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Critical Essay by Russell Harrison
SOURCE: "Sex, Women, and Irony," from Against the American Dream: Essays on Charles Bukowski, Black Sparrow Press, 1994, pp. 183-215.
In the following essay, Harrison challenges the common view of Bukowski as a chauvinist and misogynist. He illustrates his point with several selections from Post Office, Factotem, and Women, in which Bukowski ironically deconstructs the macho male image.
"Why can't you be decent to people?" she asked.
"Fear," I said.
No aspect of Bukowski's writing has been more sharply criticized than his portrayal of women. In response to his early work, one critic [Len Fulton] wrote (hyperbolically but with some justification):
Bukowski's antics with women, his thoughts about them, are one vast and sniggering cliché. He has nothing to tell us about them because, I'm convinced, he knows nothing about them (e.g., "the ladies will always be the same.") and is determined at this point not to learn. They are a dirty joke to him, a dirty joke on him. Inside the web of his booze-bull-and-broad exploits lurks a demon sexual jingoist, erupting and irrupting in self-punishing concatenations; hostile, frustrated, pugilistic—fearful of the role into which (he thinks) one is cast by fate of genitalia.
Although such a characterization is no longer valid, it represents an early (and continuing) response to Bukowski's work. However, his depiction of women has changed significantly over the third of a century in which he has been writing. The crucial period for this change was the 1970's and this essay focuses on the novels written during this period; just in the seven years between Post Office (1971) and Women (1978) there was an increased subtlety of characterization, a more nuanced treatment of psychological dynamics and less reliance on stereotypes.
While I will discuss Bukowski's undeniable male chauvinism, what has become significant in his writing is the irony with which he has come to treat his protagonist's machismo, something which distinguishes him from many male American novelists of his generation. Reading Fulton's comments after reading Women, it becomes clear how far Bukowski has moved from his earlier position.
Kate Millett's 1970 book Sexual Politics provides a useful background for such a discussion. There, she places the women's movement in a historical context and develops categories for the analysis of patriarchal society's views of women in literature. She convincingly argues that women were rarely depicted objectively by modern male authors who were the prisoners of myth and of a puritanical view of sexuality in which a woman, by virtue of her interest in and enjoyment of sex was seen as perverse or defiled. Her periodization of the liberation movement is also useful. She notes that the years 1930–1960 represented a counter-revolutionary period with respect to women's liberation. This is important in any discussion of Bukowski's work because it underlines the fact that part of his boyhood, all of his adolescence, and part of his maturity took place during an era of reaction against women's gains, while his novels were written and published in the middle of the "second wave" of women's liberation.
In his novels Bukowski has depicted a number of women through their relationships with Henry Chinaski; indeed, one of the reasons "thoughtful female readers find no chance whatsoever to positively identify with the female characters" is that women are rarely presented independent of their relationships with Chinaski. By the time Bukowski came to write Women, however, this had begun to change and his depiction of women and sexual relationships gradually shifted from crude descriptions of events and flat characterizations of women to fuller descriptions, more rounded characterizations and female characters who, it was suggested, had lives outside the orbit of Henry Chinaski.
In his first novel, Post Office, Bukowski depicts events that, but for their brevity, might suggest comparison with the most chauvinist scenes in Henry Miller:
I think it was my second day as a Christmas temp that this big woman came out and walked around with me as I delivered letters. What I mean by big was that her ass was big and her tits were big and that she was big in all the right places. She seemed a bit crazy but I kept looking at her body and I didn't care.
She talked and talked and talked. Then it came out. Her husband was an officer on an island far away and she got lonely, you know, and lived in this little house in back all by herself.
"What little house?" I asked.
She wrote the address on a piece of paper.
"I'm lonely too," I said, "I'll come by and we'll talk tonight."
I was shacked but the shackjob was gone half the time, off somewhere, and I was lonely all right. I was lonely for that big ass standing beside me.
"All right," she said, "see you tonight."
She was a good one all right, she was a good lay but like all lays after the 3rd or 4th night I began to lose interest and didn't go back.
Here, on the first page of Bukowski's first novel, the woman is objectified in the crudest terms, presented as mentally problematic, the aggressor and unfaithful. But even in such a crude and simplistic depiction, there are hints of a subtler dynamic: along with the woman's seemingly unambiguous infidelity, a reason for her behavior is suggested: her husband is away (i.e., withholding his affection), behavior repeated by Chinaski who soon stops seeing the woman.
A few pages further along, Chinaski encounters a woman who grabs a registered letter (without signing for it) which he then attempts to retrieve, forcing his way into the house:
"YOU HAVE NO RIGHT IN MY HOUSE! GET OUT!"
"And you have no right to rob the mails! Either give me the letter back or sign for it. Then I'll leave."
"All right! All right! I'll sign."
I showed her where to sign and gave her a pen. I looked at her breasts and the rest of her and I thought, what a shame she's crazy, what a shame, what a shame.
She handed back the pen and her signature—it was just scrawled. She opened the letter, began to read it as I turned to leave.
Then she was in front of the door, arms spread across. The letter was on the floor.
"Evil evil evil man! You came here to rape me!"
"Look lady, let me by."
"THERE IS EVIL WRITTEN ALL OVER YOUR FACE!"
"Don't you think I know that? Now let me out of here!"
With one hand I tried to push her aside. She clawed one side of my face, good. I dropped my bag, my cap fell off, and as I held a handkerchief to the blood she came up and raked the other side.
"YOU CUNT! WHAT THE HELL'S WRONG WITH YOU!"
"See there? See there? You're evil!"
She was right up against me. I grabbed her by the ass and got my mouth on hers. Those breasts were against me, she was all up against me. She pulled her head back, away from me—
"Rapist! Rapist! Evil rapist!"
I reached down with my mouth, got one of her tits, then switched to the other.
"Rape! Rape! I'm being raped!"
She was right. I got her pants down, unzipped my fly, got it in, then walked her backwards to the couch. We fell down on top of it.
She lifted her legs high.
"RAPE!" she screamed.
I finished her off, zipped my fly, picked up my mail pouch and walked out leaving her staring quietly at the ceiling …
Once more a woman is depicted as disturbed and aggressive—although here it is a more complicated situation; indeed, although she cries "rape!", she is shown as partially complicit and when Chinaski agrees that it is rape, we feel he doesn't really believe it, that somehow her physical aggression sanctions his sexual violence. But he does rape her, or at least I think most readers would see it that way, and such irony as there is in the passage is overshadowed by the protagonist's brutal actions and crude chauvinist language. Such language is especially evident in Post Office because Bukowski is nowhere near as effective in distancing himself from Chinaski as he became in the later novels.
