Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Kingsley Amis, "Jake’s Thing"

 – Penguin Books 1980, ISBN 0140050965/ 9780140050967 ; 288 p.

Read from August 15th to September 9th 2016

My rating

During the twenty-minute waiting between the two buses I have to take to go to work every day I – read of course, what else? Usually slim books that don’t weigh a lot in my purse, like Kingsley Amis’s Jake’s Thing, which I borrowed from a friend of mine who bought it in a second-hand bookstore without looking inside, as I realized when I grabbed it one morning and opened it happily and impatiently (for Lucky Jim is one of my favourites and I was looking forward to something in the same tonality) in the bus station to suddenly realize that the first chapter was missing. Since the second one began at page 5, I decided that whatever events were presented in the first three (coz I excluded the title page, of course) could be read afterwards and thus, following a Cortazar recipe, I read the novel as it was and went in search of the first chapter afterwards. Lucky me, I found it on Amazon, which was offering it as a sample of its kindle edition.

I don’t want to suggest, with this long introduction, that the story of the reading was more interesting than the story itself; it was just that it made me able to recapture a long-lost memory from my childhood holidays at my grandparents’ house in a mesmerizing countryside (though, alas, not in Combray!), with long sunny days during which I used to climb dusty attics looking for old, dilapidated books I devoured despite missing covers or pages or both. I did not care much then about the indestructibility of the text, nor did I bother with the idea that even a single missing word can leave a gaping hole in a narrative. On the contrary, I loved to fill in the blanks with my own words, to guess and even re-write the missing parts.

Only this time I didn’t. Try to guess, I mean. I read the book without wondering about the first chapter only to realise after reading it that it held no surprise for me – somehow I knew it would reveal how come Jake arrived at Rosenberg’s door (this is what a lifetime of reading does to you, it teaches you at least to put in order the narrative sequences J), and the amusing parts (like the one in which Jake waves at a familiar face he thinks it’s an old friend only to realize it was in fact an actor who played in a popular series) have never a fixed place in the tale. I concluded that the postmodernist approach works nicely for the angry young men generation as well, or at least for this witty novella.

It is said (see inter alia the article of Zachary Leader The Menage à Trois that  saved Kingsley Amis from Despair ) that Kingsley Amis (who was suffering from the same problem as his character at the time he was writing the book), immediately after his novel was published, used to appear in public with his wife in order to prevent any autobiographical reading, although many of the beliefs and experiences of his  (anti)hero were his beliefs and experiences:

“Like Jake, Amis had laboratory tests in which he was given 'pictorial pornographic materials' for stimulation (in the novel these provoke Jake's comparison of female genitalia to 'the inside of a giraffe's ear, or a tropical fruit not much prized by the natives') and had his erections measured by a machine called a plethysmograph.
At night he put on a 'nocturnal mensurator', a device for measuring 'penile tumescence'.”

All these experiences, seriously taken by Amis in real life (where he tried hard to save his marriage), would find their funny way towards his novel, becoming scenes of a burlesque comedy in which Jake is forced to attach strange machines to his “thing”, to expose it as a part of a scientific experiment in front of medical students, or as a part of a curative process in front of his fellow sufferers in a workshop, to protect it against aggressive females convinced they detain the secret for his recovery, and so on.  All this combined with almost daily assaults with feminist ideas from his students, his colleagues, his former mistresses and even his wife that it is no wonder his misogyny grows and grows until in the end shamelessly takes over.

However, I think the theme of this funny novel is not misogyny, though Jake is a misogynist all right, nor is the andropause discreetly suggested by the title. Or not only. The theme could also be the danger of losing the manhood under the pressure of the modern society, the de-masculinization of the male forced to abandon by turn the territories he was the master of for a long time, the intimacy of his thoughts and the singularity of his attributes, whilst forced to acknowledge en tout temps this strange and incomprehensible creature which is the woman. Moreover, womankind is nothing but a black widow waiting to devour the poor male whose only role has become only to assure the survival of the species. Their invasion of the mankind’s sacred pace, suggests Jake in his discourse at the College meeting (where, by the way, he was supposed to support women’s integration in their institution), is imminent and with horrible consequences: 

‘…it’s the men who are going to be the losers – oh, it’ll, it’ll happen all right, no holding it up now. When the first glow has faded and it’s quite normal to have girls in the same building, and on the same staircase and across the landing, they’ll start realizing that that’s exactly what they’ve got, girls everywhere and not a commonroom, not a club, not a pub where they can get away from them. (…) They don’t mean what they say, they don’t use language for discourse but for extending their personality, they take all disagreements as opposition, yes they do, even the brightest of them, and that’s the end of the search for truth which is the whole thing’s supposed to be about.’

The book is full of such sarcastic reasoning that transform our hero in a mighty defender of the survival of his “race”, forever fighting against that hostile female society that assaults him with their bodies when he finds himself in the middle of a feminist demonstration, that sends him penises which he is forced to hide in his office at university or that blackmails him with suicide attempts when he refuses to deliver. His last act of bravery, described in one of the most brilliantly ironic pages of the novel that ends the story in a major (although not, and this is part of its brilliancy, solemn) key, is his refusal, after learning from his physician that his condition doesn’t have a psychological but a physical explanation (a lack of hormones or something like that), to be cured, for it would mean re-enter the enemy territory he finally was able to escape from:

Jake did a quick run-through of women in his mind, not of the ones he had known or dealt with in the past few months or years so much as all of them: their concern with the surface of things, with objects and appearances, with their surroundings and how they looked and sounded in them, with seeming to be better and to be right while getting everything wrong, their automatic assumption of the role of injured party in any clash of wills, their certainty that a view is the more credible and useful for the fact that they hold it, their use of misunderstanding and misrepresentation as weapons of debate, their selective sensitivity to tones of voice, their unawareness of the difference in themselves between sincerity and insincerity, their interest in importance (together with noticeable inability to discriminate in that sphere), their fondness for general conversation and directionless discussion, their pre-emption of the major share of feeling, their exaggerated estimate of their own plausibility, their never listening and lots of other things like that, all according to him. So it was quite easy. 'No thanks,' he said.

Although not in the same league with Lucky Jim, whose sparkle is quite inimitable, Jake’s Thing is altogether worth reading (in any chapter order you may prefer J), be it only for the funnily desperate way in which it desecrates the androgyne myth.

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