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Jul122010

Stanley and the Women

 

Stanley and the Women

Kingsley Amis

New York: Summit Books

1984

 

How does one enjoy a book when you disagree with one of its main premises? In the case of Stanley and the Women, Kingsley Amis’ 1984 novel, which is dripping with misogyny, the answer is that the cleverness of the book as well as the tongue in cheek quality of the anti-female tirades, which are, admittedly, a major part of the book, outweigh the crassness of the point of view. In fact, according to interviews with Amis, the conclusion that Stanley’s (and virtually every male character in the book as well) hatred of women is small-minded and despicable is something for which the author was aiming. Belying that comment, however is the fact that each woman in the book is portrayed as selfish, lying and manipulative, providing credibility for Stanley’s views of them. Even more so, Amis’ women, in his other novels are often portrayed similarly, if not worse.

Stanley, the narrator of the novel is, almost first of all, an alcoholic. This is another familiar characteristic of Amis’ characters, although only occasionally, as in The Old Devils, does the character recognize his addiction as a problem and Stanley recognizes only his need for drink, not the difficulty with it. As is often the case with Amis characters, Stanley is passive to a fault, swallowing his anger and his assertiveness along with his alcohol at every opportunity. He is married to Susan, a second marriage of only a few years and generally succumbs to her running of the household show, although she, who comes from an upper class background and, in marrying Stanley has married beneath herself, which her mother never lets either of them forget, seems content to allow Stanley to follow his own interests and do his own thing, which involve working as a newspaper advertising manager, visiting numerous restaurants and pubs with colleagues and raising his son from his first marriage.

Stanley’s first wife, Nowell (the phonetic rendering of the Christmas appellation being based upon parental ignorance not design) is a fading television actress, whose main personality characteristics appear to be self-absorption, disregard of the truth, and lack of interest or involvement with Stanley’s  and her young adult son, Steve.

Steve and the family’s reaction to and struggles with his severe mental illness is the central theme of the story. I have previously reviewed Steve  Lopez ‘s The Soloist, the true story of a newspaper columnist’s experiences with a musically gifted street person suffering from schizophrenia. Amis’ characterization of Steve’s schizophrenic illness is as realistic as is Lopez ‘s description of his friend, the real-life person, Nathaniel Ayers. Moreover, the response of Stanley, Nowell, Susan and Susan’s relatives to Steve’s illness, a response characterized by irritation, suspicion of deception, blaming, and mostly resentment at the intrusion of his symptoms into the routine and protected life each of them live, is true enough to life to serve as a textbook for professionals interested in how family dynamics play out in the face of the cataclysmic experience of a having a family member with mental illness.

Of course I have left out what makes Stanley and the Women worth reading. It is not, to be sure,  the misogyny, which no doubt has provoked countless readers, mostly women, to throw the book aside in disgust, nor is it the absorbingly authentic portrayal of a mental disorder,  nor even the astute pronouncements of Stanley’s psychiatric consultant, Dr. Nash, regarding schizophrenia, which are telling enough to be quoted in their most trenchant parts.

All schizophrenia patients are mad, and none are sane. Their behavior is incomprehensible. It tells us nothing about what they do in the rest of their lives, gives no insight into the human condition and has no lesson for sane people except how sane they are. There is nothing profound about it. Schizophrenics aren’t clever or wise or witty – they may make some very odd remarks but that’s because they’re mad, and there’s nothing to be got out of what they say.

 

 

Despite Dr. Nash’s admonitions, his colleague, Dr. Collings, who is treating Steve in the hospital, approaches all of her patient’s behavior as if it was carrying a message, mostly one of blame for the poor parenting he received from Stanley while  growing up, and everyone else around Steve has one sort of interpretation or another concerning why he behaves as he does, including plenty of blame to be thrown in Stanley’s direction by nearly everyone.

 

But the joy of reading Stanley and the Women comes from Amis’ humor. Stanley has sort of one eye open to what is actually happening around him and  so sees the truth in a number of situations and about a number of people, while at the same time denying it or running away from it, usually toward another drink. But the thoughts scamper across his mind before he shies away from them, and invariably in hilarious fashion. It is impossible not to sympathize with Stanley (it may be easier for a male to say this than a female) at the same time that one regards him as a coward, a bigot and hopelessly inept and ineffectual.

 

Stanley and the Women presents, in Stanley, a character, not quite so ineffectual and certainly not as self-destructive as Lucky Jim, the most famous and funniest of Amis’ characters, but the writing is considerably better and the setting one that more people would find familiar than the academic atmosphere of Lucky Jim. Stanley and the Women was made into a four-part BBC production, which is available on DVD, but probably only by purchase rather than rental.

Reviewed by Casey Dorman

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