If the writing is sometimes repetitive and unmediated in Post Office, this is no longer the case in Factotum (1975). But although Bukowski's distance from his protagonist is more evident and the writing more skillful, the underlying dynamic remains the same. On the first page of the novel, soon after his arrival in Miami, Henry Chinaski is assaulted by the siren call of a "high yellow": "Hey, poor white trash!" and responding, is made a fool of. Twenty-odd pages later in the first explicit sexual encounter of the novel he is literally assaulted by Martha, a fellow-lodger in his rooming house. After some brief conversation and a dance-cum-strip-tease Martha attacks:
Suddenly her eyes narrowed. I was sitting on the edge of the bed. She leapt on me before I could move. Her open mouth was pressed on mine. It tasted of spit and onions and stale wine and (I imagined) the sperm of four hundred men. She pushed her tongue into my mouth. It was thick with saliva, I gagged and pushed her off. She fell on her knees, tore open my zipper, and in a second my soft pecker was in her mouth. She sucked and bobbed. Martha had a small yellow ribbon in her short grey hair. There were warts and big brown moles on her neck and cheeks.
My penis rose; she groaned, bit me. I screamed, grabbed her by the hair, pulled her off. I stood in the center of the room wounded and terrified. They were playing a Mahler symphony on the radio. Before I could move she was down on her knees and on me again. She gripped my balls mercilessly with both of her hands. Her mouth opened, she had me; her head bobbed, sucked, jerked. Giving my balls a tremendous yank while almost biting my pecker in half she forced me to the floor. Sucking sounds filled the room as my radio played Mahler. I felt as if I were being eaten by a pitiless animal. My pecker rose, covered with spittle and blood. The sight of it threw her into a frenzy. I felt as if I was being eaten alive.
If I come, I thought desperately, I'll never forgive myself.
The last sentence is one of the funniest in all of Bukowski's writings. Rarely has the mind-body split been presented so comically. The tactic Bukowski uses is reminiscent of the effective use of humor in his social criticism (noted in the last chapter) as he treats a subject of some (psychological) weight—Chinaski's reluctance to lose control—in a comic way.
Here the male has completely lost control; while the scene is comic, it is the comic transformation of the male's ultimate nightmare: he—or at least his penis—has fallen prey to a sexually devouring woman. The depiction of a wounded and terrified Chinaski radically contravenes our traditional expectations. To appreciate how radically, we need only try to imagine Henry Miller or Norman Mailer invoking such a protagonist. Both Miller and Miler have too much invested in maintaining the male's power to allow this much loss of control or to present what is at bottom for them a serious issue—in fact, the issue, as a subject for jest.
Chinaski, in a tactic not unknown in Bukowski, gives the woman money afterwards, although she hasn't mentioned payment and, indeed, seems content with the pleasure she has derived from the act itself. Commodifying the act is the male's last-gasp attempt to maintain control and escape his victimization (inherent in his being treated as an object) by reversing the roles. This passage represents something quite unusual in the presentation of a male protagonist in American fiction. Though it does not depict the woman positively, indeed not even as fully human, neither is it the language of simple chauvinism, and its significance lies as much in what it reveals about men and the masculine role as in its degradation of women. The male's loss of control and the anxiety it provokes are clear in the language. The passage is comic, but the comedy is also a defense against the anxiety occasioned by the loss of control.
In Factotum, Bukowski develops Chinaski's passivity, even masochism, which, along with the theme of male victimization is the virtual signature of the protagonist. This becomes obvious in his relationship with Gertrude, a young woman he meets in his St. Louis roominghouse. They become emotionally involved (though not lovers).
Whenever I went out into the hall of the roominghouse Gertrude seemed to be standing there. She was perfect, pure, maddening sex, and she knew it, and she played on it, dripped it, and allowed you to suffer for it. It made her happy. I didn't feel too bad either. Like most men in that situation I realized that I wouldn't get anything out of her—intimate talks, exciting roller-coaster rides, long Sunday afternoon walks—until after I had made some odd promises.
Here the masochistic element, which runs like a red thread through Chinaski's relationships, appears explicitly for the first time, expressed in the passage: "She was sex … and allowed you to suffer for it. It made her happy. I didn't feel too bad either."
In one sense, Chinaski remains in control by denying women sex, or deeper involvement (thus expressing a sadism that we would also expect to be present), but this is not the whole story. The ambivalence of the situation is reflected in the odd construction: "allowed you to suffer." The more expected phrasing would be "made you suffer," but this is too straight-forward and suggests the possibility of an open conflict whereas in the narrator's phrasing, the male is presented as totally powerless and the choice of "allowed" implies that something desirable, pleasurable, i.e., painful, is being granted, a projection of his own masochistic delight in the situation; indeed the tentativeness of Chinaski's language in the whole exchange is marked, as if he is almost pleading to be subjected to Gertrude's power.
However, this is only the opening gambit in a more complex interaction. Gertrude is interested in Chinaski and shows it. Yet Chinaski is obviously of two minds. In spite of his knowledge of the need for "some odd promises," he allows the relationship to progress, ostensible grateful for her "allow[ing] him to be warmed by a glimpse of it." One night Chinaski takes Gertrude to a bar:
Gertrude turned her head and started into the crowd of people. Then she looked at me.
"Isn't he handsome?"
"That soldier over there. He's sitting alone. He sits so straight. And he's got all his medals on."
"Come on, let's get out of here."
"But it's not late."
"You can stay."
"No, I want to go with you."
"I don't care what you do."
"Is it the soldier? Are you mad because of the soldier?"
"It was the soldier!"
I stood up at the table, left a tip and walked toward the door. I heard Gertrude behind me. I walked down the street in the snow. Soon she was walking at my side.
"You didn't even get a taxi. These high heels in the snow!"
I didn't answer. We walked the four or five blocks to the rooming house. I went up the steps with her beside me. Then I walked down to my room, opened the door, closed it, got out of my clothes and went to bed. I heard her throw something against the wall of her room.
While Gertrude is interested in Chinaski, he, needing a reason to end a difficult situation (difficult because his involvement entails vulnerability), uses the pretext of her casual remarks about the soldier to terminate the relationship. While the incident may have been used to suggest the faithlessness of women (a theme in Bukowski), the underlying cause of the break is the protagonist's failure to respond to a woman's emotional needs. What, in fact, has happened? Gertrude has become involved with Chinaski who, not interested in a deeper relationship, has nevertheless allowed Gertrude to become involved and causes her pain by his behavior. What has taken place is the reverse of what had been described in the passage quoted earlier: he has allowed her to become involved with him and makes her suffer for it. Gertrude is obviously ambivalent, too; her attraction to the soldier stems not so much from his physical attractiveness as from his "straightness": he has played the game correctly, has gotten medals to prove it, whereas the appeal of Chinaski is his refusal to play the game (which also appeals to Gertrude).
This passivity is again evident in the relationship with Laura (the first extended sexual relationship in the novel). While Chinaski initiates it, it soon becomes clear who is in control. Chinaski buys Laura four of five drinks, then tells her, "That drink was it. I'm broke."
"Are you serious?"
"Do you have a place to stay?"
"An apartment, two or three days left on the rent."
"And you don't have any money? Or anything to drink?"
"Come with me."
