  Who is Matte?  What are we to make of this shadowy circle of “Newbodies”?), but also the self.  Adam’s dilemma (and the name seems deliberately primal, representative – in Hebrew, “Adam” means “man” – “mankind”?), by the end of the tale, is: what does it mean to be “me”?  Is it my body?  My “corpus” (another body) of work?  Money or fame?  My family?  Taking his “holiday” in another body, with every intention of returning to his own body, Adam realizes how insecure his identity really is, even with his wife:

How many times can you have the ‘same’ conversation?  But the past was no more inert than the present: there were different tones, angles, details.  She mentioned people I’d never heard of; she talked about a lover she’d cared for more than she’d previously admitted. (p. 137)

The ending – in a sense a non-ending, irresolute, answering nothing – is thus not entirely unexpected:

I was a stranger on the earth, a nobody with nothing, belonging nowhere, a body alone, condemned to begin again, in the nightmare of eternal life (p. 149)

Note the resonances with CC’s ending: another fantasy of eternal life, another consequently rootless and displaced existence.  Starting out as a famous white MC British man, he ends up in a position analogous to that of a (racialised) migrant worker, analogous to the characters we see in CC.

             The ending (“stranger” – shades of Camus’ “etranger,” “belonging nowhere”) also points to the highly existentialist temper of Body – but then, there is an inherently existentialist temper in a lot of mystery-adventure novels.  Again, this may be due to the common provenance or impetus for both the mystery story and the existentialist one – modernity, the increasingly abstracting and alienating effect of capitalism, market society, urbanism, globalization.  Some existentialist-like novels are really also mystery-adventure novels, like Ishiguro’s Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans, or many of Murakami’s novels, or much of Kafka for that matter. 

             Body, in its compact, primal/reduced and symbolic form, its invocation of the mystery story through its plot, its technological premise, its subtly racialised elements, and the language and narrative form of existentialism, brings together a number of different but related genres, centering on the broad and fundamental question of identity in the modern, globalized world.


Bodies and Organs: Migration and Capitalism

Although not primarily about abject transnational labourers (CC seems to be more focused on that, certainly other Ghosh novels like Circle of Reason), Body does raise issues of capitalism and transnationalism that invoke issues of transnational bodies (even the novel’s title is suggestive in this vein). 

             Firstly, the “Newbody”-“Oldbody,” rich-poor divide is prominent, and evocative of global capital’s persistent problem of wealth inequality.  (The wealth divide and oft-discussed Gini co-efficient is not merely an intra-national problem, but an international one, in at least two senses: firstly, there is an international divide of rich and poor nations that is in many ways more significant than any intra-national divide.  The intra-national divide may be more in-your-face in a daily manner, but the international one is the basis of exploitative and hardship labour flows, from countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, to countries like Saudi Arabia, Singapore, America, the U.K.  This labour flow separates families, causes other forms of denigration and hardship, and sometimes even disability and loss of life.  Secondly, the intra-national wealth divide is really aligned along that international one: the wealthy citizens of practically every country, are also the cosmopolitan elites who can essentially uproot and move (almost) anywhere else in the world.  The underclasses in every country are the ones with no choice, and if they move transnationally, do so under duress and in desperation).

             Adam, protestations notwithstanding, is essentially a cosmopolitan elite: if not filthy rich, he has means, and with his fame, his whiteness and his social and cultural capital, has various doors opened for him.  He can afford the operation, he has the connections to be admitted into this elite and exclusive circle (he first hears about it because Ralph, another rich newbody, “wants to meet” him).  Mark is another story: despite possessing a treasure in a body that is the envy and object of desire of many (he had once been a model), and despite the fact that we are not told a huge amount about him, he is representative of a distinct underclass.  In New York, his “mental state hadn’t been good,” and in the past he had had to “do the other thing…for money,” something which had been “driving you crazy” (p. 49) – possibly prostitution, although it could have been anything demeaning and arduous.  Mark may have “snuffed himself out,” and at any rate, like the other bodies that come into the market, is likely to “have died in some grisly fashion” (p. 51).  As Ralph says,

“No young death is a relief.  The whole world works by exploitation.  We all know the clothes we wear, the food, it’s packed by Third World peasants.” (pp. 51-52).

“Your man had something like clinical depression.  Obviously a lot of young people suffer from it.  They can’t get the help they need.  Even in the long run they don’t come round.  Antidepressants, therapy, all that, it never works.  They’re never going to be doers and getters like us, man.  Better to be rid of them altogether and let the healthy ones live.” (pp. 52-53).


Kureishi’s imagining of global exploitation is not simplistic or predictable, and Adam doesn’t choose a “black body,” even though there are “a few of those” to choose from (p. 26).  No Indian farmboy or poor Filipina, Mark is from Los Angeles, has a very desirable body, is “neither white nor dark but lightly toasted…I would, at last, have the body of an Italian footballer” (p. 27).  There is enough there to suggest some racial discrimination (some dark colouring, obvious from the responses of others when he hangs out with the Algerian friend, p. 61; and Mark could well be someone of Mexican or Latino descent, from Los Angeles, which in some ways is part of a well-known geopolitics of discrimination).  But if Mark is “marked” (as symbolic a name, in its own way, as Adam’s), it is not with the predictable markers of global abjectness.  But then such markers are not always obvious any more: Raj Rajaratnam of the Galleon group may not look like a global elite, but was a billionaire investor until arrested for insider trading.  Polish or Czech migrant workers in London may on first glance pass for MC tourists, but many are in menial jobs on tenuous financial/visa/health grounds. 

