Butt: It Ain’t Enough

Laughter is evoked through comedy, comedy through surprise, and surprise through the depiction of humorous juxtapositions. Kingsley Amis’s 1955 novel That Uncertain Feeling features John Lewis, a man whose adulterous escapade with Mrs. Elizabeth Gruffyd-Williams teaches him profound existential lessons on lust, love, and life. Butt: Amis knew, in order to get his readers smiling, this was not enough. Merely to describe how a penurious twenty-six-year-old married librarian with moth-eaten clothing, no money for groceries, and an indefatigable toddler at home might betray some interest in a wealthy, beautiful woman’s sudden and boisterous advances would be obvious. Amis wrote comedy, and comedy relies on surprise. Therefore, in the pursuit of great comedy, Amis chose to impose a source of humor upon Lewis’s 1st-person narration by juxtaposing the loose, slang-ridden recalcitrance of a Breezy narration style against the euphemistically formal understated narrative style, as well as scenes of literary solemnity against irreverent slapstick. 

John Lewis is a young, disgruntled proletarian with militant feelings towards the wealthy Bourgeoise; he is also a scholar of Welsh literature and something of a pedant; he could be construed as what some people refer to today as a broke-ass snob. Therefore, it only makes sense that Lewis’s language be so interestingly humorous, carrying with it both the Holden Caufield-esque eye-spitting of the Breezy narration style that bobbysoxers and undergraduates alike seem to champion and enjoy, and the wit-riddled irony of an understated, Dickensian-esque narration style favored by those with chronic dyspepsia. 

Strunk and White told us never to affect a “breezy manner,” as it is “often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day.” A breezy manner is a kind of “alumni magazine” talk that chafes the more sensitive lexophiles amongst us. Consider three-hundred pages of the following: “Well, guys, here I am again dishing the dirt about your disorderly classmates, after pa$$ing a weekend in the Big Apple…” A difficult task, to be sure. 

Although Mr. Strunk and Mr. White have doubtlessly slugged this unbearable archetype of the lexical narcissist on the chin, the gentlemen did not malign the use of a breezy manner in judicious conjunction with a more formal, understated one. And it was this concoction Amis thought worthy of two hundred and fifty-four pages.

We begin with the breezy whenever Lewis abbreviates linoleum floor as “Lino,” whilst further describing the floors of the library by stating that “the place was starting to empty, thank God.” An onslaught of informality: the library becomes an ambiguous pejorative noun, the imperfect past tense is employed, and the idea is punctuated by thanking the main Judeo-Christian deity for Lewis’s triumph of Sloth. This narration, however, is juxtaposed but only a few sentences later with a creative euphemism as regards Lewis’s inspection of a young woman’s lower musculature: “Distraction was at hand: a female student from the local University College crossed my path some yards ahead and my glance dropped involuntarily to her legs” (10). Although better understatements have occurred in literature, this usage is attractively subtle in the way it follows Lewis’s cocksure breeziness with the formal admission that his eyes were not voluntarily under his control, that, in some way, he suffers tyranny. This continues throughout the novel: a man experiencing valid emotion and crying is “turn(ing) liquid eyes on [Lewis],” which is followed by lengthy, elaborate similes and metaphors anent the uncertain feeling of following another man’s wife’s offering her body up to his discretion: “We moved together towards the entrance-hall. I felt I was swinging in an absurdly unnatural way, like a schoolboy on stage for the first time in his life. Did I always swing my arms as if I were carrying a pair of empty buckets? Surely not. And what did I suppose I was going to say next?” Humorous language, Amis knew, is only half the battle; therefore, he also knew that, to write a humorous novel, one must also depict humorous scenes.

It is funny to watch other people suffer. The Germans, which recent history would suggest to be particularly fond of this notion, have a word for it called Schadenfreude, which most literally translates to disappointment-joy. A similar logic applies to Amis’s juxtaposition of a solemn, unironic narrative against humorous relief. This heightens the humor, as a narrative saturated in only the sugary treacle of the cutely ironic becomes cloying and indeed a real bellyache to read. This release from solemnity to comedy produces a kind of joy in the reader, suggesting that even the dark times are never without something to smile about. 

Consider the case of Lewis’s suspicions that his wife and a failed playwright named Probert are having an affair: “I looked around for Jean. Probert was talking hard to her, with Elizabeth listening rather attentively. She caught my glance and mouthed some phrase at me, pointing to Probert. No thanks, I thought; whatever it is, no thanks. I smiled and waved to her, then hurried out.” Now consider the sentence immediately thereafter: “it was wonderful in the lavatory.” His wife’s flirting with an unattractive literary imposter turns into supreme bathroom bliss.

Further consider Lewis’s leading of his mistress down a poorly lit alleyway, in which “[he] stumble(s) on something soft, a bundle of washing or corpse, and warned her about it,” whereupon Mrs. Davies, a nettlesome neighbor, calls into the darkness, inquiring into whether it might be her husband or son walking that same alley. Lewis continues the narrative: “ignoring this, I began climbing the stairs…” Examples of this quick shift from the solemn to the humorous may be gleaned from about every single page in the novel. 

Yet, this formula, and it is indeed a kind of formula, somehow never gets old, never flags, never tires. This is due to its contrivance of truly surprising juxtapositions; if it is truly surprising and truly a juxtaposition, by definition, it will work every single time. Recall the last time someone said to you that they just did not feel like laughing that day. That person was a fool. Laughter is not a choice. It is a visceral reaction, a reaction caused by surprise, and surprise is enough.

One thought on “Butt: It Ain’t Enough

  1. Nice write up! I liked the “breezy manner” commentary. Funny, I just finished re-reading Nabokov’s Lolita and if anything is breezy, that one is (BTW, quick sidenote: There’s a great new podcast out there by Jamie Loftus called The Lolita Podcast – highly recommend). Funny thing is: Breezy really, really works in that one…and Strunk & White tell us why in your post above: it’s indicates that you are dealing with an egocentric narcissist, which is exactly what Nabokov intends, right? Nice to see that S&R quote and tie it into that disturbing (and great) book.

    Liked by 1 person

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