Girl, 20 by Kingsley Amis (1971)

‘Ageing shag tries to stimulate jaded appetite by recreating situation of days of firse discovery of sex plus whiff of illegality.’ (p.69)

After the madcap freedom of Riotous Assembly by Tom Sharpe, returning to Amis felt like walking back into a cocktail party uncomfortably packed full of stuffy, unattractive, middle-aged English people all getting drunk and being unpleasant to each other. It is a lowering experience.

Plot

Short version Two middle-aged, Scotch-drinking, classical music-loving men have affairs with swinging 60s, dope-smoking, rock-liking dolly birds. Embarrassing for them, and the reader.

Longer version Music critic Douglas Yallend narrates how he gets entangled in the pathetic and sordid attempts of noted British composer Sir Roy Vandervane to have an affair with a 17-year-old hippy, Sylvia. Doug has been called in by Roy’s drama-queen wife, Kitty, who is distraught at the affair, and finds himself getting involved with Roy’s grown-up daughter Penny (who he sleeps with), partly at the behest of Penny’s ‘right-on’ black boyfriend Gilbert, who is writing an ‘experimental’ novel and who also lives in the chaotic Vandervane household – spoilt younger son Ashley, lapdog yapping round everyone’s ankles all the time – in a grand house north of London.

Yallend finds himself dragged into key moments of the affair, engaging with all the participants, and embroiled in the complicated but ultimately very boring domestic politics of the Vandervane household – at some cost to his relationship with his part-time girlfriend, Vivienne (who is also sleeping with another man).

Do you care what happens to any of these people? No, neither did I.

Set pieces There are two set-piece comic scenes: where Sir Roy takes his teenage girlfriend Sylvia, Douglas, and his 20-something daughter Penny, to a wrestling match, which is a pandemonium of shouting vulgarity; and, late in the novel, Douglas attends, as music critic, the premiere of Roy’s pretentious ‘transmedia’ composition, Elevations 9, at a dark and filthy venue festooned with hairy hippies. Neither are as funny as the TV interview at the climax of The Egyptologists; both really just convey the author’s horrified disgust at the modern ‘scene’.

Dénouement After various shenanigans, and against all advice, Sir Roy does finally leave his wife for the teenage Sylvia; Kitty leaves the family home taking horrible spoilt young Ashley with her; to Douglas’s surprise his girlfriend leaves him for Gilbert, Penny’s black boyfriend, chiefly because he has a traditional, conservative attitude towards women.

In the final scene Douglas takes the train out the Vandervane’s big house to find attractive young Penny the only one living there and wondering whether his couple of sexual encounters with her can be parlayed into a full-blown relationship. He finds her bits of the house surprisingly tidy, Penny herself looking well-dressed, alert and attentive, and even specimens of classical sheet music on the piano which she has obviously been practicing. Impressed and heartened, Douglas asks what’s brought about this transformation in her attitude? Oh, I’ve started taking heroin, she replies. And on this crushingly bleak note, the novel abruptly ends.

Title explained

In the middle of the book Roy and Doug have a long conversation about how just reading ‘Girl, 20’ looking for accommodation in the small ads in a shop window used to give Roy an erection but now he needs, you know, more, more stimulation, younger chicks doing cleverer tricks, to get it up and to feel alive and help him compose and help him work and, well, generally give him strength to face the day. Lechery or despair appear to be the alternatives for these ageing, alcoholic, posh men. Behind the sparkly flim-flam you’re aware of a profound unhappiness.

Reflections

It’s a first-person narrative, like The Green Man, and several things are immediately noticeable.

1. Lechery is dull

I paid little attention, because I was looking so closely at Penny Vandervane, now also of the company, and most closely of all at her breasts. (p.24)

The main character spending page after page leching after young women and planning, scheming, calculating how his friend’s affair with a mistress half his age will pan out, or discussing at great length how you have to resort to more and varied perversions to keep the sex drive up in middle age, no longer feels funny and liberating. Adam Diment‘s spy novels, for all their unevenness, give an upbeat, enjoyable insider’s view of the swinging 60s mentality. Amis’s books, by contrast, dourly describe a man well into middle-age who disapproves of everything from the 1960s – its politics, its music, its bad manners, its common accents, the horrible young people (referred to as the ‘current little slobberers’ p.102) – everything except for the easy availability of sex. This line of investigation, this relentless lasciviousness, feels dingily lecherous.

As [I leant over her] I noticed at close range, but in adequate focus, that the front of the bed-jacket had fallen apart and that a nipple was protruding from inside the Norma-style nightdress. (p.166)

2. Over analysis Worse than that, it is boring because the bulk of the text is made up of Yallend reflecting on, pondering on, analysing etc the fullest possible set of everyone’s possible motives, feelings etc about every possible permutation of attitude generated by their various tangled relationships. I found myself skipping paragraphs which I knew would be more maundering psycho-waffle.