Laura, along with two other women, Grace and Jerry, is living with and being supported by Wilbur Oxnard, an eccentric millionaire who is writing an opera, The Emperor of San Francisco. Chinaski is accepted into the fold, ostensibly to write the libretto. At one time or another, each of the women had been Wilbur's lover, though "Grace is his main girl." Wilbur has a boat and on it, in one memorable chapter, Chinaski has sex, seriatim, with all three women, though Laura is his main woman. The situation as it develops is noteworthy because here he immediately moves in with (sort of) the first woman he meets who shows him the slightest bit of affection and who has sex with him and by virtue of his relationship with her winds up being supported by Wilbur. This complete "surrender" doesn't jibe with the independent loner image that Chinaski likes to project. That Chinaski himself recognizes this and is, momentarily, made uneasy by the developing structure of the relationship is apparent when, on the night of their first meeting they return to his apartment with liquor, food and cigarettes (charged to Wilbur): "I brought her drink and curled up next to her. I did feel foolish." It is the loss of control that is at the root of this feeling.
Throughout the book women continue to initiate relationships. The most important such relationship, with Jan Meadows, begins somewhat as the relationship with Laura began:
We had met at an open air lunch counter—I was spending my last fifty cents on a greasy hamburger—and we struck up a conversation. She bought me a beer, gave me her phone number, and three days later I moved into her apartment.
The relationship is broken off, a good deal later there is a reconciliation, and then it ends for good. Jan precipitates both breakups, though the first time it is Chinaski who leaves. This occurs after a period in which Chinaski has been working regularly and also winning money at the track.
The new life didn't sit well with Jan. She was used to her four fucks a day and also used to seeing me poor and humble. After a day at the warehouse, then the wild ride and finally sprinting across the parking lot and down through the tunnel, there wasn't much love left in me. When I came in each evening she'd be well into her wine.
"Mr. Horseplayer," she'd say as I walked in. She'd be all dressed up; high heels, nylons, legs crossed high, swinging her foot. "Mr. Big Horseplayer. You know, when I first met you I liked the way you walked across a room. You didn't just walk across a room, you walked like you were going to walk through a wall, like you owned everything, like nothing mattered. Now you get a few bucks in your pocket and you're not the same anymore. You act like a dental student or a plumber."
Whatever superficial cogency Chinaski's explanation might initially possess is demolished by the exchange that follows:
"Don't give me any shit about plumbers, Jan."
"You haven't made love to me in two weeks."
"Love takes many forms. Mine has been more subtle."
"You haven't fucked me for two weeks."
Surely Jan has a point in that the reduction in the incidence of lovemaking from about 28 times per week (!) to zero cannot be completely traced to the demands made on Chinaski's stamina by steady employment and the visits to the track (he is, after all, in his twenties); clearly Chinaski has begun to withdraw his affection from Jan, and her complaint, which his superficial riposte does nothing to answer, seems justified. Jan's focus is not so much on Chinaski's having money but on his going to the track which takes place after work and thus deprives her of his company. Chinaski, however, subtly changes the grounds of her complaint: "The arguments were always the same. I understood it too well now—that great lovers were always men of leisure. I fucked better as a bum than as a puncher of timeclocks." Again, there is an element of projection here. It is Chinaski who resents having to work whereas Jan's objection merely expresses her resentment at his neglecting her for the track; he takes his resentment out on Jan because she is an easy target. Jan has said nothing at all about the quality of their lovemaking (indeed, how could she, since there hasn't been any), only wanted to make love. What has happened has been a replay of the relationship with Gertrude: the woman has become emotionally involved with Chinaski and Chinaski has begun to withdraw from her. The result is that Jan, naturally enough, begins to seek love and affection elsewhere:
Most of the evenings fell into a pattern. She'd argue, grab her purse and be gone out the door. It was effective; we had lived and loved together for too many days. I had to feel it and feel it I did. But I always let her go as I sat helpless in my chair and drank my whiskey and tuned in the radio to a bit of classical music. I knew she was out there, and I knew there would be somebody else. Yet I had to let it happen, I had to let events take their own course.
This particular evening I sat there and something just broke in me and I got up and walked down the four flights of stairs and into the street. I walked down from Third and Union Streets to Sixth Street and then West along Sixth toward Alvarado. I walked along past the bars and I knew she was in one of them. I made a guess, walked in, and there was Jan sitting at the far end of the bar. She had a green and white silk scarf spread across her lap. She was sitting between a thin man with a large wart on his nose, and another man who was a little humped mound of a thing wearing bifocals and dressed in an old black suit.
Jan saw me coming. She lifted her head and even in the gloom of the bar she seemed to pale. I walked up behind her, standing near her stool. "I tried to make a woman out of you but you'll never be anything but a goddamned whore!" I back-handed her and knocked her off the stool. She fell flat on the floor and screamed. I picked up her drink and finished it. Then I slowly walked towards the exit. When I got there I turned. "Now, if there's anybody here … who doesn't like what I just did … just say so."
There was no response. I guess they liked what I just did, I walked back out on Alvarado Street.
The portrayal of the male and of the psychological dynamics at work, in this passage, lies somewhere between the depictions of Post Office and those of Women. There is no irony here although there are obvious contradictions. Initially, it seems Bukowski wants the reader to see things from Chinaski's point of view. Jan's "infidelity" is being used to justify Chinaski's ending the relationship; once again, Chinaski is shown as victimized. Rhetorically, Bukowski gives Chinaski an edge (though calling Jan's behavior a "counterattack" implies that she is the original victim). He is "helpless," though this contradicts the assumption of control in "I always let her go," which is in turn trumped by "I had to let it happen … to let events take their own course"; this last is itself an ambivalent formulation, the redundant "own" perversely indicating the protagonist's control. But overall, the passage conjures up a victimized Chinaski, forced to be content with "a bit" of music. Given his unwillingness (or inability) to deal with his conflicts, Chinaski must view himself as betrayed.
It is Chinaski's contention that all women are whores or at least all the women he becomes involved with. But in reality he is almost never involved with prostitutes and Jan is not a prostitute. Chinaski feels compelled to make women into whores (in his eyes) and here we can see one reason why. His own implication in terminating relationships is disguised and evaded if women can be presented as inherently unfaithful, like prostitutes. It seems obvious that what Jan most wants here is companionship. Clearly, were sex her intent, she would hardly have chosen "a thin man with a large wart on his nose" or "a little humped mound of a thing wearing bifocals and dressed in an old black suit." If it seemed at first that it was Bukowski's purpose to justify Chinaski's behavior, he concludes by letting us see that Chinaski's inability to sustain relationships is the issue, not Jan's, although it is a nice question as to how conscious a strategy this is in Factotum. (It is clearly so in Women.)
Not too long after the incident in the bar Jan and Henry separate in an unusually abrupt way. They are drinking in their apartment: "When Jan brought the drink I drank it straight down. 'You keep the car,' I said, 'and half the money I have left is yours.'" No reason is given for Chinaski's wanting to leave, but in the preceding chapter, five pages after the incident in the bar (the exact mid-point of the novel), Chinaski has a revealing dream, which forms all of chapter 51.
