King of Shaft: A Review of Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis

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Take a Girl Like You
By Kingsley Amis
New York Review Books, 2015
317 pages, $15.95
Reviewed by George Salis

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Documented as a personal favorite of Kingsley Amis, Take a Girl Like You, originally published in 1960, is peopled with subsidiary characters, ranging from the posh and pedantic to the proletarian and pessimistic. These characters, with names like Julian Ormerod or Dick Thompson, mildly stimulate most scenes with their eccentricity, such as at meals or an impromptu shooting competition.

One of the larger problems is that Amis’s prose is constricted by realism. This is the inclination of what Rubin Rabinovitz in The Reaction Against Experimentation in the English Novel calls ‘neo-realists,’ writers whose “styles are plain, their time-sequences are chronological, and they make no use of myth, symbol or stream-of-consciousness inner narratives.” In other words, it is the style of the quotidian, if not the banal and predictable.

In the 21st century, the novel as a whole reads like a curio of stuffy, formal, almost stilted speech; dated humor; and redundant moral clashing, rather than an exploration of “modern life” as the synopsis on the back of the book declares.

The reader is first introduced to the twenty-year-old Jenny Bunn, an old-fashioned working-class girl who recently moved to a small town near London to teach primary school children. It is touched upon, without any further elaboration, that she wants to escape the hurt of an ex-lover. Whilst interacting with the eccentric characters of this town, she receives a constant but low jolt of cognitive dissonance in regard to maintaining her idea of a pre-coital nuptial. A contributing factor is that everyone hits on her, including the ‘French girl’ who boards in the same house. But the main attraction, in both senses of the phrase, is the conceivably immoral and amoral Patrick Standish, who is thirty years old.

Christian Lorentzen summarizes the situation in the introduction: “Jenny is trapped in a pre-war morality that’s expiring so quickly she hardly knows herself why she’s sticking to it and Patrick is beholden to the oncoming sixties in ways he can’t understand.”

Patrick can’t understand because he’s not a clairvoyant, but he knows fairly well what makes him tick, usually in the face of what would make him stop ticking, because Patrick is plagued with a palpable fear of death that manifests itself at times as physical anxiety. The narration explains that “thinking about sex as much as possible was the only way to lick that.” Patrick confuses lust with love as the antidote or deferment of death. But this kind of macho-existentialist crisis has been explored ad naseum by post-WWII heavyweight writers such as Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and John Updike. Simply put, they did it better.

The first time Jenny encounters Patrick, she is piqued by the look he gives her, “one which she had got used to seeing on men’s faces…usually they seem not to know they were giving her any particular kind of look, but this one did seem to know, and not to care much.”

Dick Thompson warns Jenny of Patrick, but she continues to hope that Patrick is “not going to turn out to be a wolf.” On their first date, he takes her out to a fancy restaurant. Patrick’s talk is as smooth as chunky peanut butter: “Look, I know you’re not going to believe this, but you really are the best of the lot. Literally, not just sort of vaguely and because I feel like it and what the hell why shouldn’t I say it.” After the date, Jenny denies his advances for sex twice, saying, “I’ve read about you in books.” She is referring to the women’s advice columns of Woman’s Domain that she frequently consumes. During one of many charged, nearly melodramatic exchanges, Patrick says, “I should have thought a girl like you would be more up with things.” But she is obdurate: “It’s just that I don’t believe in…this free-and-easy way of going on.” He claims that behind her refusal is “the old idea of girls being virgins when they get married.” Later, Jenny admits, “I don’t believe in any of that kind of thing before I’m married. It doesn’t work.” Patrick reverts to a cliché charge of guilt: “If you’d really been in love you wouldn’t have been able to stop yourself in your cold way.”

Patrick finds himself constantly complaining about her stance. His friend and flatmate Graham notes, “For a man who hates women as much as you seem to do, you spend a good deal of time in their company.” The answer to this conundrum lays within any of his mental yearnings for Jenny: “Oh, why had he let himself remember that tremendous mouth, so vividly that by olfactory hallucination its odour seemed to be with him still.” Evidently, he’s aromatically hypnotized by more than one of her ‘mouths.’

It is hinted that Patrick used to be romantic until he developed a jaded ennui, ostensibly from past girlfriends. An inkling of this romance, or at least a faux version of it, is revived in him when he dates Jenny for an extended period of time after having promised to keep it in his pants until otherwise noted. Not even a year passes before he says to his friend, with a tinge of hysteria, “I’m a steady now, do you realize that? A swain. A suitor. I’m courting, see? They’ll be jeering at me in the street if I let it go on. Tamed. Corralled.” This demonstrates his insecurity, which might be the root of the problem. At one moment, “he had felt the wing of the angel of marriage brush his cheek, and was afraid,” which is practically no different from his other fear, feeling how, as he explains earlier, “the angel of death had me by the throat.” To Patrick, marriage and death are the same punishment. This, coupled with stir-craziness, leads him to give Jenny an ultimatum, something to which we all know women respond well. He tells her that either they set up an appointment in which she will give up her virginity or she will be faced with one of two overlapping consequences: end the relationship or deal with the fact that he must have some sort of flesh in order to satiate himself.

Even though she agreed, Jenny doesn’t show up for the rendezvous, but a disconsolate Sheila does. Sheila, a sixteen-year-old student at the school where Patrick teaches, tells Patrick that she is pregnant and asks him for help. He prescribes her an abortion with a doctor, and even offers to pay for it. To compensate Patrick, she gives him a proper ‘thank you’ lasting for approximately thirty minutes.

Not too long afterward, Patrick and Jenny meet at a party, which is where she explains herself: she meant to show up for their engagement, but thought it was too late by the time she summoned a simulacrum of courage. Patrick has had enough and wants to end the relationship altogether. As the party progresses, she has too much to drink and is nearly raped by a stranger, but Julian intervenes and lets her rest in an empty bedroom. Patrick finds his way in and, given her inebriated state, he rapes her.

Jenny is upset with his actions, but later, in a time of emotional need (related to a problem at her work), she retreats into Patrick’s arms once again.

But as Patrick’s friend Ormerod says to him much before this bathetic ending, referring to his problems with Jenny early on in the relationship, “I’d have marked you down as a veritable king of shaft.”

Or, considering everything, maybe Patrick is just a dickhead.




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