20 March 2013

Kingsley Amis' The Green Man

I discovered Kinglsey Amis via his son Martin. Interviewers salivate at the slightest hint of a juicy detail or tasty tidbit from Martin's family life; sharks, blood in the water come to mind. So, having enjoyed Amis' Jr.'s work, I decided to see what Sr. had gotten up to in his novels.

Both Amises are cynics and both love to write about sex. While Martin's cynicism pours a tidal wave of filth into his writing, Kingsley's manifests itself as a series of sly digs at the world. And while Martin revels in histrionic and/or disturbing eroticism, Kingsley restrains himself to having a womanizing protagonist whose goal in life is to have a threesome with his wife and his doctor's wife. The mood is droll rather than creepy. Both strike me as naughty fellows for their time, but Kingsley is from a much politer time.

Stylistically, the politeness of Kingsley's era also shows. Martin tinkers with structure and voice. He mirrors characters against each other, having one rise while the other falls; he writes a character named "Martin Amis" into one of his novels; Another, Time's Arrow moves backwards through time; and so on. The closest The Green Man comes to post-modernism is when the narrator rants against the novel as an art form and novelists as people.

The Green Man is told from the point of view of Maurice Allington, a hotelier/bartender who entertains his customers with ghost stories. Other than sex and alcohol, he is not the kind of person who is interested in things. Throughout the course of the novel, he expresses dislike for TV, food, guests, wine, novels, artichokes, and rock and roll. He fills his narrative with sly cynic quips such as "The last stages of the conversation were lengthened by  my guest's habit of pausing frequently in search of some even more roundabout way of expressing himself than the one which first occurred to him." (Who hasn't known someone like that? Haha.) He hardly talks to his daughter, he hardly notices his wife, and when his father dies, he hardly cares. He has health problems; he cares about them. Others worry about his sanity and wish he would drink less. Ghosts haunt the hotel and teach Maurice to care about his family. The novel contrasts the hard facts of science with the tender magic of spirituality. (This reminded me of Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea. Perhaps a common concern of post-WWII Brit novelists?)

Overall, I did not much care for The Green Man. Its story is quirky and cute. It would make a good oddball British movie for old people. Its narrator was grumpy. Its satire and wit were predictable, unspectacular. For example: "Soon afterwards I left, after having my offer to turn the TV set on rejected: she said she wanted to go on thinking." Sometimes I cracked a grin but sometimes it came across as an old person complaining about new things. I suppose I'll stick to Martin's weirdo post-modern raunchfests. But I did like the rant against artichokes.

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