Though the entire chapter is printed in italics and, after the introductory paragraph, is one long paragraph, not even being indented for dialogue, the description is quite realistic and not very dream-like (it is only the violence and possible murder that suggest a lack of reality in the event); so realistic that we can believe that Henry Chinaski, on awakening, has trouble believing it was only a dream. (And not just Henry Chinaski. Readers, too, not infrequently ignore the italics and think a murder has been committed.) In the dream Henry and Jan go to the race track at Los Alamitos. On returning to their seats after placing their bets, they find that their places in the grandstand have been taken by a "small gray-haired man." They had previously placed newspapers there to indicate that the seats were taken. They explain to the man that this is the custom, but he simply says, "These seats are NOT reserved." After that they go for a drink and Jan taunts Chinaski, saying the old man had "called your card." Chinaski replies, "What can a guy do with an old man?" to which Jan responds, "If he had been young you wouldn't have done anything either." When they return to where they have squeezed in beside the old man, Jan begins to flirt:
Jan sat down next to him. Their legs were pressed together. "What do you do for a living?" Jan asked him. "Real estate. I make sixty thousand a year—after taxes." "Then why don't you buy a reserved seat?" I asked. "That's my prerogative." Jan pressed her flank against him. She smiled her most beautiful smile. "You know," she said, "you've got the nicest blue eyes?" "Uh huh." "What's your name?" "Tony Endicott." "My name is Jan Meadows. My nickname is Misty."
After this continues for a little while, Chinaski grabs the man by his shirt collar and, after a struggle, manages to push him down between the rows of the grandstand, a thirty-five foot drop.
It is, presumably, the emotions that caused such a dream, along with Jan's behavior, that prompt Chinaski to think that it's time to get out of the relationship, although we are told nothing of this. But while no explicit connection between the dream and the first break-up is made, there is an implicit connection between this dream and the final break-up between Jan and Henry at the end of the novel. After a gap of eighty pages, in which Jan has only been mentioned once, she reappears, only to disappear for good:
The day before I had helped Jan move in with a fat real estate operator who lived on Kingsley drive. I'd stood back out of sight in the hall and watched him kiss her; then they'd gone into his apartment together and the door had closed…. We'd been evicted from our apartment. I had $2.08. Jan promised me she'd be waiting when my luck changed but I hardly believed that. The real estate operator's name was Jim Bemis, he had an office on Alvarado Street and plenty of cash. "I hate it when he fucks me," Jan had said. She was now probably saying the same thing about me to him.
Chinaski suggests that Jan has left him because he's down on his luck. Yet that was his situation when they met: a man spending his "last fifty cents on a greasy hamburger," whom she had to buy a beer. Hence, lack of money isn't the issue. But it's important that it seem the issue in order to reinforce Chinaski's view of women as faithless and predatory creatures drawn only by wealth. Though Chinaski doesn't actually say that that's why she's leaving him, the implication is more effective than any explicit statement could be because it is presented "objectively," solely in terms of "facts": he has no money; the real estate "operator" does; the reader draws the conclusion. (We might also wonder why, if Jan does leave him because he has no money, Chinaski earlier asserted that she liked him best as a "bum.")
Because the reasons for this—as for the earlier—break-up are not explored (and because the scene recalls Jan's behavior towards the wealthy real-estate salesman in the dream), we can see that the function of this scene is to show Jan deserting Chinaski in his hour of need, clearly a false and self-serving construction of the events, aimed at justifying Chinaski's view of women. There is yet another attempt to create sympathy for the "victimized" Chinaski when, concealed, he is described as "watch[ing]" them kiss. Why he waits around to view this moment is not hard to guess: it represents both the actual confirmation of Jan's "unfaithfulness" as well as a masochistic gratification.
In summary, we can say that in these novels women are presented as aggressive and faithless, "allowing" men to suffer, "whores" attracted to men with money. Men are shown as "helpless" creatures who not infrequently, the moment a woman becomes interested in them, move in with her. For the most part, relationships are synonymous with conflict and inevitably end in bitterness.
Bukowski's third novel, Women (1978), represents a change in his depiction of women and of relationships between men and women. Here such relations are the dominant theme of the novel which focuses on the interpersonal and the emotional (although fame and success are important sub-themes) as Bukowski treats such issues as the possibility of lasting relationships, sexuality and "what men want." While the protagonist of the novel continues to objectify women, it is an objectification that often subverts itself by depicting the male chauvinist ironically (this is Women's real achievement). There is also, by the end of the novel an attempt to depict women sympathetically.
Historically, the novel came at the end of the second wave of women's liberation. Hence, fifteen years after its publication, Women can be seen as a product of the same era that saw the publication of novels like John Updike's Couples (1968) and Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (1969) and as having come at the end of a twenty-year period of increased equality and sexual freedom for women. Bukowski (born in 1920, in Germany) was in a particularly ambivalent position vis-à-vis such a movement. On the one hand, he gained by the decrease in hypocrisy and the weakening of the Victorian moralism reinstituted during the reactionary period that had coincided with the formative years of his childhood and adolescence. Yet, irresistibly, the attitudes towards women and sex engendered during those years still played a role in the 1960's and 1970's, (Bukowski's forties and fifties). The two distinct dynamics produced both the chauvinism and its ironic treatment.
In the course of Women, according to one critic, Henry Chinaski has sex with "well over 20 women." These relationships yield a representative sample with which to analyze Bukowski's depiction of women and relationships in the late 1970's, as the liberating effects of the 1960's made their way into the general population and as Bukowski approached his 60th birthday.
Octavio Paz's delineation of the macho is useful in revealing how Bukowski's portrayal of men and women has changed:
The fact is that the essential attribute of the macho—power—almost always reveals itself as a capacity for wounding, humiliating, annihilating…. He is power isolated in its own potency, without relationship or compromise with the outside world. He is pure incommunication, a solitude that devours itself and everything it touches.
While this is an apt characterization of the early Chinaski, it is no longer valid for the protagonist of Women. One important difference is Bukowski's attempt in Women to give us more of the feelings of both his protagonist and the women with whom he has relationships. Women is both an attempt to let his protagonist speak, to progress beyond the "pure incommunication … that devours itself and everything it touches" as well as to portray women as more than "wholly mechanical and one dimensional … exploitable objects." While not always successful, the attempt itself represents a profound shift in his thinking. Equally important is the extent to which Bukowski has begun consciously and consistently to treat his male protagonist ironically. Although the book is entitled Women, it is an ironic deconstruction of its womanizing protagonist.
The most important relationship in Women is that between Henry Chinaski and Lydia Vance, a sculptress. It is Bukowski's most successful attempt at presenting such a relationship in depth and (with the exception of Henry Chinaski, Sr. in Ham On Rye) at creating a "round" character other than the protagonist. The two meet at a poetry reading Chinaski is giving. Lydia approaches Chinaski during the break, but is repelled by his crude response: "'I'd like to rip that fringe off your jacket—we could begin there!' Lydia walked off. It hadn't worked. I never knew what to say to the ladies." At moments like these one gets the impression that Chinaski is acting according to an image he has of how men are expected to act rather than how he actually feels. Chinaski, having achieved some fame as a writer (and his writings having been misinterpreted and distorted to present an image that is more his readers' projections than the texts'), has now become a prisoner of that distortion. But even here, there is a somewhat ambivalent turn in that we would expect Chinaski, in his chauvinist mode, to want to rip off more than merely the fringe of the jacket. It should also be noted that this is verbal, not physical, aggression, a not unimportant distinction.