Her reply illustrated one of the best things in [Vivienne’s] character. Although the other bloke [she’s sleeping with] had been on the scene since Christmas or so, and took up all her free time and half her bed every Tuesday and Friday, and although she knew I knew about him, he had not been made conversational flesh until now. It was a relief not to have to machete my way through a jungle of what-are-you-talking-aboutery before I could get at him. Admittedly, this readiness to concede facts went with a reluctance to volunteer them, so that the process of finding out from her what, for instance, her father did (it transpired that he was the lay secretary of an ecclesiastical body) was too much like one of those yes-or-no guessing games. But one cannot, and in this sort of case probably should not, have everything. (p.52)

The youthful, humorous Amis is typified by the jungle and machete metaphor and the willingness to invent what-are-you-talking-aboutery. But it feels buried and stifled in the too-rational and over-long assessment of Vivienne’s character which is, ultimately, boring. Who cares.

3. Needless qualifications Another Amis mannerism is needlessly qualifying a simple statement, as in the last sentence of the quote above. I’m sure this was generally funny in the earlier novels, but this also feels like it’s become an automatic reflex. What does that last sentence mean?

To this, she said nothing in a marked manner, but differently marked from the one she had been using for the last three-quarters of a minute. (p.165)

Harold was one of the very few men I had ever met with the outlook and temperament to face without hesitation the row, the publicity, the dismissal and the loss of prospects that surely must, or probably would, or easily might follow the performance of what he promised. (p.179)

‘How’s Sylvia?’
‘That’s more like it. A bit more like it. She’s fine as far as I know, which is virtually no distance at all.’..
‘Any progress?’
‘No. None whatever. Very nearly none whatever.’ (p.198)

He went on like this until, indeed until after, some champagne, a plate of smoked-salmon sandwiches and another brunette whisky had been delivered to us. I refrained as studiously as I could from studiously refraining from any flicker of reaction when Roy poured the new whisky into the substantial remains of the old, but I must have over- or underdone it, because he stared coldly at me… (p.199)

That point about helping others, or not helping others… On the other hand, or more likely the same hand… (p.230)

These repetitions with variations – on the face of it subtle qualifications, scrupulous attentiveness to the detail of human behaviour, with a supposed comic angle – have become a trait, a mannerism, a nervous tic of mind and style.

4. Hyper awareness What began as a refreshing new flavour or attitude in his earliest novels, namely the protagonist’s super-hyper-self-awareness, his notation of every flicker and pseudo-flicker of his own mind and his projection of this into acute analyses of every possible nuance or inflection in the voice, expression and words of everyone he deals with – this has become a mannerism.

It reads as if it should be a super-accurate noticing of other people but, in this book for the first time, I realised it had become purely a reflex: if you dwell on any of these countless overwrought meditations, you realise they tell you nothing, add nothing, to the story.

Roy looked neither transparently honest nor pained at having his honesty thrown in doubt, which meant he was being honest, or very, very nearly. (p.65)

The uncharacteristic malice here showed that I had registered a hit. Good. Well, goodish. Was Roy going off his head in more than a manner of speaking? As if in answer to my thought (or rather, I was sure, actually and quite non-characteristically and reassuringly in answer to it) he burst into one of his bursts of offensive song. (p.172)

5. Style It is staggeringly ironic that a man who invented a certain kind of anti-authoritarian bolshieness in his first novels, who wrote in something closer to the ordinary speaking (and swearing) voice of real young middle-class people in the 1950s, has, by the early 1970s, adopted a fogeyish disapproval of the way young people speak these days. He has an unfailingly acute and precise ear for the sounds and rhythms of characters’ speech patterns, but whereas these were captured for laughs in the early novels, now they are recorded blank, and with occasional disapproval.

There is an admittedly funny strand of Doug noticing the trendy pronunciation of would-be swinging Vandervane, which he transcribes phonetically – typically acute and observant of Amis:

‘I’m giving her up. Cleam break.’ (p.49)

‘I’m really moce grateful to you two.’ (p.57)

‘Power in all its forms, which is obviously what politicians exiss for…’ (p.61)

‘That’s no way to talk to someone who’s juss seen a blime man across the street.’ (p.67)

‘Nop by her standards.’ (p.83)

‘I though they soundig good myself.’ (p.126)

‘Some right-wing shag had written the scream-play.’ (p.136)

‘High tea, Christ. Ham and Russian salad and sweep pickle and tim peaches and plung cake…’ (p.197)

Sort of funny. But not exactly laugh-out-loud. It’s interesting and capable, but not enough on its own.

