Kingsley Amis’s fiction is characterized by a recurring preoccupation with certain themes and concepts, with certain basic human experiences, attitudes, and perceptions. These persistent themes are treated with enormous variety, however, particularly in Amis’s novels that draw on theconventions of genre fiction—the mystery, the spy thriller, the ghost story, and so on. Of the more than twenty novels Amis published, his development as a seriocomic novelist is especially apparent in Lucky Jim, Take a Girl Like You, The Anti-Death League, The Green Man, The Old Devils, The Folks That Live on the Hill, and The Russian Girl, his most substantial and complex works, each of which is representative of a specific stage in his career. All these novels are set in contemporary England. Drawing on a variety of traditional techniques of good storytelling—good and bad characters, simple irony, straightforward plot structure, clear point of view—they restate, in a variety of ways, the traditional pattern of tragedy: A man, divided and complex, vulnerable both to the world and to himself, is forced to make choices that will determine his destiny. Built into this situation is the probability that he will bring down suffering on his head and injure others in the process.
In Lucky Jim, for example, Amis establishes a comic acceptance of many of life’s injustices in the academic world. The novel is distinguished by clear-cut cases of right and wrong, a simple irony, and knockabout farce. Because he has neither the courage nor the economic security to protest openly, the hero lives a highly comic secret life of protest consisting of practical jokes and rude faces, all directed against the hypocrisy and pseudointellectualism of certain members of the British establishment. While only hinted at in Lucky Jim, Amis’s moral seriousness becomes increasingly evident beginning with Take a Girl Like You. Whereas in Lucky Jim the values are “hidden” beneath a comic narrative, gradually the comedy is submerged beneath a more serious treatment. Take a Girl Like You is thus a turning point for Amis in a number of ways: The characterization is more complex, the moral problems are more intense, and the point of view is not limited to one central character. Distinguished also by a better balance between the comic and the serious, the novel is more pessimistic than its predecessors, less given to horseplay and high spirits.
In later novels such as The Anti-Death League and The Green Man, Amis continues to see life more darkly, shifting to an increasingly metaphysical, even theological concern. Contemporary England is viewed as a wasteland of the spirit, and his characters try vainly to cope with a precarious world filled with madness and hysteria, a world in which love and religion have become distorted and vulgarized. Threatened with death and ugly accidents by a malicious God, Amis’s characters feel powerless to change and, in an attempt to regain control of their lives, act immorally. Amis’s ultimate vision is one in which all of the traditional certainties—faith, love, loyalty, responsibility, decency—have lost their power to comfort and sustain. Humanity is left groping in the dark of a nightmare world. In the later The Old Devils, Amis’s study of a Wales and a Welshness that have slipped out of reach forever clearly shows a culmination of his increasing damnation of Western society, portrayed through the microcosm of human relationships. The final picture is one of the aimlessness of old age, the meaninglessness of much of life itself.
In Lucky Jim, a bumbling, somewhat conscientious hero stumbles across the social and cultural landscape of contemporary British academic life, faces a number of crises of conscience, makes fun of the world and of himself, and eventually returns to the love of a sensible, realistic girl. This is the traditional comic course followed by Amis’s first three novels, of which Lucky Jim is the outstanding example. Beneath the horseplay and high spirits, however, Amis rhetorically manipulates readers’ moral judgment so that they leave the novel sympathetic to the hero’s point of view. By triumphing over an unrewarding job, a pretentious family, and a predatory female colleague, Dixon becomes the first in a long line of Amis’s heroes who stand for common sense and decency, for the belief that life is to be made happy now, and for the notion that “nice things are nicer than nasty things.”
To develop his moral concern, Amis divides his characters into two archetypal groups reminiscent of the fantasy tale: the generally praiseworthy figures, the ones who gain the greatest share of the reader’s sympathy; and the “evil” characters, those who obstruct the good characters. Jim Dixon (the put-upon young man), Gore-Urquhart (his benefactor or savior), and Christine Callaghan (the decent girl to whom Dixon turns) are among the former, distinguished by genuineness, sincerity, and a lack of pretense. Among the latter are Professor Welch (Dixon’s principal tormentor), Welch’s son, Bertrand (the defeated boaster), and the neurotic Margaret Peele (the thwarted “witch”), all of whom disguise their motives and present a false appearance.
One example should be enough to demonstrate Amis’s technique—the introduction to the seedy, absentminded historian, Professor Welch. In the opening chapter, Amis establishes an ironic discrepancy between what Welch seems to be (a scholar discussing history) and what he is in reality (a “vaudeville character” lecturing on the differences between flute and recorder). Although he tries to appear a cultured, sensitive intellectual, all of the images point to a charlatan leading a boring, selfish life. His desk is “misleadingly littered.” Once he is found standing, “surprisingly enough,” in front of the college library’s new-books shelf. Succeeding physical description undercuts his role-playing: He resembles “an old boxer,” “an African savage,” “a broken robot.” What is more, his speech and gestures are mechanized by cliché and affectation. Professing to worship “integrated village-type community life” and to oppose anything mechanical, he is himself a virtual automaton, and he becomes more so as the novel progresses. Although Amis does not term Welch a ridiculous phony, the inference is inescapable.