Nevertheless, taking the initiative (as—true to form—do a number of the women in Women) Lydia tries again, coming over to Chinaski's apartment a few days later. After a brief visit, during which Chinaski's interest in her is evident, Lydia leaves and returns two days later and asks if she can sculpt his head. They agree on an appointment for the following morning. During the first session Chinaski plays the aggressor. He grabs Lydia and after two kisses she pushes him away. The sessions continue, however, and one morning he comes over and we see a new and surprising vulnerability in Chinaski:
"Ooooh," she said, "you've got on a new shirt!" It was true. I had bought the shirt because I was thinking about her, about seeing her. I knew that she knew that, and was making fun of me, yet I didn't mind."
Sometime later they consummate the relationship. Shortly before they make love, though, Lydia tells him about herself. Her father had left her some money that "had enabled Lydia to divorce her husband. She also told me she'd had some kind of breakdown and spent time in a madhouse. I kissed her and told her that was fine." There is an irony in the last sentence of which Chinaski is not unaware. On one level, he is assuring Lydia that he is not judgmental. We are undoubtedly meant to see his response as evidence of tenderness and understanding—maturity—on his part. It may well be that. But "fine" is marked here. We would expect "all right," or something similar, a neutral and less positive characterization. On the other hand, anyone familiar with Chinaski's track record, could as easily take it to mean that it is "fine" because Chinaski needs a woman with emotional problems so that, viewing her as "crazy," there will be little chance for the real intimacy that would allow a relationship to develop. Suspicions as to Lydia's motivation (and ultimately as to her rationality) have been raised by an exchange that took place four pages earlier:
"I've heard about you," she said.
"About how you throw guys off your front porch. That you beat your women."
"Beat my women?"
"Yes, somebody told me."
I grabbed Lydia and we went into our longest clinch ever.
Lydia's questionable mental state can also be seen as giving Chinaski (at least in his mind) some power in the relationship.
Before they make love, Lydia warns him:
"Listen," she said, "after you stick that thing inside me, pull it out just before you come. O.K.?"
I climbed on top of her. It was good. It was something happening, something real, and with a girl 20 years younger than I was and really, after all, beautiful. I did about 10 strokes—and came inside of her.
She leaped up.
"You son-of-a-bitch! You came inside of me!"
"Lydia, it's been so long … it felt so good … I couldn't help it."
There are several things worth noting here. Foremost, perhaps, is the humor, and irony of the scene. Lydia's instructions about Chinaski's withdrawing before he ejaculates prepare us, as in a vaudeville routine, for what happens by telegraphing the reader that something is going to happen. This and the tenderness in the scene before they go to bed, where she speaks intimately to Chinaski lead up to the quick climax on Chinaski's part (followed immediately by Lydia's leaping out of bed, hardly the post coitum triste we might expect) which makes a mockery of everything that has gone before, just because it is so thoughtless and self-involved. The humor in Chinaski's half-hearted defense—"it sneaked up on me!"—is capped by their last exchange which opposes sharply different reactions:
"Lydia, I love you."
"Get the hell away from me!"
All of this contributes to making this depiction of seduction and love so distanced and verfremdend and the characters so pathetic that one can see just why Bukowski's writings have often alienated readers. It is not the explicitness of his writing, since he is clearly within the boundaries of realist sexual écriture as it existed from the mid-1960s on in American fiction, but rather the lack of sentiment with which he handles such material. Perhaps even more than the ironic treatment of love, the ironic treatment of sex strikes a disquieting note at this point in our social history.
Yet more than simple irony is at work because in irony an identification with the character is preserved; we cannot fully appreciate the ironic situation of a protagonist unless we feel—at least to some extent—positively involved in his fate. Here, and in other passages in Women, the reader's identification with the protagonist is threatened. In the earlier novels there was no doubt as to whose side the implied author was taking and where the reader's sympathy was being directed. A simplistic view of "right" and "wrong" in such affairs had begun to break down in Factotum as, for example, the bar scene quoted earlier reveals. Now Bukowski is consciously questioning Chinaski's behavior and the male role in such situations and trying to present events from the woman's perspective as well.
The issue of fidelity has also been introduced. The view that women are inherently unfaithful, "whores," is confirmed by what Chinaski perceives as Lydia's flirtatious behavior at a party he throws where, on arriving, "she didn't speak to me but immediately sat down next to a handsome young bookstore clerk and began an intense conversation with him." Chinaski tolerates this behavior, although it clearly upsets him and, again a masochistic trait is apparent. On their first formal date Lydia and Henry drive to Venice beach. They buy food at a delicatessen and then sit on a knoll of grass overlooking the sea where they see "a tall black man," shirtless, with "a very strong muscular body" who "appeared to be in his early twenties."
"Did you see that guy?" she asked.
"Jesus Christ, here I am with you, you're twenty years older than I am. I could have something like that. What the hell's wrong with me?"
"Look. Here are a couple of candy bars. Take one." She took one, ripped the paper off, took a bite and watched the young black man as he walked along the shore.
"I'm tired of the beach," she said, "let's go back to my place."
(The depiction of) Chinaski placatingly offering Lydia the candy bar after she has crudely insulted him is the antithesis of what we would expect from a true representative of the patriarchy. Chinaski's behavior here is quite different from his reaction to Gertrude's comment about the soldier in the bar in Factotum. Bukowski's skill in depicting the nuances of behavior (and to a certain extent of character as well) has increased considerably. The male is no longer imprisoned in stereotypes and stock reactions but is revealed as vulnerable at times and, at other times, as downright unattractive. He has become something quite different from "power isolated in its own potency, without relationship or compromise with the outside world," as Paz described the macho.
The break-up with Lydia is revealing. Chinaski has returned from a reading in Houston where he has had a brief affair with another woman, Laura. He had injured his leg before the trip and it has still not healed on his return to L.A. Met at the airport by Lydia, who is "horny as usual," Chinaski wonders if he can "handle" sex with his injury:
"It's true. I don't think I can fuck with my leg the way it is."
"What the hell good are you then?"
"Well, I can fry eggs and do magic tricks."
"Don't be funny. I'm asking you, what the hell good are you?"
"The leg will heal. If it doesn't they'll cut it off. Be patient."
"If you hadn't been drunk, you wouldn't have fallen and cut your leg. It's always the bottle!"
"It's not always the bottle, Lydia. We fuck about four times a week. For my age that's pretty good."
"Sometimes I think you don't even enjoy it."
"Lydia, sex isn't everything! You are obsessed. For Christ's sake, give it a rest."
"A rest until your leg heals? How am I going to make it meanwhile?"
"I'll play Scrabble with you."
"Lydia screamed. She literally screamed. The car began to swerve all over the street. "YOU SON-OF-A-BITCH! I'LL KILL YOU!"
