Masculinity in crisis has been a recurrent topic in Martin Amis’s fiction. The character John Self, that notorious example of unredeemed machismo in Money (1984) immediately comes to mind, but other characters, like Guy Clinch (London Fields, 1989), a prototype of hypercorrectness in his dealings with women, suggests the author’s interest in exploring different approaches to the problem. In particular, the short story “Let Me Count the Times” displays a full range of Amis’s literary abilities in exposing the contradictions of modern men. The story was first published under the title “Vernon” in Penthouse in December 1980, later appearing with its present title in Granta in 1981. Finally it was included in Heavy Water and Other Stories (1998).
The protagonist, Vernon, is a businessman obsessed with calculating arithmetic means of his sexual practices with his wife. Although he loves her and enjoys making love to her, he occasionally feels the urge to abandon their orthodox sexual behavior. Vernon begins to find an outlet for his erotic desires in the form of masturbatory fantasies. Amis’s grotesque and mocking style is at its best when he describes the details of Vernon’s “affair” with himself: “Vernon did it everywhere. (. . .) With scandalized laughter he dragged himself out protesting to the garden toolshed and did it there. (. . .) Confusedly and very briefly he considered running away with himself” (80). For a while Vernon attempts to keep up both strands of his sexual life: his orthodox conjugal duty, now freed from feelings of guilt, and his perverse but highly satisfactory onanist practices, now expanded into promiscuous imaginary couplings with famous actresses and female characters from literary works. The experience, however, is too stressful for the protagonist, and he collapses in a breakdown of unpredictable consequences.
In this short story Amis makes a fierce criticism of the idea of sex centered on men’s needs. Throughout the narrative sex is always something that men do to women. There is also an element of puerile masculine pride in Vernon’s obsession with counting the times, correlating his manliness with the number of sexual acts in which he engages. Vernon’s masculinity, however, is doomed to collapse because he is subject to what Ian M. Harris (184) has termed “contradictory male messages.” Vernon is not able to reconcile his role as a loving husband with the imagined playboy character he has assigned to himself. The resulting anxiety is the cause of his emotional breakdown. Similarly, Vernon is not able to overcome the strict division of roles that he projects over his wife. On the one hand, she represents the home and “the safety” (77, 90). On the other hand, she has to be degraded because she reveals man’s weakness. It is a classic case of masculine schematization, what Jonathan Rutherford has defined as “a projection of the contradictions within male heterosexuality” (51).
However, if in “Let Me Count The Times” Amis dismantles a typical model of masculinity, he goes no further, leaving things as they are. He makes fun of the ridiculous manifestations of a confused modern man but maintains male order in an hegemonic position. First, Vernon’s wife is denied all individuality; we never even know her name. Second, she is described along the lines of the classic housewife: kind, patient, understanding. Finally, she does not exist as an agent: Effaced from the narrative, even linguistically she is merely the passive recipient of Vernon’s actions. The incomplete nature of this otherwise brilliant satire is perhaps explained by something Amis said in a well-known interview: “I don’t offer alternatives to what I deplore” (Haffenden, 14).
BIBLIOGRAPHY Amis, Martin. “Let Me Count the Times.” In Heavy Water and Other Stories, 75–93. London: Jonathan Cape, 1998.
Haffenden, John. Novelists in Interview. London: Methuen, 1985. Harris, Ian M. Messages Men Hear. Constructing Masculinities. London: Taylor and Francis, 1995.
Rutherford, Jonathan. “Who’s That Man?” In Male Order: Unwrapping Masculinity, edited by Rowena Chapman and Jonathan Rutherford, 21–67. 1988. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1989.