There is also his fondness for a certain kind of repetition of words or phrases, designed to shed new light on their meaning and/or absurdity.

Vivienne clearly thought that her censorious looks at Sylvia looked like nothing more than looks. (p.58)

I might have gone on to tell her I considered the fugue the most boring artistic innovation before the adult Western if I had not been nearly sure I had once said so to Roy, if her harangue had not cowed me a little, and other ifs. (p.103)

‘All right, I’ll talk to Penny, but you’ll have to fix everything up yourself. I’m not going to talk her into being talked to.’ (p.117)

‘You’ve no idea how much I’ve sometimes wanted to find out why chaps who feel like that feel like that, the older ones, I mean…’ (p.189)

One [possible reply] still in stock concerned belief in belief in something reasonable, and just how reasonable the something had to be in order to count as reasonable, but I kept quiet. (p.192)

Funny? Mm. Interesting, sort of. It does do something clever and unusual to the everyday language, but to very much effect? Along with the other tricks, presented in a dense, fairly long text, it begins to feel like eating through a large amount of cardboard.

As usual there is a crop of sentences which include a throwaway ‘… or something‘, ‘… or somewhere’ to convey the insouciant bolshiness so striking in Lucky Jim Dixon.

Gilbert drove out of the parking area like an international ace leaving the pits at Le Mans (or somewhere)… (p.77)

Then I held my breath for a moment, realising, to my vexation or uneasiness or something… (p.79)

Sylvia, whose black jerkin, black thigh-boots and extended waistbelt of chains hung with padlock-sized pendants (or whatever)… (p.135)

Inwardly too, I assured myself that, however loathsome the episode in the flat and however boring Kitty’s appraisals of it, I must endure until she had had the chance to talk herself back to normal (or somewhere near one of her norms)… (p.160)

… a lithograph or whatever of Haydn… (p.185)

But it doesn’t pack the comic punch it once did, none of Amis’s tricks do, and I think that is because something bad has happened to Amis’s attitude and to his style.

5. Hardening of attitude The  novels immediately previous to this one are often described by the critics as ‘experimental’, because The Anti-Death League has a smidgeon of sort-of science fiction in it (the Army has invented a rifle which shoots tiny atomic bullets) and The Green Man is a ghost-cum-horror story (albeit almost drowned in Amis’ twin obsessions of unbridled lechery and gross alcoholism). But what really came across in those books was a new formalism about his style, which announced itself as more correct and old-fashioned. Lots of ‘whom’ and moving word order around so as to avoid ending a sentence with a dangling participle.

Ie the ‘experiment’ wasn’t so much in the subject matter, but finding out what happened if he stopped trying to be funny, stopped straining every sentence and paragraph to be funny – instead aiming for more accuracy of description and ‘correctness’ of style. The result has been a rapid formalisation of much of his prose.

Acting as the Vandervane all-purpose social diluent had been no uncommon experience during our former association. Today’s usage seemed unlikely, in prospect, to take much out of me, differing in this regard from the favour to which I had alluded a minute before. (p.65)

 Surely this could hardly be more pompous. It sounds like a Royal Equerry.

Harold took Roy’s request for a preludial double champagne cocktail without overt demur, and made only a token stand by recommending the carafe Chablis. (p.175)

Preludial. Overt demur. Only a token stand.

The core of Amis’s proposition in the 1950s was his deliberate rejection of loads of rules of style, his happy use of repetitions, the latest slang, capturing in flight the real speech – and the convoluted thought processes – of his youthful anti-convention characters.

In this novel he tries to combine both – and the result of self-consciously trying to write more elegantly and correctly, with trying to keep some of the wayward speech and thought patterns which made his name, is a surprising number of sentences which are actually incomprehensible. For the first time in Amis’s oeuvre I’m reading sentences I just don’t understand.

‘And there’s no whacking fucking as a side of life where how things strike you matters at least as much as what the things are really like. Whatever they are really like.’ (p.67)

These clots of incomprehensibility indicating a broader problem, Amis’s hardening attitude to the changing England around him, which drains the novel of comic atmosphere, and injects it with darker levels of unhappiness, with bewilderment at moral and emotional chaos, with tedious resort to strong alcoholic as some kind of consolation and – in the surprise twist ending of this book – blank despair.

Conclusion

If you were a sympathetic middle-aged male book reviewer of the time, you might think this was a ‘pitiless’ and ‘unflinching’ dissection of the contemporary ‘scene’ and of a particular type of ageing, would-be ‘cool’, upper middle class dilettante. I found it unpleasantly lecherous, depressingly narrow in theme and scope, eerily badly written but, above all, boring and, when not boring, greyly depressing.

Related links

Salacious cover of the Panther paperback edition of Girl, 20

Salacious cover of the Panther paperback edition of Girl, 20

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

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