Since the publication of Lucky Jim in 1954, Kingsley Amis has been the chief heir of the rich tradition of the English comic novel, extending it into the postwar years even as he has often come under attack for the growing conservatism of his aesthetic practice and sociopolitical views. Jake’s Thing (1978) and Stanley and the Women (1984) attracted a number of particularly harsh reviews, but The Old Devils (1986) earned for its author Great Britain’s most prestigious literary award, the Booker Prize. Difficulties with Girls is a somewhat slighter work than The Old Devils, perhaps deceptively so, for the pleasures of its comic novel surface mask a depth of painful self-doubt.
From the choice of a title sure to offend feminist readers, Difficulties with Girls bears all the marks of Amis’ irreverent art; the unlikable yet sympathetic and in certain ways Amis-like protagonist, the supporting cast of caricatures, the droll and detailed satire of contemporary English life, the gleeful bashing of the fake and merely fashionable, the strained, often farcical relations between the sexes—all rendered with Arnis’ unrivaled genius for comic nastiness: “The smiling, glossy-hatted lady in the remorselessly well-produced photograph was not old or ugly or evil-looking, just very hard to take in as married to anyone you knew, though as a rabies victim’s estranged wife, say, glimpsed while turning through the newspaper—no problem.”
The novel is set in 1967, nearly eight years since the rakish, often-rotten Patrick Standish, now thirty-seven, seduced the too innocent, too trusting Jenny Bunn, now twenty-eight, in Amis’ earlier novel, Take a Girl Like You (1960), seven since the pregnancy which led to their marriage but which ended in the miscarriage that continues to shadow their life together, and two since Patrick resigned his position as a Latin teacher at a school in Hertfordshire to become a junior editor with a London publishing house. It is also a time of “fresh starts,” for the Standishes, who have just moved into a new flat south of the Thames, for most of the secondary characters, and indeed for the entire society—a time of girls becoming women, of secretaries becoming assistants, of men sporting long hair and wearing either flowery shirts or Che Guevara khakis, of the legalizing of homosexuality—a time of change and therefore of confusion and difficulties. Like the century, many of the characters have reached mid-life; feeling suddenly constrained, they look for a way out, not realizing that there is none. Their difficulties are unquestionably comical in a blackly humorous way—the chauffeur, for example, who was told on the morning after his wedding night by his wife never to do “that” again and who, in sixteen years of marriage, never has.
And then there is Tim Vatcher, who, as Tim Valentine, moves in next to the Standishes. After years as a devoted husband, Tim, thirty-six, begins to worry about his sexuality, takes a friend’s advice, embarks upon a series of affairs, and, still plagued by self-doubts, consults a Harley Street psychiatrist. “’Mr. Perlmutter went to the root of my trouble straight away. Difficulties with girls.’” At the psychiatrist’s suggestion, Tim sets out to become what Perlmutter says he is (but Patrick knows he is not), a homosexual. Although he cannot even tell that Eric Davidson and Stevie Bairstow, a few doors down, are gay, Tim persists, much to the dismay of Patrick, who is appalled by Tim’s willingness to trust a psychiatrist and no less so by Tim’s naivete’, endless apologizing, and unsolicited confessions. Patrick nevertheless goes out of his way to help Tim, in part because (as Eric points out) Patrick likes him and in part because Patrick can use him. As long as Tim leases the flat, Patrick’s managing editor, Simon Giles, cannot move in and Patrick can avoid having the affair which Simon’s wife, Barbara, wants and which Simon himself encourages.
This is not to say that Patrick is by any means faithful to his own wife or particularly reluctant about having an affair with a neighbor. He may be highly critical of the hypocrisy of others, but he appears quite willing to tolerate and even rationalize his own, particularly when the sexy Mrs. Harold Porter-King (“Wendyrdquo;) moves in, two doors down. Patrick’s affairs are, like almost everything else in the novel, at once funny and troubling; what they evidence is not so much his sexual prowess as his sexual insecurity. Patrick’s Amis-like contempt for others, including Wendy, who speaks in cliche’s, betrays a similar uncertainty about himself, about, that is, a lightly balding, middle-aged man incongruously married to a woman who is both young and beautiful, a man working at a job which gives him no prestige, power, or pleasure, little income, and much anxiety over not only his rather uncertain future under Simon but his past as well (over why Simon ever hired him: merit? drunkenness? bravado?).
Patrick feels displaced, passed by in these changing times, and, worst of all, “decreasingly relevantrdquo;; he is a man who “at thirty-six ... needed all the help he could get” and who suffers from spells of extreme, seemingly sourceless fear. His faults, if not quite forgivable, are at least...