Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Women (a book review)

"I never pump up my vulgarity. I wait for it to arrive on its own terms." - Charles Bukowski, Women, Page 167

I finished reading Women today, March 9th, the 22nd anniversary of Bukowski's death. I'd never read anything of his before. Funny as hell! And I never thought I'd read the word cunt so many times in one book. Bukowski deals mainly in the dissolute, the seedy, the smutty, the lustful, the hedonistic, the wretched, the messy, the intoxicating and the orgasmic—in his crummy apartment, in bedrooms, in bars, cars and his favourite place of all—the race track—most of the time while he's drunk, hungover or trying to get there. And he doesn't hold back; he opens himself right up, as Women is autobiographical in nature. The things in there actually happened to him, and the insane, wild, over-the-top characters were people he actually met and knew, and the mad, at times hilarious, conversations and feuds were real parts of his past. That's what intrigued me all the more as I read along. And the dialogue is brilliant.

One of the things I loved the most was his jaded, unabashed, quintessential dirty-old-man narrative, his own personal thoughts and imaginings regarding people (both men and women), his sexual exploits and the mundane in general. The graphic way he'd describe things, and the absurd thoughts and imaginings that he dared even put down on paper were not of a sort that I'd come across before. All the sex he had was consensual, of course, but the way he enjoyed it and wrote about it was brutally savage in nature:

"The thought of sex as something forbidden excited me beyond all reason. It was like one animal knifing another into submission."—Page 77

"I kissed her, working her lips apart, sucking at the upper lip. I saw her hair spread wide across the pillow. Then I gave up trying to please her and simply fucked her, ripping viciously. It was like murder. I didn't care; my cock had gone crazy. All that hair, her young and beautiful face. It was like raping the Virgin Mary. I came. I came inside her, agonizing, feeling my sperm enter her body, she was helpless, and I shot my come deep into her ultimate core—body and soul—again and again."—Page 99

He definitely reveled in iconoclastic shock-value, all the while maintaining sincerity. And once in a while there'd be these sudden outpouring needs to confess certain things about his inner angst and turmoil to the reader, always wearing his heart (and, yes, he certainly did have one) on his sleeve. It creates a unique dynamic of going from the obscene to the introspective:

"When I came I felt it was in the face of everything decent, white sperm dripping down over the heads and souls of my dead parents. If I had been born a woman I would certainly have been a prostitute. Since I had been born a man, I craved women constantly, the lower the better. And yet women—good women—frightened me because they eventually wanted your soul, and what was left of mine, I wanted to keep. Basically I craved prostitutes, base women, because they were deadly and hard and at the same time I yearned for a gentle, good woman, despite the overwhelming price. Either way I was lost. A strong man would give up both. I wasn't strong. So I continued to struggle with women, with the idea of women."—Page 77

Indeed the whole book is a struggle, one he comes to terms with more and more as he unravels and divulges himself to the reader (or spectator) bit by bit, one meaningless sexual rendezvous (usually with a hot, young, sexy fan of his work) to another. And it does take a big man to admit he's lost. But he reveled in being lost, for, as he put it, "Goodness could be found sometimes in the middle of hell" (69).

There are other times where I just laughed (sometimes quietly while reading it on the train) because of how intensely and earnestly he'd write about things he seemingly found to be so profound, yet these, for example:

"I began rubbing her cunt, easily. It's like making a rosebud open, I thought. This has meaning. This is good. It's like two insects in a garden moving slowly towards each other. The male works his slow magic. The female slowly opens. I like it, I like it. Two bugs."—Page 78

"We sat upright in bed and drank the drinks, side by side. I couldn't understand how I managed to come the first time. We had a problem. All that beauty, all that gentleness, all that goodness, and we had a problem. I was unable to tell Mindy what it was. I didn't know how to tell her she had a big cunt. Maybe nobody had ever told her."—Page 78-79

Call it puerile if you want; that last one had me in stitches. He's writing as if it's the end of the world or something, but I guess that's where his absurdist humour lies, and I always liked and dabbled in absurdist humour myself.

It's a dark comedy, obviously, and does have plenty an intellectual moment in it, while never ever being too pretentious to shy or cower away from self-deprecation, for he lets loose against himself just as harshly as he does against the world around him. The ridiculousness of the personalities and lives of a lot of the characters really had me shaking my head a lot of the way through, and I think a psychologist would find it to be quite a fascinating read, despite parts that (s)he might consider to be downright putrid and juvenile. I'd say it's a four-star book. I wouldn't give it five, because, even though there's an arc, there's nowhere it leads to before it suddenly ends abruptly. But I do highly recommend it, especially if you're interested in how a person's life can change post-fame, as the book begins after the protagonist's (Henry Chinaski's) writing career has taken off, taking you from place to place on his poetry-reading tour and all the drunken, sex-crazed insanity along the way, seamlessly jumping from one bizarre relationship to another, all of which Henry (called Hank by people in the book, as Bukowski often was in real life) takes in stride, always laid back, just like his writing style. It's no big deal. It's just life—a former postal worker turned famous writer.

What I found to be really cool were the parts where he'd just be lounging around at home when the phone would ring, and it would be another fan of his who's read his work and is dying to meet him, or Chinaski would enter into a letter-writing correspondence by mail with a fan of his, which would inevitably lead to debauchery of one kind or another, often with a woman enthralled by and ready to fly over to spend a few days with him, like this one who looked 18, but was in her twenties, while he was 55:

"Then Tanya unzipped my pants. She took my cock and pushed it into her cunt. She began riding. She could do it, all 90 pounds of her. I could hardly think. I made small half-hearted movements, meeting her now and then. At times we kissed. It was gross. I was being raped by a child. She moved it around. She had me cornered, trapped. It was mad. Flesh alone, without love. We were filling the air with the stink of pure sex. My child, my child. How can your small body do all these things? Who invented woman? For what ultimate purpose? Take this shaft! And we were perfect strangers! It was like fucking your own shit."—Page 281

I have no idea how it's like fucking your own shit, but I just find it absolutely riotous! Would you believe I was reading Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume before this? Anyway, Bukowski was a refreshing change from that. Now, I don't doubt for a minute that our modern-day feminists would have a field day with this book, along with the rest of his writings, but there is no misogyny in Women. On the contrary: what you'll find in it is misanthropy, for, like me, he disdains both men and women equally. In fact, he shows a great deal of sympathy for women and their plight with him throughout the book, and that's a huge part of his struggle and angst. He admires every little detail about women, you see, and loves the fact that no two—are the same!

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