Central to the novel’s theme is Dixon’s secret life of protest. Although he hates the Welch family, for economic reasons he dares not rebel openly. Therefore, he resorts to a comic fantasy world to express rage or loathing toward certain imbecilities of the Welch set. His rude faces and clever pranks serve a therapeutic function—a means by which Dixon can safely release his exasperation. At other times, however, Dixon becomes more aggressive: He fantasizes stuffing Welch down the lavatory or beating him about the head and shoulders with a bottle until he reveals why he gave a French name to his son.
In Amis’s later novels, when the heroes’ moral problems become more intense, even life-threatening, such aggressive acts become more frequent and less controlled. In this early novel, however, what the reader remembers best are the comic moments. Dixon is less an angry young man than a funny, bumbling, confused individual for whom a joke makes life bearable. There are, of course, other ways in which one might react to an unjust world. One can flail at it, as does Jimmy Porter in John Osborne’s drama Look Back in Anger (pr. 1956). One can try to escape from it, as will Patrick Standish in Take a Girl Like You, or one can try to adapt to it. Like Charles Lumley’s rebellion against middle-class values in John Wain’s Hurry on Down (1953; also known as Born in Captivity), Dixon’s rebellion against the affectations of academia ends with an adjustment to the society and with a partial acceptance of its values. By remaining in the system, he can at least try to effect change.
Take a Girl Like You
Ostensibly another example of the familiar story of initiation, Amis’s fourth novel, Take a Girl Like You, contains subtleties and ironies that set it apart from Lucky Jim. The characterization, the balance between the comic and the serious, and the emphasis on sexual behavior and the pursuit of pleasure blend to make this novel a significant step forward in Amis’s development as a novelist.
The plot of this disturbing moral comedy is built around a variety of motifs: the travelogue and the innocent-abroad story, the theme of love in conflict with love, and the country-mouse story of an innocent girl visiting the big city for the first time. Jenny Bunn, from whose point of view more than half of the novel is narrated, is the conventional, innocent young woman who has not been touched by deep experience in worldly matters. Like Jim Dixon, she finds herself in an unfamiliar setting, confronting people who treat her as a stranger with strange ideas. Out of a simpleminded zeal for the virtues of love and marriage, she becomes the victim of a plausible, nasty man.
Jenny carries out several artistic functions in the story. She is chiefly prominent as the perceptive observer of events close to her. Again like Dixon, she is able to detect fraud and incongruities from a considerable distance. When Patrick Standish first appears, for example, she understands that his look at her means he is “getting ideas about her.” Amis draws a considerable fund of humor from Jenny’s assumed naïveté. His chief device is the old but appropriate one of naïve comment, innocently uttered but tipped with truth. Jenny, a young girl living in a restrictive environment and ostensibly deferential toward the attitudes and opinions of the adults who compose that environment, yet also guided by her own instinctive reactions, may be expected to misinterpret a great deal of what she observes and feels. The reader follows her as she is excited, puzzled, and disturbed by Patrick’s money-mad and pleasure-mad world—a world without fixed rules of conduct. Many of the “sex scenes” between them are built on verbal jokes, comic maneuvers, digressions, and irrelevancies, all of which give life to the conventional narrative with which Amis is working.
Patrick Standish is the antithesis of the good, moral, somewhat passive Jenny. Like the masterful, selfish Bertrand Welch, he is a womanizer and a conscious hypocrite who condemns himself with every word he utters. In spite of Patrick’s intolerable behavior and almost crippling faults, Amis maintains some degree of sympathy for him by granting him more than a surface treatment. In the earlier novels, the villains are seen from a distance through the heroes’ eyes. In Take a Girl Like You, however, an interior view of the villain’s thoughts, frustrations, and fears allows the reader some measure of understanding. Many scenes are rhetorically designed to emphasize Patrick’s isolation and helplessness. Fears of impotence, cancer, and death haunt him. He seeks escape from these fears by turning to sex, drink, and practical jokes, but this behavior leads only to further boredom, unsatisfied longing, and ill health.
Also contributing to the somber tone of the novel are secondary characters such as Dick Thompson, Seaman Jackson, and Graham MacClintoch. Jackson equates marriage with “legalised bloody prostitution.” MacClintoch complains that, for the unattractive, there is no charity in sex. Jenny’s ideals are further diminished when she attends a party with these men. The conversation anticipates the emotional barrenness of later novels, in which love is dead and in its place are found endless games. Characters speak of love, marriage, and virtue in the same tone as they would speak of a cricket game or a new set of teeth.
With Take a Girl Like You, Amis leaves behind the hilarity and high spirits on which his reputation was founded in order to give expression to the note of hostility and cruelty hinted at in Lucky Jim. Drifting steadily from bewilderment to disillusionment, Jenny and Patrick signal the beginning of a new phase in Amis’s moral vision. Life is more complex, more precarious, less jovial. The simple romantic fantasy solution at the end of Lucky Jim is not possible here.
The Anti-Death League
The Anti-Death League represents for Amis yet...
(The entire section is 5160 words.)