Clearly Chinaski is acting in bad faith. His injured leg has not prevented him from making love to Laura, so it cannot be the reason he doesn't make love to Lydia. Lydia is depicted as disturbed and obsessed with sex, Chinaski, as having a more balanced view. Chinaski's points are not those we associate with the typical male protagonist, who is again being subverted here. Bukowski uses Chinaski's eminently sane view of sex to gain the reader's sympathy while Lydia's compulsive demands puts her in a bad light. Yet both these positions are in turn undermined; it is clear that sex is not really the issue for either Chinaski or Lydia. The fact is, Chinaski's feelings have changed. It is a nice question, however, as to how much his bad faith causes the reader to withhold giving full credence to the otherwise sensible view he espouses of the place of sex in a relationship. But whatever we finally decide, the tone of Chinaski's argument, and the depiction of Lydia cut across our expectations in this 1970's Thurberesque "battle of the sexes."
Bukowski has begun presenting the male as he is rarely presented in American fiction (especially in what might be termed "the chauvinist tradition"); indeed, he has begun to deconstruct that tradition as we have come to associate it with Hemingway, Miller and Miller. This is effected through a character who, while on one level attempting to maintain the older image of the unreconstructed male chauvinist, on another is aware of the contradictions involved. Right after the break-up with Lydia and about to enter another relationship, he is asked:
"But, Hank, don't forget what you told me about your women."
"Told you what?"
"You said, "They always come back.'"
"That's just macho talk."
Chinaski doesn't want to have sex with Lydia, but Bukowski portrays him as feeling rejected by Lydia because he "can't" have sex. Lydia is presented as a "sexaholic," completely irrational, and relentless in her demands. Previously it had been Chinaski who objectified women, saw them primarily in terms of their physical attractions, as potential objects of his sex drive, denied them mind and emotions. Here this view is projected onto Lydia, who is shown as rejecting companionship. Chinaski does not admit to the fact that it is he who makes the break here by denying her sex (as he had denied Jan sex in Factotum).
In the earlier novels Bukowski was content to let events speak for themselves without making much of an attempt to get at his characters' motivation. In Women he is trying to explain and to have his readers understand why his protagonist acts as he does, to make events intelligible. Laura (renamed "Katherine" by Chinaski for her resemblance to Katharine Hepburn), the woman with whom Chinaski has had sex during his trip to Houston for a poetry reading, figures in one of Chinaski's more significant relationships. Interested in understanding his protagonist, Bukowski has Chinaski trying to understand why that relationship ended. It seems to be going well when, as Chinaski puts it, he "loses her." He takes Laura to the fights and the track where she realizes that he is one of "them," "the racetrack people and the boxing crowd."
That night she drank half a bottle of red wine, good red wine, and she was sad and quiet. I knew she was connecting me with the racetrack people and the boxing crowd, and it was true. I was with them, I was one of them. Katherine knew that there was something about me that was not wholesome in the sense of wholesome is as wholesome does. I was drawn to all the wrong things: I liked to drink, I was lazy, I didn't have a god, politics, ideas, ideals. I was settled into nothingness, a kind of non-being, and I accepted it. It didn't make for an interesting person. I didn't want to be interesting, it was too hard. What I really wanted was only a soft hazy space to live in, and to be left alone. On the other hand, when I got drunk I screamed, went crazy, got all out of hand. One kind of behavior didn't fit the other. I didn't care.
The fucking was very good that night, but it was the night I lost her. There was nothing I could do about it. I rolled off and wiped myself on the sheet as she went into the bathroom. Overhead a police helicopter circled over Hollywood.
Suggestive as this passage is, it really tells us almost nothing about the emotional states of Katherine and Chinaski. Most of what Chinaski says about himself is patently false and what isn't is clearly no news to Katherine who has read his books and must, on one level, be attracted to his lifestyle. To take but one example: to call someone lazy who has worked for decades to become a successful writer is misleading and disingenuous. Chinaski has organized his life efficiently and been extremely productive. And indeed, one might also wonder why Chinaski "loses" Laura in the very night when the lovemaking was "very good." One suspects that, at the very least, something has been elided here. The naturalist profession of faith: "There was nothing I could do about it," is ultimately more faithful to Chinaski's determinist world view, but it is not particularly enlightening.
It is clear that in Women Bukowski wants to create a certain depth to his characters, and depicting their thoughts and feelings is one way to do this. He succeeds in this to a greater extent than he had previously. Yet, in the end, he cannot get outside the narrator, and even then rarely goes beyond superficial analysis. The first sentence of the above passage is good because it relies on description but the repetition of "wine" hints at the felt limits of description alone, because here repetition is substituting for development or qualification. There is the feeling that something more should be said to prepare us for or explain "Katherine's" mood; Bukowski senses this, otherwise there would be no impulse to repeat the fact of the wine; but owing to the limits Bukowski has—consciously or unconsciously—placed on himself, he is at a loss as to how to proceed. Giving us the Volkswagen license plate number—"TRV 469"—in the passage quoted below reflects the same dynamic. As soon as Bukowski tries to go further he inevitably has to revert to the protagonist: "I knew she was connecting me with …"
Once again, Chinaski implies that it is the woman who terminates the affair. Yet they continue to enjoy making love and Laura wants to continue the relationship. After the above-mentioned night of lovemaking and after the fights
Katherine stayed 4 or 5 more days. We had reached the time of the month when it was risky for Katherine to fuck. I couldn't stand rubbers. Katherine got some contraceptive foam. Meanwhile the police had recovered my Volks. We went down to where it was impounded. It was intact and in good shape except for a dead battery. I had it hauled to a Hollywood garage where they put it in order. After a last goodbye in bed I drove Katherine to the airport in the blue Volks. TRV 469.
It wasn't happy day for me. We sat not saying much. Then they called her flight and we kissed.
"Hey, they all saw this young girl kissing this old man."
"I don't give a damn …"
Katherine kissed me again.
"You're going to miss your flight," I said.
"Come see me, Hank. I have a nice house. I live alone. Come see me."
Katherine walked into the boarding tunnel and was gone.
I walked back to the parking lot, got in the Volks, thinking, I've still got this. What the hell, I haven't lost anything.
The odd juxtaposition of the last days of sex with the recovered car, implied in the last sentence of the first paragraph, where a kind of identity is effected between the sex and the car, and then explicitly (if perhaps a bit ironically) stated in the next-to-last paragraph, underline Chinaski's dilemma when humans are objectified. Clearly there are pressures here that remain unexamined; once again Chinaski has rejected the woman but tried to hide that fact from himself. (It is more than a little reminiscent of "Bukowski's" equating the death of his first real love with the "death" of his first automobile in the poem "I didn't want to," discussed above.)
After the relationship with Laura ends, a good part of Women concerns itself with Chinaski's string of relatively casual affairs, with no one relationship depicted as having any great significance (with the obvious exception of the relationship with Sara and with the possible exception of the relationship with Tammie) although the narrator is almost always shown as at least somewhat involved emotionally. While the depiction of intense emotional involvements is foregone, we do have a picture of sex and the American male in the 1970's, the full flowering of the "second phase" of Women's Liberation. Here again, Bukowski has done something noteworthy, not to mention out of "character." In the way that Henry Miller can be taken as representative of male attitudes of an earlier era (and Miller, too, came to a writing career late and represents attitudes characteristic of an earlier generation than the one in which he wrote, while that in which he wrote immediately succeeds an era of increased freedom for women), so Bukowski reflects those of his own era by revealing in his descriptions of sex the changes that have taken place in (sexual) relations between men and women. Miller's "I slipped it in and gave her what's what" (language that reflects the attitude of a murderer, not a lover) has been significantly transformed.
