ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE FACTS ON FILE COMPANION TO THE AMERICAN NOVEL
A review by Dr. Joseph Suglia
The work of Charles Bukowski affirms the destruction of literature. I am not suggesting that the author is not a literary artist. I mean, rather, that he is actively committed to destroying all traces of literary language in his writing. He attempts to destroy the language of literature by presenting himself as he is, without disguise, subterfuge or literary artifice – a practice of writing that places his work at the furthest distance from the oeuvre of Kafka, Mallarmé and Blanchot. If one takes the author at his word, even in his writing, Bukowski is not a figure composed of paper and words but, rather, a real human being. This myth–one that Bukowski supported throughout his life–is the basis of the fascination surrounding his work and the reason for its cult status.
Generally speaking, people are attracted to books that lead them to the existence of the human being who created them. And in no other work does Bukowski seem to exhibit himself as purely as he does in Women (1978). Nothing else could account for the book’s enduring appeal and seductiveness. Yes, it is true that the main character has a pseudonym, Henry Chinaski, and there is a publisher’s note that reads, “This novel is a work of fiction and no character is intended to portray any person or combination of persons living or dead.” And yet there are seemingly no other masks or precautions. Throughout this work, Bukowski, apparently, shows himself as himself, revealing to the reader his self in all of its ugliness and misanthropy. Women would serve as an instance of the author’s ecce homo, as a permutation of his self-manifestation.
It is no accident, from this perspective, that Women is almost completely devoid of novelistic qualities. What is remarkable about the work is the bluntness of its “style,” its total reliance on ordinary language and the junk that is stockpiled in its every corner – that is, the superabundance of digressions, seemingly culled from the surfaces of everyday life. Because of its coarse and digressive character, Women doesn’t read as if it were a novel; instead, it resembles a raw document of an experience, a bloody chunk excised from the tissue of ordinary life. Perhaps this is the reason for the work’s perpetual repetitiveness. Each scene of the “narrative” (if the book has one) follows exactly the same pattern: 1.) Chinaski meets a woman who is invariably significantly younger than him and who, in most cases, knows and admires his work. By having coitus with young women, Chinaski hopes to achieve victory over death, a kind of sexualized immortality. And perhaps this is also the reason why he writes (“My art is my fear”). (The women in the novel, in turn, are drawn to Chinaski partly because of his meta-literary reputation and partly because of the way in which he describes women in his books. As a self-portrait, Women resembles nothing more than a literary personals advertisement – an authorial seduction tactic that is perhaps far more common than most would believe.) 2.) He has some form of sexual intercourse with the woman. Repeat. Intermittently, there are also poetry readings, noisy breakups, trips to a racetrack, and laconic conversations with friends, acquaintances, and strangers. Nothing extraordinary happens. Chinaski’s account of his life is as uneventful and banal as most lives are thought to be. To the charge that his book is repetitive and tedious, the author could have always replied: “This is my body.” A book that is repetitive and tedious may express a life that is repetitive and tedious, and if one accepts that the book documents an engagement with life, how could one fault the author for this? Like the Eucharist, the book would immediately communicate the body and blood of the author; his real presence would come forth purely from the pages. Women‘s material character as a book would disappear in order to show the life of the one who fabricated it. There would be a sacramental communication without communication between the author and reader.
Throughout the pages of Women, the reader watches a cavalcade of women moving in and out of Chinaski’s life. One bout of copulation is succeeded by another. Each of Chinaski’s sexual encounters resembles a form of violent appropriation, the besmirching is what is sacred or the slaughtering or maiming of a wild beast (“one animal knifing another into submission”). It is not fortuitous that racetracks and boxing matches serve as the backdrop for much of the inaction of Women, for sex, according to the logic of this book, is a sport – indeed, it is the bloodiest sport of all. A confrontation in which death itself is at stake.
A man who says, “All women are whores” or “All women are angels” usually generalizes his experience of one woman. Misogyny and philogyny are two sides of the same envelope. It is to Bukowski’s credit that the women he describes are heterogeneous and non-interchangeable. They each have unique traits; each one is singular (“Every woman is different”). The names of the women are Lydia, Dee Dee, Nicole, Mindy, Laura (renamed “Katherine” by Chinaski), Joanna, Tammie, Mercedes, Cecelia, Liza, Gertrude and Hilda, Cassie, Debra, Sara, Tessie, Iris, Tanya, Valerie, and Valencia. We learn about their idiosyncrasies and their styles of speaking. And yet, for Chinaski, none of them occupies a permanent place in his life. Bukowski’s protagonist swallows every woman he meets and vomits her back up. He then stalks and “murders” new prey. (Or is he the one who is stalked? In this text, it is never clear who is the seducer and who is the seduced.) Each woman belongs, theoretically, to a non-finite series. Some women reappear in Chinaski’s life only to disappear again just as suddenly; later, they sometimes reappear again (this is particularly true of Lydia). The series ends with an interruption that comes by way of a renunciation: Chinaski refuses a young girl named Rochelle and feeds a cat a can of tuna fish. But the series could, theoretically, continue ad infinitum.
Although he defines himself as a writer, Chinaski prefers women to writing: “‘You’re good enough with the ladies,’ Dee Dee said. ‘And you’re a helluva writer.’ [Chinaski replies:] ‘I’d rather be good with the ladies.'” He disdains what is called “literature”; in fact, all literary topics disgust him. Writing is, for him, merely a vicissitude of life; it is an addiction (“an insanity,” he says at one point), but no more gripping than any of his other addictions – such as horse-betting, drinking, and sex. Writing is indeed a compulsion but only one compulsion among others. All of his compulsions are variations of what Bukowski calls elsewhere the “American Wet Dream.” That dream, of course, is to acquire and to accumulate as much of a thing as possible. More money. More sex. More drink. More of everything. As everyone else, Chinaski is “sick on the dream”–the dream of gross acquisition and accumulation that defines American culture.
Chinaski is addicted to writing fiction in the way that an alcoholic is addicted to booze. But to what extent is his work fictive? “I write fiction,” he says at one point. “You mean you lie?” asks Gertrude, a member of his seraglio. His response: “A little. Not too much.” This statement is reminiscent of an ancient paradox: A man who comes from a city of liars claims that he is lying. Is he telling the truth? What is the status of Chinaski’s statement? The first-person narrator of a work described as a “novel” claims that he lies a little, not too much, thus implying that what he writes is mostly true–this would apply, of course, to the narrative that he is composing in the literary present. How should one read the words of a character (himself a literary fabrication) in a literary fabrication who claims that his written narrative is mostly true? Should one regard it as a “fictive” statement? Of course, that would be the customary literary-critical response. But what if one takes Chinaski at his word? What if one accepts Bukowski’s premise that the protagonist does indeed directly represent the author?
Chinaski says during the conversation quoted above, “Fiction is an improvement on life.” Perhaps it is not the case, then, that Bukowski expressed himself purely in his writing. And although it may be the case that writing is merely one compulsion among others for his protagonist, perhaps it was not so for Bukowski. Perhaps Bukowski did not write in order to live but, rather, lived in order to write. Perhaps he did not base his novels on his own life but, rather, modeled his life on the protagonists that he created. If this is so, the writing of Bukowski would indeed constitute the work of literature in the strongest sense of the word – that is, what is “composed of letters.” For Bukowski, perhaps life was not the foundation of literature. Perhaps literature, rather, was the foundation of a shattered life. Literature as compensation, as evidence of an insufficiency: “People were usually much better in their letters than in reality. They were much like poets in this way.”