Stanley and the Women by Kingsley Amis (1984)

The reference to Jewboys on page 43 (‘Soon afterwards I went out and picked up a taxi on its way back from dropping somebody at one of the Jewboys’ houses in Bishop’s Avenue’) was so wantonly offensive that it brought me up short and made me realise the character of Stanley Duke, who’s telling this first person narrative, is a character – is intended to be a fictional creation separate from his creator, the author known as Kingsley Amis who couldn’t possibly be that casually anti-semitic, and that we mustn’t make the elementary mistake of confusing a created character – who can hold all kinds of views – with his creator, or the character’s opinions with the author’s.

The only problem with this is that the voice and attitude, the troubled relationship to other human beings, the grumpy resentment of the modern world, the relentless sexism, are all very much of a part with previous Amis books. It reads like Amis, it sounds like Amis, it thinks like Amis. Just giving the narrator a few unpleasant prejudices and a verbose style doesn’t really change the fact that it is an Amis text we’re reading, through and through. And this, late Amis, is mined with deliberate offense.

The plot

Stanley Duke, born and raised in Sarf London, is the permanently perplexed advertising manager of some car magazine in Fleet Street. He’s divorced from the ageing actress, Nowell who, looking back, he has no idea why he married. (She is now remarried to Bert Hutchinson, a TV ad director who is permanently pissed and sweary.) Stan now lives with posh, supportive Susan, who he nonetheless often finds puzzling, and who is connected to a ferociously posh mother, Lady D, and absurdly posh sister.

Stan and Sue are just tidying up after a dinner party when his 19-year-old son, Steve, turns up on the doorstep, apparently having suffered a mental collapse, behaving and speaking with bewildering irrationality.

It becomes clear that Steve’s had some kind of nervous breakdown and Stanley’s GP, Cliff Wainwright, after visiting, recommends him to a psychiatrist. The latter is on holiday so Steve’s care is taken over by pushy young female psychiatrist, Dr Collings, whose modish jargon and general femininity Stan takes strong exception to. He is backed up in this by the fogeyish Harley Street consultant, Dr Nash, who they visit for a second opinion and who strikes Stan as a good bloke when he not only offers sherry during the interview, but takes them on to a boozy lunch at a nice little place he knows. Educated woman = bad. Heavy drinking middle-aged white man = good.

The text is divided into four parts: Onset (94 pages), Progress (110 pages), Relapse (60 pages), Prognosis (44 pages).

If you were sympathetic to Amis maybe you would defend the book by saying it is a riotous satire on a certain type of middle-aged, drunk, sexist, anti-intellectual philistine. Except:

  • The views and style are too close to too many previous Amis narrators.
  • The first half at least – the part describing in detail Steve’s symptoms – isn’t funny at all, it’s genuinely distressing.
  • I laughed at the scene where Stan joins Bert at a party on a houseboat in the Thames where all the guests get puking drunk and the pissed couple drive to a little place Bert knows in central London where he reveals that he only pretends to be pissed and only swears at Stan whenever he turns up, in order to keep the ghastly Nowell onside, for he has come to hate and detest her. It is funny but embarrassing, this tale of two irresponsibly pissed fifty-something men who should know so much better.
  • Amis moves the goalposts to support Stan’s sexism: he makes the old, established, male psychiatrist totally support Stan’s dislike of the female psychiatrist; he makes Bert support Stan’s interpretation of Nowell’s horrible character. It isn’t a truly open exploration of being adrift in the modern world: Amis loads the dice in favour of his sexist narrator. Which just doesn’t seem that clever or inventive.

Misogyny

There’s no avoiding the fact that Amis has gone out of his way to make this novel as unpleasant to women as possible. All women. Early on he establishes that Stan’s ex-wife is an unbearable drama queen. Steve’s psychiatrist, Dr Collings, is portrayed as superficial, trendy and almost incompetent, herself often a rag of messed hair, smouldering fag and resentment. Throughout the novel Stan sprinkles sexist comments and remarks and Amis makes sure Stan’s attitude is bolstered by other male figures.

‘On our first meeting at your house, do you remember my asking you if you thought all women were mad?’
‘Very clearly,’ I said. ‘And I told you I thought a lot of them were. Well, what’s happened in the meantime hasn’t exactly forced me to change my mind.’ (p.307)

But it’s in the final section that there comes the one really big surprise, the one genuine plot twist in the novel. Steve is released back into Stan and Susan’s care but suffers a relapse. (This, Stan discovers, is because the awful Dr Collings is weaning him off the medication which had, in truth, been stabilising his condition.) They wake up one morning to find Steve has climbed high up a tree in the garden to avoid ‘them’ looking into his mind.

