Anything Goes

The Anti-Death League

by Kingsley Amis
Harcourt, Brace, 307 pp., $5.95

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me

by Richard Fariña
Random House, 329 pp., $5.95

The Time of the Hero

by Mario Vargas Llosa
Grove, 409 pp., $5.95

Each book that Kingsley Amis publishes makes the popular conception of him as a predominantly comic novelist seem less realistic. It is, after all, more than twelve years since the fairly uncomplicated fun and high spirits of Lucky Jim and since that time Mr. Amis has been getting steadily gloomier, though without losing the power to be devastatingly funny when he wants to be. The dark side of his imagination has long been apparent in his poems, though these are not widely read; few readers of his last two novels, Take a Girl Like You and One Fat Englishman, can have missed their intermittent brooding on death, physical disability, the inescapability and unsatisfactoriness of lust, and the general arbitrariness of fate. If they were still broadly comic, their comedy was frequently undermined by these grimmer preoccupations. In The Anti-Death League Mr. Amis plunges bravely into the depths that he has for some time been uneasily contemplating from the brink.

The ways in which this novel differs from Amis’s previous fiction are very apparent. The tone is flatter, and the narrative, instead of being conveyed through a single ebullient consciousness (or two, as in Take a Girl Like You) is split among a number of characters. Almost all the action takes place in two institutional settings, where the inmates are in varying degrees depersonalized: a secret military establishment hidden in the English countryside, and a nearby mental hospital. The Anti-Death League, it soon becomes clear, is a generalized and implicitly symbolic fiction, in which Mr. Amis has voluntarily surrendered some of his major strengths as a novelist. Apart from some touches of sardonic humor and several accurately caught conversations, one misses his characteristic sketches of contemporary English life. He has, in fact, ventured on a novel of ideas, about the enormity of death and the strange patterns in which human life is constantly enmeshed, and the result is close to a moral fable, or even, in places, to a Platonic dialogue (the book contains a remarkable amount of conversation on weighty topics).

IN ONE RESPECT, though, it simply makes heavily explicit certain implications in his earlier books. Amis has always been a curiously superstitious, even animistic writer, and his fictional world is dominated by strange patterns and correspondences: Things have a sinister life of their own, like Professor Welch’s car in Lucky Jim or the bathroom geyser that terrifies Jenny Bunn in the opening chapter of Take a Girl Like You, and fate is constantly interfering in the smallest details of everyday life. The hero of his second novel, That Uncertain Feeling, is drinking tea and contemplating adultery; at that very moment he swallows a mouthful of tea leaves, and we are told that “Life, that resourceful technician, had administered a typical rebuke.” In Take a Girl Like You Patrick Standish fulminates against the malign intelligence governing the universe, which he calls “Bastards’ H.Q.” Now, in The Anti-Death League, Amis explicitly postulates such an intelligence, who is very evil, and…

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