             Body is interested in exploitation, in global elites and their dealings with global abjects, not necessarily in the obvious and predictable ways, but nevertheless with an obvious interest in the real economic bases of that exploitation.  As Ralph points out, in the final analysis it’s about those who can generate wealth (the “doers and getters” of the new world order, wherever they come from) and those who can’t (the uneducated, mentally ill, with low cultural capital – again, wherever they come from).  Perhaps the fact that Body doesn’t use a predictable abject (rural Indian, Filipina) makes us re-consider and critically broaden the notion of the global abject – bringing in the kind of semiotic construction of “castes” that Baudrillard taks about.

             As “Leo,” the protagonist shows us the perpetuation of exploitation, its transnational nature, the shadowy world of those who cross borders without the privilege of wealth and socio-cultural capital (fame, connections, education etc).  Intentionally or not, when Adam becomes “Leo” (in Mark’s body), he crosses a socio-cultural divide, he “passes” (just as Jas does in Londonstani), effectively living as one of the transnational underclass.  He does odd jobs, never staying put (out of his own will, rather than because he lacks a stable job or visa), is often in a dependent or put-upon position (in Rome he becomes an assistant to a “British hack” who wants to lick his ears – “I was his bauble or pornography,” p. 62; working as a club “picker” in Vienna; as a gigolo to an American heiress in Italy; as a roadie to young filmmakers in Switzerland; a kind of drug-and-sex-fuelled cruiser; a handyman and gigolo at a spiritual centre in Greece.  Apart from the fact of his background (as the white MC Adam) and that he chooses to wander rather than being forced to do so, his life closely resembles that of a transnational worker, a bricoleur without resources, making his way in the global world. 


Sexuality Sans Frontieres: Gender, Sexuality, Prostitution, Pornography

One of the main commodities Leo has, as the novel’s title points out, is his body.  This, and his desultory career, plus the mad chase for his body near the end of the novel, points to the hierarchy of attributes in globalization: mental attributes (those of financiers, CEOs, highly talented creative people) tend to be able to command more money and are thus more desirable.  Physical attributes can also be highly valued in the world stage, but only for the most exceptional, and only (usually) when paired with talents and attributes that are not merely/purely bodily: athletic reflexes, acting ability, even the attitude and persona of supermodels.  The contrast is particularly marked (pun intended) because Adam goes from someone more or less in the elite category (a well-known writer, recognized and known to many) to someone in the low category (a good-looking guy and sometime model/singer, but clearly without the added talents to become a successful model or artiste).  The title of the novel, and Leo’s career, thus calls attention to what happens to merely a “body” in the global world.

             The answer, of course, is it becomes a sexualized commodity.  Kureishi is very interested in exploring sexuality (heterosexual, homosexual, interracial), as he does in most of his other works.  In most cases, sexual exploration is seen as part of the characterization of individuals in an identity crisis, whether due to middle life, puberty, cultural dislocation in transnational contexts, etc.  In some sense, sexual experimentation is the response of Kureishi’s characters to the same condition (cultural dislocation and identity crisis) facing Malkani’s characters (and who respond with hyper-masculinity).  Body adds another parameter to that sexual experimentation, by reducing it to a bodily response, and making that body (in some sense) a transnational commodity. 

              In so doing, he evokes elements that may not be present or foregrounded in his other explorations of sexuality in other novels: elements of human sexual trafficking, transnational abjects and illegals forced to resort to prostitution in order to survive, the recruitment of poor young people (mostly women, occasionally men) from poorer countries to work in the porn industry, etc.  The “body” in question in the novel is at one level a representation of trafficked sexualized bodies, and the novel ticks all the boxes in this regard: Mark/Leo is a male prostitute, gigolo, engages (actually or symbolically) in the “machine” of pornography, is witness to or participant in drug-fuelled orgies, etc.  Even his initial choice of body is sexually-charged: “with a fine, thick penis and heavy balls.”  This charging of the body with heavily sexualized elements is shared by all those around him: Ralph whose first Newbody encounter is with a “Russian girl,” the American heiress and British “hack” who literally rent Mark/Leo’s body (and probably others as well), Patricia who exploits him, Matte who uses his boat for drugs and orgies and wants to become a kind of “pimp” for his brother (buying the Mark body).

             The “body” depicted in this novel is thus in many ways a literalisation of D and G’s “body without organs” – smoothly abstracted, purely commodified, treated so that it can smoothly transition from owner to owner, used by men and women of different nationalities, in different countries.  The tragedy of Leo is thus of being a personality – experienced, possessing individuality and cultural capital, awareness – within a body without organs.  In other words, his problem is that he is not “bodily” enough, not able to live merely at the bodily level of the mindless and personality-less transnational bodies.  Nor, however, is he willing or able to live in the consciousness of the elite exploiters.

             Trapped between exploiter and exploited, elite and abject, Leo becomes the representative consciousness that alone can see and critique this form of globalization.  In his own way, he is a picaro or outsider – ironically not because he is a rogue who (in those 18th C novels) did not belong to the proper MC world, but because he cannot or will not be a part of the cycle of exploitation that seems to characterize our globalized world.