The twist is the effect this has on his previously solid, reliable second wife, posh Susan. When Stan rings the ex, Nowell, to come round and talk Steve down from the tree (based on the way she managed to calm him down on the first evening when he turned up in such a state), Susan refuses to be there, to see her, to hear her voice, but hides in the bedroom. She reproaches Stan for preferring his ex to her, when in Stan’s mind it’s a simple matter of what’s effective.

Then – arguably the key event of the novel – is that the next day, Stan gets a call at work to hurry home and finds his friend, Dr Wainwright, treating Susan for a bad cut on her forearm. She claims Steve attacked her with a kitchen knife then panicked, ran back to his bedroom while Susan called the doc. But Dr W tells Stan, in front of Susan, that when he went in, talked to, and then sedated Steve, the boy disclaimed any knowledge of the incident. For a moment Stan is completely perplexed.

And, after the doc has gone, Susan has a massive tantrum, all her pent-up anger and frustration with this intolerable situation coming out in a long tirade against Stanley, his selfishness, his boorish, lower-class habits, his drunkenness. Now – to her horror – she realises he doesn’t even believe her about the knife incident; for a moment he was more inclined to believe his disastrously mad son than his loyal wife. And so she packs her bags and storms off to her mother’s vowing never to return.

Stunned, Stan staggers through his day, but is lucky enough to have his old flame Lindsey to call on, they go for a meal and then back to her flat, to bed. However, the thrust of these scenes is that Lindsey knew Susan at university – and Susan is mad. Lindsey tells a number of anecdotes about how Susan couldn’t bear not to be the centre of attention, smashed places up, caused havoc, almost had to be restrained on numerous occasions. ‘She’s mad, Stan, mad.’ The moral of this plot device is: Even the sanest, most reliable woman you’ve known for ages – underneath, turns out to be completely bonkers!

Later, Stan talks to Dr Nash who, gives voice to a long, repellent rant about women, how they are incapable of understanding honesty, or decency, or admitting their mistakes.

‘They don’t have motives as you and I understand them. They have the means and the opportunity, that is enough.’ (p.306)

And, in the final pages, Stan goes round to dinner at Doc Wainwright’s who explains that the kind of cut Susan got is not the kind you’d get fending off an attacker – it is the kind of carefully undangerous cut on the fleshy part of the arm that someone would give themselves. Horribly, he confirms that Susan almost certainly self inflicted the wound, confirming Lindsey’s analysis that she is a hysterical attention-seeker – confirming the mounting thrust of the whole novel, that women are unbearably other, impenetrable irrational beings.

At which moment, with comic, or gruesome, timing, just as we’ve learned all this about poor Susan – the phone rings and it is Susan, abjectly apologising to Stan for her outburst, she’s been under a lot of strain with the Steve thing etc etc. Will he take her back…?

While she hurried on about having been so desperately frightened and upset and one thing and another I turned towards Cliff, who did the brief lift of the chin South London people use to mean Told you so or Here we go again or Wouldn’t you bleeding know it. (p.317)

As a male reader I found the style and attitude of this novel wearing and occasionally jarring. If I was a woman, I think I’d be happy to see it burnt.


The narrator’s alienation

Amis is marketed as a comic writer but I have found all his books eerie and unsettling because of the profound disconnect between the observing narrator and the characters. The narrator really struggles to know what other people are thinking or doing. He finds other people’s behaviour a constant puzzle.

Far from being funny, I routinely find it like being inside the mind of an autistic person – almost every sentence, every gesture, produced by other people is bewildering and mystifying. The narrator – and the reader – looks on in complete bafflement. Maybe many readers find the results funny but I find them deeply disturbing.

The narrator’s style

The narrator’s style in this book is characterised by vagueness and verbosity. Given half a chance he uses what you could call ‘dangling clauses’, tagging onto the end of sentences an additional phrase or two which never give greater precision or definition, but always do the opposite – emphasising that there are one or two or three interpretations of what someone else has done or said or might have if they, you know, had the chance, maybe – well, whatever. The narrator is so used to being disoriented by other people’s surprising behaviour, he doesn’t care much any more, sort of thing.

Too often this ‘whatever’ attitude is expanded to fill whole paragraphs of repetitive bumf which all follow a similar pattern: this happened, she said this, my marriage was like this and I could never figure out whether it was her or me or them who sometimes, you know, when it mattered or even when it didn’t matter, said or did something which, you know, in the great scale of things, sort of might have been the cause but you never really know, do you.

Coming fresh from reading the taut, clipped, information-rich prose of Martin Cruz Smith, Amis’s prose feels like a bloated blancmange.

The narrator’s sod-you attitude

Amis’s attitude – entertainingly stroppy and insubordinate in the straight-laced 1950s – had become a really anti-social, fuck-you attitude by the 1980s. Wouldn’t necessarily matter except that Attitude has replaced all semblance of thought, reflection, of plain intelligence – just as the bloated mannerisms have swamped, eclipsed and devastated what might once have been a style.


