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 whom he describes as “God.” The hero of the novel, a young officer called James Churchill becomes convinced that a pattern of deaths is developing around him, involving first strangers, then closer acquaintances: At the same time, he is falling in love with a girl called Catherine Casement, who has been driven temporarily insane by a sadistic husband and who is soon to be threatened by cancer. Catherine’s troubles make him aware of the universality of suffering, and he is driven into a series of revolts: against the army (of which he has previously been a loyal and contented member) as the supremer death-dealing machine, and in particular against his part in an unspeakable project called Operation Apollo; and beyond this, against whatever God could have made such a world. He harries with angry questions an unfortunate Army chaplain called Ayscue (who is anyway, as we later learn, a secret unbeliever). James’s revolt presupposes the validity of a religious view of experience.
AMIS’S SERIOUSNESS is imposing; but this is not to say that he has successfully enacted it as fiction, and this is how this novel must be judged. James has the two-dimensional thinness of the hero of a moral fable, and this is true of Catherine as well. Some of the minor characters are more interesting, like the mad psychiatrist Dr. Best, the nymphomaniacal Lady Hazell, and, above all, Captain Max Hunter, an unabashed homosexual. When we first meet him he is lying in a hospital bed, where he is undergoing a cure for alcoholism, surrounded by all the characteristic amenities of earlier Amis heroes:
He was lying back against advantageously arranged pillows within reach of various comforts: non-glossy illustrated magazines, paperback novels on the covers of which well-developed girls cringed or sneered, a comparatively hard-back work on how to win at poker, a couple of newspapers folded so as to reveal half-completed crossword puzzles, a tin jug containing a cloudy greyish fluid, packets of French cigarettes and an open box of chocolates.
Max later confesses, “I’ve never been particularly keen on having to think about things. And on things that make you think about things. You know, like music and all that. Love’s another one. I joined the army specially to get away from them.” But the realities of love and death have finally caught up with him, and shown the inadequacy of this view of existence. So he, too, is in revolt against death and God (Amis never wholly distinguishes between them). This, we may take it, is a valediction to the world of Lucky Jim.
Amis has complicated his narrative by grafting it on to a competent example of that fashionable genre, the spy story. I don’t think the moral concerns mix very well with the thriller elements; as a novel of ideas, The Anti-Death League is interesting, but it is a feeble and unconvincing novel. Amis has surrendered a good deal of the fictional territory in which he is most at home and got very little in exchange. At the same time, his seriousness deserves respect, and so too does his determination to write a different book each time, and avoid self-imitation.
RICHARD FARINA’S Been Down So Long (etc.), mixes hipster-picaresque with a much more modish, campy style, and seems to be by, for, and about, what Leslie Fiedler calls the New Mutants, whose attachment to normal human attributes is extremely tenuous. There isn’t much to it except for a forceful facility in the writing and a horribly accurate ear for the inanities of hipster speech. Here’s the opening paragraph:
To Athené then. Young Gnossos Pappadopoulis, furry Pooh Bear, keeper of the flame, voyaged back from the asphalt seas of the great wasted land: oh highways US 40 and unyielding 66, I am home to the glacier-gnawed gorges, the fingers of lakes, the golden girls of Westchester and Shaker Heights. See me loud with lies, big boots stomping, mind awash with schemes.
And so we go on, to follow young Gnossos in an infantile and wholly self-approbatory career of drinking drugging, screwing, and generally rampaging around the campus of a college called Athené. Mr. Fariña keeps it all going wildly on, in the accepted manner of comic-strip fiction, with lots of way-out names to keep up the merriment: Louie Motherball, Juan Carlos Rosenbloom, Calvin Blacknesse, G. Alonso Oeuf, etc. For all its souped-up gaiety I found it depressing: a bright, cold, cruel, empty book.
MARIO VARGAS LLOSA was only twenty-six when his first novel, The Time of the Hero, appeared in Peru four years ago; and he had already published a collection of short stories. His novel is a remarkably mature (and, one imagines, highly autobigraphical) account of life among a group of adolescent boys in a military academy in Lima, where savage initiation ceremonies, bullying, lewdness, cheating, and a discipline that is little short of terrorism, are part of the accepted order of existence. (The academy in question burned a thousand copies of Llosa’s novel in an official ceremony.) In a sense Llosa is too clever a writer, for his novel gets swamped in places with unnecessary attempts at literary sophistication, repeated flashbacks, multiple viewpoints, and so on. The first hundred pages or so are inordinately prolix, but it is worth making an effort. At the heart of his narrative is a chain of fateful events. One section of the students have all leave stopped until the perpetrator of a minor crime is discovered. After several weeks of confinement, one of the meekest and most put-upon boys betrays the name of the offender, so that he can have his leave restored and go out to meet the girl he is in love with (whom in fact he scarcely knows). A few days later he is shot on maneuvers; another of the students—the novel’s center of consciousness, insofar as it has one—feels himself impelled to give away the name of the murderer to the authorities. They are determined to keep the whole thing quiet, and the only decent officer in the place is sent off to a remote mountain garrison because he is determined to establish the truth. If Llosa’s novel had been severely edited at an early stage its dramatic core would, I think, have emerged more effectively: despite its prolixity, it is still a harsh and honest piece of fiction.
October 6, 1966