Kingsley Amis's fearsome but funny new novel
Stanley and the Women, by Kingsley Amis. New York: Summit Books. 256 pp. $14.95. Over a year ago we heard that Kingsley Amis's new novel had been rejected by a series of publishers in New York. Already a best seller in England, ``Stanley and the Women'' was discovered to be objectionable by morally scrupulous American editors. So I had begun laughing even before I got my hands on this frightening but very funny book and started to read it, at which point I just kept on laughing.
I've stopped laughing. ``Stanley and the Women'' is more than funny. It's outrageous. Its hero comes appallingly close to perfectly fitting the stereotypical woman the feminists have been screaming about. It's completely -- totally, as we say now -- contemporary. It will definitely disturb the average reader. It did me. In brief, it may take a while for critics to learn how to talk about it, but readers will read it and be outraged, moved, entertained, provoked, tickled, and thrashed. Amis has done it again, maybe better than ever before.
If we hadn't noticed it before -- say, with ``Lucky Jim'' (1954), which is for most people Amis's best novel, or with ``Jake's Thing'' (1978), his most recent, a satire on sex therapy -- Amis is more than a novelist who makes his readers laugh. He makes them laugh at the point of view taken by the main character of his novels. Amis's sense of humor is black and essentially serious. Like Evelyn Waugh, Amis is a satirist. Like Waugh, he is also an artist.
There's a tension between the artistic and the satirical element in an author. For the artist to survive the satirist, there must be a healthy nerve of sentiment connecting the artistic conception or vision and the forms that embody them. For Waugh, that nerve may have atrophied. As for Amis, some object to the way women are treated in his novels, and I can see why. Critics have had reason to question whether Amis's willingness to exploit his own crude, vicious side would kill the artist in him.
``Stanley and the Women'' should answer that question. In the negative. True, Stanley Duke, like Jim Dixon of ``Lucky Jim,'' is not much of a hero. His second wife, Susan, tells him that he's self-aware and bright, but sometimes sentimental and silly. He's good-looking, too. On the other hand, we observe that his view of women is just an aspect of his superficial attitude toward everything. He sees things up close, or else through the lenses of tradition and prejudice. He makes no fewer than nine refere nces to various English accents in the first half of the book alone. His prejudices -- against English men and women of various classes and regions, Germans, homosexuals, Americans, Arabs, psychiatrists, Irish -- somehow go with his attachment to his fine automobile. Stanley knows a lot about cars.
Regardless of how stressful the scene, Stanley will notice the oddest things, like the fact that when the psychiatrist assigned to his son shakes her head ``in a way I thought more preoccupied than negative -- I noticed that whichever it was none of her hair moved.''
Stanley has something of the Houyhnhnm in him. (The reference to Jonathan Swift's Platonic horses of ``Gulliver's Travels'' suggests one of the directions critical discussion of this novel can go.) Solidly traditional, he will defend himself only with words. He settles things with a drink. His consistency is appalling. He appears never to have had a serious discussion with his son, whose own experience of ``the other sex,'' as Stanley calls it, is full of hurt. The questions raised by the existence of p oor Steve Duke raise more questions about Stanley and his women, questions that give the book its haunting intensity.
As a whole -- and ``Stanley and the Women'' must be judged as a whole -- crudity and sentiment are finely balanced in this book. That may make it stand out as an Amis novel. But it doesn't suggest the rare quality of the novel. ``Stanley and the Women'' is very disturbing, but thoughtfully disturbing -- disturbing in ways only a work of art can be. It reminds me of the quality Amis gets in some of his poetry, like ``The Last War'': ``Homicide, pacifist, crusader, cynic, gentile, jew/ Stagg ered about moaning, shooting into the dark./ Next day, to tidy up as usual, the sun came in/ When they and their ammunition were all used up,/ And found himself alone.''
By all accounts, a universal and fearsome scene. It may be said that ``Stanley and the Women'' leaves one with a similarly bleak feeling. And yet, because of Stanley's minutely documented complacency and prejudices, funny and irritating by turns, the novel seems to bar itself from being taken too seriously: People who take things too seriously are not to be taken too seriously.
Amis is an artist, however, and the impact of ``Stanley and the Women'' comes not from how many prejudices get aired, but from the light it sheds on the darknesses that haunt even the brightest corners of our lives. If love, marriage, and family remain connected as sources of our chief happiness -- and they do -- an old fool like Stanley may be more of a mirror of mankind than we want to admit. Still, I wasn't sure what I really thought of this novel up to the last page, but once I had turned it I k new I had just read a good and perhaps a great one.
Tom D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.
Stanley on his son I wanted to fetch him a thump that would lay him full length on the floor. . . . But instead of thumping him I shouted his name. He looked up very quickly and just for a second I saw him as he always had been before that first evening he came to the house, but then almost at once his face changed in ways I had no hope of making out and went back to being something different, more different than it had been, I thought, with a funny sort of twist to the corner of the lower lip. I told him we were off, quietl y now, and he got up straight away.