Examples of style and attitude

Rather The opening pages emphasise the middle-class Englishness of Stan and Susan. Rather, quite, actually, quite, rather.

They drank a rather good white Burgundy… The sitting room on the first floor had a low ceiling and a rather awkward shape… a specially built wooden case, part of which housed the rather old-fashioned hi-fi… things were not going too badly for her after some rather rough times earlier on… (pp.11-12)

Or After a while I began to circle every time the word ‘or’ was used to express the narrator’s inability to decide between several interpretations of something, or his deliberate decision to highlight that things can have multiple interpretations, or his chronic inability to figure out what the hell he’s trying to say. This might have been interesting if the interpretations were themselves sharp and insightful, but they are always the opposite – throwaway, half-hearted, dazed and confusing, fading away into a general ‘whatever’.

One of the troubles with getting on all right with people like your mother-in-law, or looking as if you did, or trying to, was that people like your wife took to leaving you alone with them for a nice chat. (p.33)

Lady D had managed to keep that sort of feeling more or less to herself. But then of course there had not been anything much in the way of reason or excuse or provocation before. (p.42)

Then I caught Steve’s eye and he recognised me instantly, which does sound like what he should have done in a way, and it was not that he mistook me for someone else he knew or thought he knew, at least that never occurred to me then. (p.85)

Jews, or people who might have been Jews or counted as Jews or Israelis, were after him because he had once known – not, I was sure, ever very well – a girl who was quite likely one sort of Arab or another. (p.87)

When I rang the hospital the next day the response was much as before. Another Asian voice, or quite likely the same one, said Mr Duke was comfortable but, it turned out, was not to be visited – not must on no account be or taking everything into account had better not be, just was not to be. (p.105)

‘You could tell what she meant when she thought she was meaning the opposite or not meaning anything at all… You’re the doctor who’s looking after my son or however you want to put it… I dare say you haven’t finished examining him or whatever you want to call it yet… ‘ (pp.132-133)

There’s a hymn of ‘or’s after Stan has listened to Dr Collings diagnose Steve’s mental illness in terms of seeking escape, building a mental refuge for unbearable pressures in the ‘real’ world, all diagnoses he finds unbearably trendy and meaningless (which is funny, coming from a man half of whose thoughts are meaningless repetitions):

I told myself it had to be, had to make sense somehow, somewhere. The resemblance to TV must be a mistake, an illusion based on my own ignorance, which had made me miss all sorts of subtle points and misunderstand phrases and expressions that were nearly or even exactly the same as bits of drivel but actually conveyed a precise scientific meaning to those in the know, and getting in touch with your own anger and finding out who you really were etc., were technical terms referring to definite, observable processes. Or Collings’s approach was so new that they had not yet worked out a what, a terminology for it. Or she was hopeless at talking about what she did but shit-hot in action. Or something else that made it all right, because something must. Whatever she might say and however she might behave, the bint was a doctor. (p.136)

Obviously this is Stanley the fictional character speaking. But to what extent does his anger at trendy psychobabble, and his resentment of ‘bint doctors’ reflect Amis’s view? Given the evidence of all his other novels, and the many interviews and articles he wrote, the answer must be – quite a lot.

‘Something like mental trouble being caused or anyway helped on by experiences in childhood… So Steve had a breakdown because you took no notice or the wrong sort of notice of him when he was little…’ (p.142)

Collings allowed me plenty of time to take this in by finishing, or so far just going on with, the letter or note she had been writing when I came in. (p.150)

At my side, the nurse or more probably sister made a small sound or movement that might have meant she disagreed. (p.169)

Cloudy and diffuse Even without the ‘or’s proliferating clauses of diminishing meaning, plenty of sentences disappear into gaseous verbosity, with the very conspicuous and deliberate addition of pointless tags: I suppose, on the other hand, sort of, kind of, at least, in a kind of way. So often he just can’t be bothered to define what he means.

It was true she lacked the withdrawn expression to be seen in most women considered to be beautiful, but there ought to have been a word for her combination of features, which was among other things completely distinctive, meaning less good versions of it somehow never seemed to show up, and the obvious word always had a lot to be said for it, quite enough in this case. (p.14)

Notice how the sentence becomes less meaningful as it goes on until it has almost become gibberish. Hundreds of sentences in the book are like this, making the text at times almost unbearably irritating and frustrating to read.

