As a comic novelist Kingsley Amis still practices the revival of the robust masculine tradition of English farce with its special taste for the sententious that skids into the vernacular and the joke of the flat tire. Not for the dramatic flat, but for the rising paranoia of the slow puncture. He is the connoisseur, even the pedant, of the air going out and things running vulgarly down. One looks at the thing at first with the healthy impulse to give it a kick and then have a drink. The object may have started its life as a gleaming example of contemporary ersatz, but the rapid onset of repairs shows it to be on the way out just as it came in, and a deceiver of hopes. Then a doubt enters the owner’s mind: is the flat “one of those things” or is it oneself? All comic writers are serious in their grudges.
The thing that worries Jake in Kingsley Amis’s latest piece of studied spoofing is his penis. Once exuberant, hardened in the pursuit of lust and love, emblem of the exhilarating performance of the libido, it has become bored. Why? Because Jake is fifty-nine? Because he has been in hospital, ulcerated, in trouble with the canals that connect the liver and gall bladder, and other bothers “not associated with satyriasis”? Where is the old rampant form? He is a lecturer in early Mediterranean history at Oxford, living out of term in London. Why has he fallen silent and inactive with his third wife, Brenda, who likes a chat with her tedious friend Alcestis and her husband Geoffrey, “Christendom’s fucking fool”?
When Brenda can get a word through to Jake she wonders what has happened to the affections. How, as the late P.G. Wodehouse once said, has the sand got into civilization’s spinach? Is Jake turning into a man’s man, modern style, who gets up in the morning, “shat, shaved and showered, and wearing his light-weight crease-resistant suit”? He can “get it up” if he wants to, but why doesn’t he want to much? Does his salvation lie in the current remedy of dragging his mind and body round to the psychiatrist’s garage and truculently submitting it to the ungleaming jargon of an expert in “inceptive regrouping,” and beginning on a session of “nongenital sensate-focusing,” the reading of tit magazines—Jake had even given that up—and group therapy in the nude? Perhaps the air will get back into the tire, for among other things the psychologist has an ingenious electrical machine which when properly attached to the organ can “commensurate” the variations of erection during sleep, for a start.
It must be said that Jake’s Thing is a very funny book, less for its action or its talk than in its prose. The wretched Dr. Proinsias Rosenberg, MD, MA (Dip. Psych) of Harley Street, with an interest in a therapy lab in McDougall’s Hospital in a very outer suburb, has met his match in this Fellow of Comyns College, Oxford. The doctor is half an Emerald Islander, half Austrian, who talks in “a largely unreconstructed accent.” Mr. Amis is a master of laconic mimicry and of the vernacular drift. On the subject of nongenital caressing—Brenda likes that and appears to worry only about her weight—we have this from Jake:
My God, another twenty-five minutes of this? It was a good job he was such a faithful doer of what doctors told him to do. Hadn’t Rosenberg told him to carry on with his bleeding sensate-focusing carry-on for up to half an hour? Twenty minutes was that, wasn’t it? So was ten. And five. But to argue so was to use advertiser’s mathematics. Amazing reductions at Poofter’s, up to twenty percent on all furnishings. Daily brushing with Bullshitter’s fleweridated toothpaste reduces cavities by up to thirty percent, in the case you happen to be looking at by only point-nought-one of one percent but what of it, and also of course helps fight (not helps to fight) tooth decay, alongside drinking things and not eating toffee all day long. Daily brushing with candle wax or boot polish would also reduce cavities by up to something or other and help fight tooth decay. There were enough laws already but surely there ought to be one about up to, restricting it to, oh, between the figure given and half of it. Helping fight things would be rather more of a—
“Isn’t it about time for my turn?” asked Brenda.
He pressed himself against her and at once, try as he would, the more irresistibly for his trying, which was like the efforts of a man with no arms to pick up a pound note off the pavement, the flow reversed itself.
A prescribed course of the tit magazines leads to a few memorable lines on one that, after leading the reader on by ads or articles about cars, cigarettes, speedboats, and Loire wines, presented him a girl with a face like President Carter and who had almost “no clothes on without giving much away”; but a page or two further on
…Well, this is it, folks. Wham. And (there being two such) bam. And thank you most awfully, ma’am.
Jake stared, though without amazement. Tit—was not what this magazine was. In one sense he was on very familiar territory, even if the familiarity was slightly dated; in another he’d never been here before. His mind searched slowly. It was all a matter of how you looked at it, in two senses again if not more. In itself it was a bit…. And for some reason you found you had to consider it in itself, even though most of the rest of her was there, including her face. In itself it had an exotic appearance, like the inside of a giraffe’s ear or a tropical fruit not much prized even by the locals.
Jake’s is not, alas for him, a rake’s progress. Group Therapy at Collier’s Wood in which fellow sufferers from his or other troubles drag out confessions by bouts of insult don’t get him much further—though the silent, thoughtful interest of Brenda who is present is awakened. And it brings out the startling life story of Geoffrey the friend who is Christendom’s fucking fool. He has been a shadow in Jake’s life, educated by an out-of-date progressive father, so that he has become the acme of the inability to utter a view or make up his mind or read a menu, the most affecting of blameless tenderfoots. Who would think that Brenda, who has kept her counsel charmingly, would leave Jake and perhaps, by some female conspiracy, dump her shrewd, bossy, total-recalling friend, Geoffrey’s wife Alcestis, on him and go off with Geoffrey? Alcestis will keep a practical eye on Jake and reveal to him perhaps that the woman who bored him most will at least revive his interest in human nature, if not stir the libido.
Decent, shrewd, she is, but he reflects with delight that she knows he hates her like hell and sees him as a threat to her “charter to talk balls all the time.” Isn’t her “decency” an attempt to make him feel bad with “a coals-of-fire job”? He hopes that her shopping for him will cause her great inconvenience. We leave him in modest lodgings, having left the house to his wife and the knick-knacks she had filled it with. He abandons the sensate stuff of Doctor Rosenberg, who is even more bland than usual when the break comes; returns to his GP, who tells him that the cure is medical. It is quite simple to raise that part of his testosterone level that isn’t bound to plasma protein. He can be cured.
The news is refreshing. He does a high speed run-through in his mind of all the women he has ever known or observed in swift yet exhaustive detail. It amounts to a misogynist’s charter.
“No thanks,” he says to the doctor. Still, he has Brenda’s parting words in his head. She had once imagined, she said, that he would not turn into one of those men who only notice women when it is to do with sex. The truth is, she says, that she only agreed to go in for all that sensate stuff because, “Well, you know I love massage. I don’t really care if it’s badly done.” She has also called him a “don”!
Jake’s Thing has its comic Oxford side, the panic-stricken dons conducting ingeniously dishonest arguments about letting women into Colleges. There is a thundering account of a lamentable hangover. Jake’s kind of mind is amusing but doesn’t allow others to have much of an inning, indeed for him there is something fatally wrong or ridiculous about everyone. The novel is really a comic diatribe and is less about sex than about paranoia. Even more, its subject is not people but the terrible language that coats their minds, some fungoid infection caught from television, advertising, etc. People have become parodies of consumerism. And there are too many foreigners about. Everything rankles; rankling is fun in a perverse way. There is a retired Colonel in all of us as we reach middle age; still Amis is our most adroit grumbling impersonator, a nonstop miniaturist, master of making faces at everything, even at the unlucky Jake.
May 17, 1979