The Green Man by Kingsley Amis

Anyone interested in old churches (where he often appears) or pre-Christian folklore may be familiar with the Green Man. He usually has a face either made from or entirely framed by leaves and twigs, and symbolises all manner of indeterminate things like fertility, the lifecycle of birth, death and rebirth, or even just luck. As it happens, I have a Green Man face hanging up in my house, but, you know, that's just me.

The Green Man of Kingsley Amis' novel is, in fact, a pub. If the book hadn't been written in 1969, it would doubtless be called a 'gastropub' or even a 'restaurant with rooms', but I would imagine Maurice Allington, the owner of the establishment, would be appalled. Allington doesn't like having guests and has no interest whatsoever in food, so, given that running an upmarket pub is his career of choice, it's no surprise that he's a long-term alcoholic. The real question, though, is whether his drink problem is serious enough to make him hallucinate, or whether The Green Man really is playing host to a particularly vindictive, unscrupulous ghost.

I can't deny that The Green Man is a darkly comic read, almost laugh out loud funny in places and peppered with biting satire, and some of the haunting scenes are genuinely sinister and remarkably well-executed. Moreover, the plot thickens as the self-loathing Allington, who is dangerously obsessed with Dr Underhill, the man he suspects is haunting his house, and strives to uncover his secret. It's when this secret turns out to be the ability to invoke the Green Man, a grotesque and ancient folkloric monster, that the real trouble starts.

However, although it had all the ingredients I usually love - dark humour, ghosts, weird pagan imagery - I found The Green Man to be a strangely sterile sort of book. Amis has deliberately made Allington an almost wholly unpleasant man, and although much of the comedy stems from this, it also means I struggled to care what happened to him. Most of the female characters are stereotypes, and the tedious trendy vicar crosses the border from comedy into caricature. Admittedly, this may be because we're viewing the characters through the clouded lens of Allington, an obsessive womaniser, misanthropist and snob, but even so, I found the lack of depth to the characters detracted from my enjoyment. A scene with a certain mysterious unearthly visitor, with whom Allington has a long conversation one night while time stands still around them, is clever and ambitious, but also seems too contrived, too self-conscious.

I didn't dislike The Green Man as such ... but there was just something lacking, for me. It's hard to define what that something was, but there's a coldness to this book, as if it's just missing that little spark that would bring it to life.

Comments

  1. I agree with everything you say here, except for one point, but I loved the book and think it's one of the best ghost/magic stories I've read. I thought the mood and suspense were incredible which could be read as slow. Underhill reads like a Lovecraft character all full of scholarly magic. I liked the scene with the "young man" and the scene just prior to that with the views from the two windows. Sure the women are stereotypes but after what he does and what they do then we see that perhaps the stereotype is part of their character. We also can't take a look at this without considering the year it was published, definitely a time period when sex was at the forefront. I had no problem with the lead character, while you did, and I wonder if it's because I'm male. I mean, when I read something in first person from a man's pov, I think I try to be him, while when I read from a women's pov, well, I'm not sure maybe I can disassociate myself from her. However, this might just suggest I'm not that much removed from Allington. Also, the book was sometimes laugh out loud funny. And there was a bartender named Fred, both of which I am. Anyway, I'm going to check out more of your blog. Sorry, I don't get to talk about books nearly enough.

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    1. I can usually identify with male and female characters, and don't generally have any problem seeing things through a male character's eyes - but on this occasion, perhaps gender does make a difference, because I just couldn't believe in Allington, or indeed most of the female characters, and the fact that so many women seemed to find a guy who was essentially an ageing drunk with little charm desperately attractive just struck me as wishful thinking on the author's part, which irritated me. I just found most (not all) of the characters a bit flat, a bit of a one-note-samba. But yes, the time period is certainly a factor, as you say.

      I agree about most of the the rest, though - the sinister scenes were extremely creepy and atmospheric, genuinely scary at times, and I liked the Lovecraftian tinge to Underhill too.

      Also book's locations are very close to where I grew up, so I enjoyed being able to picture the settings incredibly clearly, and he captures them very well without having to waste a word.

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