I felt very reluctant to be in his company – oh, I felt plenty of other things too, and disapproved of that one, but there seemed to be nothing I could do about it and for the moment it was neither here nor there. (p.69)

‘There are exceptions, naturally.’
It was such a gift to Nash to say Naturally back that I had no idea how he avoided it, but he did, just pushed his mouth forward and went on staring at me in what seemed to be his way, not offensively, seeing either quite a lot or not much of anything, it was hard to tell. (p.72)

‘Go back to the time you describe, when your son appeared late at night. Isn’t it possible that you were sure then that he was mad,’ – for once, just on that last word, Nash’s voice softened – ‘or nearly sure, or you might have been sure if you hadn’t told yourself you knew nothing about the subject, or you would have been sure if it had been someone less close to you?’ (p.80)

At the end of a fraught interview with Dr Collings there is a moment which epitomises the technique, the pattern or rhythm of so many of these sentences, which 1. open with something arresting 2. then weaken the effect by giving it multiple possible interpretations before 3. dwindling down to the anti-climax of not really being bothered either way.

1. In the middle of [indicating she had gathered enough information, Dr Collings] threw me out completely by giving me a really powerful sexy look, one that almost qualified as a leer. 2. At least that was what I took it to be, though given her skimpy control over her face it might almost equally well have stood for impersonal sympathy or moral disapproval. 3. Not that that mattered much either. (p.162)

It’s a common pattern or thought process, like watching a drunk slowly pass out.

[1] When I asked him what he was doing he took no notice, [2] in fact he looked away and seemed to stare into the next garden or the one further, [3] where there might have been something interesting going on for all I knew. (p.250)

Drunk Of course much of this might be an attempt to capture the thought rhythms of a drunk, an alcoholic. Stanley drinks steadily throughout the book and he regards it as a good sign in the men he meets if they also drink a lot. He goes to the barge party where plenty of middle-aged people drink so much they’re sick, and many meetings and encounters take place down the pub where Stan puts away an impressive amount of scotch and gin.

Thus, many of the events feel marinated in booze, and perhaps the verbose but gaseous style is an attempt to capture that fading of energy, the loss of will in a drunk who gets half-way through a sentence then just can’t be bothered. Blah blah blah ‘or something’:

I felt drunk or something. (p.135)

It showed great powers of something-or-other to have got there unassisted… She had hardly started before I became too drunk to remember afterwards any of the individual bits… (p.143, 145)

Or maybe it isn’t a clever parody of a drunk’s thought processes. Maybe it is just Late Amis.

A bit of stuff going on There’s another mannerism which gets pretty irritating, the way he describes other people’s behaviour as a kind of impersonal event: he observes people as if they are peculiar pieces of machinery rather than fellow human beings to be empathised with. For example, a woman wouldn’t be crying; there would be a bit of tears going on. People wouldn’t be laughing; there’d be some laughing going on over in the corner.

People don’t actively do things; instead, in a variation of the passive voice, there’s a bit of ‘x’ going on. The effect is alienating, and dismissive of people as people, as valid humans, as agents of behaviour: instead they become balls of actions at the periphery of Stan’s consciousness.

As soon as [Nowell] understood what was required of her she started thick-and-thinning away like nobody’s business and after doing enough of it to last me, or herself, said she would come at once. (p.253)

It was Nowell… ‘Darling Stanley.’ A warm hug came my way, one full notch below sexiness but no more and accompanied by the usual good smell. (p.257)

Not ‘she hugged me’. Instead, ‘a warm hug came my way’.

When people are talking to him, he’s inclined to refer to ‘that part’ or ‘that section’ of a discourse. It’s not ungrammatical, but it is another indication of the way the world is held at bay, not engaged with, seen through a not very clean glass, from the isolated zone where our man struggles to make out people, their intentions, their meanings. As Harry Coote is talking to him Stan largely tunes out:

That last section saw me halfway into another jar. (p.196)

That last section, that bit, that part of whatever he was on about, after a bit more of the same kind of thing, she went on for a bit more but I had stopped listening…

At the hospital , after Steve’s relapse, Stan begs Dr Collings to take him back into care but she refuses in a to-and-fro which goes on at some length, initially recounted in some detail, but then:

After a bit more along the same lines I came away, trying not to feel scared about what might be in store. (p.262)

‘After a bit more along the same lines’. The impression is that he can’t be bothered to repeat the full conversation; people just say the same old same old, anyway.

Instead of being sharp and precise, the text and attitude are old, tired, dismissive. He can’t even be bothered to account for the characters he himself has invented. At times, reading this novel, it seems a wonder Amis can be bothered to tell the story at all. Surely he’d be happier slumped, like Stanley, in front of some rubbish on the telly with a large scotch in his hand shouting to his wife in the kitchen, ‘When will dinner be ready?’


In a few days I’ll be reading the next Amis, The Old Devils, and I am praying this diffuse, muddling, indecisive style is an affectation, an exaggerated style and attitude created for the character of Stanley Duke, and is not simply the diffuse, muddling, deliberately offensive style of late Amis.

Related links

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 – A short novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, 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 – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving him at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
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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