As early as Post Office, sexual intercourse had sometimes been depicted as problematic:
In bed I had something in front of me but I couldn't do anything with it. I whaled and I whaled and I whaled. Vi was very patient. I kept striving and banging but I'd had too much to drink.
"Sorry, baby," I said. Then I rolled off. And went to sleep.
The inability to perform, often because of drink, comes up frequently. It is the pendant to the theme of the sexually assertive woman. Indeed, the traditional view that men have more interest in sex than women is often reversed in these novels: in Post Office, "Joyce, my wife, was a nymph"; in Factotum, "You haven't fucked me for two weeks"; and in Women, "Lydia liked to fuck at least five times a week. I preferred three."
When Chinaski is met at the Houston airport by Joanna Dover, a woman whom he is visiting to escape from Tammie, there is no beating about the bush:
"… Did I interrupt anything?"
"No. There was a garage mechanic. But he petered out. He couldn't stand the pace."
"Be kind to me, Joanna, sucking and fucking aren't everything."
Later, after dinner out and drinking, and then more drinking back at Joanna's place, she says:
"I've drunk too much."
"Let's go to bed."
"I want to drink some more."
"You won't be able to …"
"I know. I hope you'll let me stay four or five days."
"It will depend on your performance," she said.
"That's fair enough."
By the time we finished the wine I could barely make it to the bed. I was asleep by the time Joanna came out of the bathroom …
The affair runs its course: "I lasted five days and nights. Then I couldn't get it up anymore. Joanna drove me to the airport." The roles have been reversed; the woman is sexually the aggressor. The man, sensing his loss of control, feels exploited and resists at first by drinking himself into incapacity, and then is put out to pasture when his usefulness is gone. Looked at realistically, the reasons for the end of the relationship scarcely seem credible. Are we to believe that Chinaski only had it in him to perform for "four or five nights" and then, the first night he can't (or doesn't want to?) make love, Joanna asks him to leave? That she could go at least one night without sex was proven by her having somehow survived the first night without sex. But that is irrelevant. What is important is the way Bukowski has chosen to present the episode, his using it to undermine the traditional male role.
Chinaski's drinking had also interfered in the relationship with Lydia: "She loved sex and my drinking got in the way of our lovemaking. 'Either you're too drunk to do it at night or too sick to do it in the morning'"; later in the novel, with Cassie: "Her body was amazing, glorious, Playboy style, but unfortunately I was drunk"; or with Lilly:
I switched off the bed lamp fast. I kissed her some more, played with her breasts and body, then went down on her. I was drunk, but I think I did O.K. But after that I couldn't do it the other way. I rode and rode and rode. I was hard but I couldn't come. Finally I rolled off exhausted and went to sleep …
and Mindy: "Mindy and I finished the bottle and then went to bed. I kissed her for a while, then apologized, and drew away. I was too drunk to perform. One hell of a great lover"; and Liza:
Without foreplay it was much more difficult but finally I got it in. I began to work. I worked and I worked. It was another hot night. It was like a recurring bad dream. I began sweating. I humped and I pumped. It wouldn't go down, it wouldn't come off. I pumped and I humped. Finally I rolled off. "Sorry, baby, too much to drink."
With Mercedes (after having "dr[u]nk and smoked [marijuana] quite a long time"):
I pumped on and on. Five minutes. Ten minutes more. I couldn't come. I began to fail. I was getting soft. Mercedes got worried. "Make it!" she demanded. "Oh, make it, baby!" That didn't help at all. I rolled off. It was an unbearably hot night. I took the sheet and wiped off the sweat. I could hear my heart pounding as I lay there. It sounded sad. I wondered what Mercedes was thinking. I lay dying, my cock limp.
With Iris: "We drank another hour and then went to bed. I ate her up but when I mounted I just stroked and stroked without effect. Too bad."
Not infrequently sex is just work, and hard labor at that: "I began to work. I worked and I worked … I began sweating. I humped and I pumped…. I pumped and I humped"; "I pumped on and on"; "I worked and worked." And in perhaps the most excruciating sexual moment in the novel:
I worked and I worked … I began to sweat. My back ached. I was dizzy, sick … It was agony, it was relentless work without a reward. I felt damned … I desperately wanted to come … My heart began to pound loudly. I heard my heart. I felt my heart. I felt it in my chest. I felt it in my throat. I felt it in my head. I couldn't bear it. I rolled off with a gasp.
I don't want to give the impression that this is the sole image of sex presented in the novel because it isn't. Sex is often satisfying with the same women with whom sex has been less than satisfying. But it can't be denied that all of this constitutes a distinctly unmacho (not to mention unromantic) depiction of lovemaking. The drinking can be viewed as a means of allaying Chinaski's underlying anxiety, or as a hostile, sadistic way of hurting women by denying them the full pleasure, and intimacy, of successful lovemaking. In any event, there has been a significant amount of slippage in how much control the man has—the decision to have sex, for example, is often the woman's. It cannot be argued that it is not a different image of the male that Bukowski is giving us. The distinctly unromantic, at times alienated, light in which sex is shown offers a different picture of the man and the male role, a part of the larger change in Bukowski's depiction of men.
It is in this larger change that the primary significance of the novel lies. What has happened is that the male protagonist is now being treated ironically. This irony manifests itself both generally and in small, self-deprecating comments by Chinaski, as, for example, when he remarks of himself: "Not a very well-known writer, of course, but I managed to pay the rent and that was astonishing" where the remark also serves to distance the reader from the sexual description. The male has been problematized as the protagonists of Lawrence, Miller and Hemingway had not been.
This deconstruction of the male protagonist in Women, as male, is clear from the first paragraph, indeed, from the first sentence, of the novel:
I was fifty years old and hadn't been to bed with a woman for four years. I had no women friends. I looked at them as I passed them on the streets or wherever I saw them, but I looked at them without yearning and with a sense of futility. I masturbated regularly, but the idea of having a relationship with a woman—even on non-sexual terms—was beyond my imagination. I had a 6 year old daughter born out of wedlock. She lived with her mother and I paid child support. I had been married years before at the age of 35. That marriage lasted two and one half years. My wife divorced me. I had been in love only once.
Relationships with women have become problematic for Henry Chinaski. Although he has sexual relationships with twenty-odd women in the roughly six-year span of the novel, these are rarely devoid of involvement. Indeed, the depths of Chinaski's needs, the overdetermined nature of his involvement (where his complete avoidance of relationships with women then causes him to overvalue any woman, causes him, indeed, to immediately think of marriage) are often ironically mocked, as, for example, with "Katherine," with whom he had spent a night in Houston. She then visits him in L.A. In the evening of the day of her arrival, after they have made love—"It was glorious"—and before falling asleep, Chinaski muses on the day's and evening's events:
For the first time I thought of marriage. I knew that there certainly were flaws in her that had not surfaced. The beginning of a relationship was always the easiest. After that the unveiling began, never to stop. Still, I thought of marriage. I thought of a house, a dog and a cat, of shopping in supermarkets. Henry Chinaski was losing his balls. And didn't care.
