Charles Bukowski's third novel is a sexual banquet of over indulgence and fleeting gratification. Women is also a deeply existential novel.
The starkly titled Women is Charles Bukowski’s third novel, published in 1978. It’s pretty much identical in format and style to its predecessors Post Office (1971) and Factotum (1975). The main differences are that it’s twice as long and even grittier in tone than the first two. Post Office, Factotum and Women can almost be read as a single continuous work, all featuring the same anti-hero, Henry Chinaski, transparently Charles Bukowski himself.
As the title suggests, most of the novel is about Bukowski’s relationships with women, some quickies, some more enduring, but all sure to end one way or another. That’s a polite explanation. Perhaps more accurately it’s a psycho-sexual extravaganza, a marathon sexual confession. There is a lot of sex in Women, an almost grotesque feast of excess.
Bukowski is self-effacing enough to call himself a down market Marquis de Sade. He’s not really trying to be Sade, however. The Marquis de Sade wrote outrageous comedies about sex. He was like Mae West, who also liked to poke fun at sex. Bukoswki is rather an existential writer, in the manner of Sartre’s Nausea, Dostoyevsky’s Notes From The Underground and Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. The existential crisis at the centre of Women is perhaps Henry Chinaski’s inability to find any solace, comfort or even enduring relationship with a woman. Henry Chinaski has a lot of sex in Women, but it doesn’t seem to make him very happy or fulfilled. As in Sade, an excess of sexual gratification turns into its opposite, boredom and, if not outright abuse, then shabby treatment of partners.
Having read and enjoyed these first three novels, I’ve been trying to put my finger on his enormous appeal. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is the deeply existential aspect of his writing. Henry Chinaski seems to live in a permanent existential funk. He just wants to avoid people and be left alone to type away at his stories. Everything in the world is meaningless and time wasting. In one passage in Women he talks about how life is all about waiting:
“You waited and you waited – for the hospital, the doctor, the plumber, the madhouse, the jail, papa death himself. First the signal was red, then the signal was green. The citizens of the world ate food and watched t.v. and worried about their jobs or their lack of the same, while they waited.”
In his treatment of women, Henry Chinaski certainly lacks gallantry, to put it mildly. But if he treats women poorly, he is also willing to confess all these faults to the reader. In many passages he makes a point of showing himself as weak and cowardly. There seems to be a moralising strategy behind all of these confessions. It’s like Bukowski is saying: look at how terrible and pathetic I am, no one knows it more than I do, please forgive me.
In a final plead that he’s a nice guy, the novel ends with Henry Chinaski feeding a stray cat and noting that animals can instinctively pick out who is a ‘good guy’. Henry Chinaski cheerfully makes clear that he is at heart a good man, despite his misanthropy, appalling relationships, drinking problems and general irascibility. And despite all that Chinaski has told us about himself, you can’t help but agree.
Women, by Charles Bukowski. Published by Virgin Books. ISBN: 9780753518144 RRP: $19.95