At last I slept. When I awakened in the morning Katherine was sitting on the edge of the bed brushing those yards of red-brown hair. Her large dark eyes looked at me as I awakened. "Hello, Katherine," I said, "will you marry me?"
"Please don't," she said, "I don't like it."
"I mean it."
"Oh, shit, Hank!"
"I said, 'shit,' and if you talk that way I'm taking the first plane out."
I looked at Katherine. She kept brushing her long hair. Her large brown eyes looked at me, and she was smiling. She said, "It's just sex, Hank, it's just sex!" Then she laughed. It wasn't a sardonic laugh, it was really joyful. She brushed her hair and I put my arm around her waist and rested my head against her leg. I wasn't quite sure of anything.
It is clear that Chinaski's behavior arises to a much greater extent than is usual from various "historical" psychic factors rather than from a just appreciation of the real person. Indeed, the fact that he can't use her real name, but renames her after a movie star long past her viability as a sex symbol, i.e., she, too, is not being viewed as she is, but as a memorial to some idealized image, indicates the extent to which Chinaski is here operating at a remove from reality.
Such scenes as this one with Katherine have an additional significance. (It is worth noting that this scene is an identical repetition—dynamically—of the scene of the beginning of his relationship with Lydia Vance.) Similar scenes, and there are more than a few in the novel, have, in Bukowski's phrase, a "comic edge" to them, but there is also an underlying seriousness present. Here we have an absolute reversal of the scene where the woman (traditionally viewed as the romantic in such situations) falls in love and it is the man who makes (or thinks) the distinction between love and sex. Thus Women hardly presents a traditional male protagonist, let alone a macho. Surely the image of Chinaski, his head resting against Laura's leg, "not quite sure of anything," is a far cry from Henry Miller's descriptions, who to the best of my knowledge has never written a scene of such calm intimacy and whose descriptions of alienated sex and objectified women are too well known to require quotation. In fact, whenever, in Women, Chinaski attempts such a role, attempts, that is, to act "in character," he is unsuccessful. At one point in the novel, after a fight with Lydia, he goes to the track and has a good night, drinking and betting, leaving "$950 ahead." He calls Lydia from a phone booth:
"Listen," I said, "listen, you bitch. I went to the harness races tonight and won $950. I'm a winner! I'll always be a winner! You don't deserve me, bitch! You've been playing with me! Well, it's over! I want out!. This is it! I don't need you and your goddamned games! Do you understand me? Do you get the message? Or is your head thicker than your ankles?"
"This isn't Lydia. This is Bonnie. I'm baby sitting for Lydia. She went out tonight."
I hung up and walked back to my car.
Here Chinaski and his "macho talk" are ridiculed. Such passages sabotaging the traditional male role are important evidence of a change. Moreover, Lydia's having gone out that night, rather than sitting around in her apartment, depressed, adds a nice touch, revealing her as independent. She doesn't need to rely on Chinaski for a social life.
If, in Factotum, the women usually initiated relationships, in Women they are even more assertive and not content to play their traditional roles in other ways. This reversal of traditional sexual roles and its ironic effect on the male image appear in the sphere of sexual practices as well. Traditionally, the man has been viewed as the more adventurous, the more willing to experiment, perhaps because he has also been—or at least been seen as—the more experienced. The reason for a woman's supposed lesser interest in sexual variety and experimentation might be that such an interest would suggest more prior sexual experience than society feels comfortable with her having. Here, too, things have changed in Women:
We remained apart a week. Then one afternoon I was over at Lydia's place and we were on her bed, kissing. Lydia pulled away.
"You don't know anything about women, do you?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, I can tell by reading your poems and stories that you just don't know anything about women."
"Tell me more."
"Well, I mean for a man to interest me he's got to eat my pussy. Have you ever eaten pussy?"
"You're over 50 years old and you've never eaten pussy?"
"It's too late."
"You can't teach an old dog new tricks."
"Sure you can."
"No, it's too late for you."
"I've always been a slow starter."
Lydia got up and walked into the other room. She came back with a pencil and a piece of paper. "Now, look, I want to show you something." She began to draw carefully on the paper. "Now, this is a cunt, and here is something you probably don't know about—the clit. That's where the feeling is. The clit hides, you see, it comes out now and then, it's pink and very sensitive. Sometimes it will hide from you and you have to find it, you just touch it with the tip of your tongue …"
"O.K.," I said, "I've got it."
Once again Bukowski humorously undermines a traditional image of the male: as aggressive, adventurous, experienced—that is, powerful. The scene is also effective for suggesting one reason for Lydia's attraction to Chinaski, a reason that is in direct contradiction to her statement: "Jeez, I thought you were a man, all your books…." What she has sensed in him is a vulnerability and insecurity vis-à-vis women.
The effect of Bukowski's depiction of women, chauvinist though it can be, is quite different from what his predecessors and contemporaries produced. Although depicting Chinaski as sexist, Bukowski at the same time, and more tellingly, goes to great pains to undermine this position. Indeed, it would be more accurate to characterize Chinaski as "pseudo-macho." In the light of this it is useful to return to the earlier criticisms. Huffzky had written:
In his underground society he describes a purely masculine world, in which women are hardly more than splashes of a puddle through which hardy fellows traipse, mostly drunk, or in which they wallow. Then afterwards: wipe off & away! Also most of the times drunk … almost everything in his head is reduced to the magical actions: fuck, drink, fight: beating women …"
It should be clear by now that this and similar critiques concerning Bukowski's portrayal of women don't do justice to what are really complex texts. It is not a purely masculine world that Bukowski depicts. The women and relationships presented in Women are more than simplistic stereotypes. For example, the women presented almost always have jobs and sometimes have careers. Huffzky is, however, more justified in her criticism that "there are no women in his novels with whom a thoughtful female reader can identify positively." But this must be seen in a larger context. While Huffzky is correct in what she says about the absence of positive women characters (though there are exceptions, such as Laura in Women), what has to be grasped is that there are few characters generally, male or female, with whom an intelligent reader, male or female, can identify. As Bukowski remarked to Sean Penn: "Sure I make women look bad sometimes, but I make men look bad too. I make myself look bad." At times we may identify with certain aspects of Henry Chinaski: his anti-authoritarian stance vis-à-vis bosses and bureaucracy and his self-deprecation and irony are attractive qualities. But those are, especially in Women, only moments. We do not identify with Henry Chinaski in his behavior towards women.
What Bukowski has achieved here is a kind of Brechtian "Verfremdung," the "playing in quotation marks." As Brecht explained in "A Dialogue About Acting":
Oughtn't the actor then try to make the man he is representing understandable? Not so much the man as what takes place. What I mean is: if I choose to see Richard III I don't want to feel myself to be Richard III, but to glimpse this phenomenon in all its strangeness and incomprehensibility.
In Bukowski, the reader's subjectivity has not been captured through empathy but is rather alienated and this facilitates a critical analysis of the protagonist's behavior. Reading Bukowski in this way, without any preconceptions based on a reputation that he has long outgrown, I think we can see him questioning (sometimes, granted, in spite of himself) rather than advocating, the attitudes and behavior with which he has long been (mistakenly) identified.
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