Using Strain Theory to Provide New Perspectives on the Response to Anomie in Charles Bukowski’s Novels: 4. Conclusion

Charles Bukowski has long been considered to be a writer who embodied the rebellion inherent in American literature. His creation of the Bukowski-myth in which fame and success are eschewed and poverty and failure are celebrated cemented Bukowski as a rebel who set himself against the norms of American society.

            While there is no indication that Bukowski himself was aware of Robert K. Merton’s strain theory, critics such as Paul Clement have noted the importance of social anomie to Bukowski’s work. I believe the fact that Bukowski explored social strain in his novels, albeit possibly inadvertently, is apparent from a reading of his novels. The characters are all caught in social strain, attempting to live lives that are full of disappointment and frustration. Bukowski demonstrates different responses to strain theory in his novels over the course of his career, beginning by showing the ritualism of his character Henry Chinaski in Post Office, then showing a retreatism which preceded it in Factotum, before finally showing Chinaski to have conformed to society’s expectations in Women and more so in Hollywood.

            One of the ways that Bukowski explored social strain was by creating the Bukowski-myth. Bukowski intentionally fictionalised elements of his life to suggest that he had lived a harder, more downbeat life than he actually had such as posing ‘as a grim-faced hobo riding a box car for his book The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills (1969).Those present with him when the photo was taken were left with the impression that he had ‘never ridden a box car in his life’, such was the clumsy way he attempted to climb aboard.[1] While the broad elements of his life as an unemployed alcoholic are true, Bukowski deliberately over emphasised some aspects to add realism to his work. Bukowski relied heavily on the implied author in his work and constructed the Bukowski-myth to use as an ideological framework upon which to build his narratives.

In Bukowski’s second novel, Factotum, Bukowski uses the character Henry Chinaski to explore Bukowski-land, the geographic representation of the Bukowski-myth. Bukowski-land is populated with people living on the edge of society. They live in old, small apartments; if lucky enough to have jobs they find them exploitative and unfulfilling; romantic relationships are represented similarly; and any money earned is spent on alcohol and gambling. Bukowski celebrates this lifestyle by showing that his character Chinaski chooses to live like this. Chinaski had a middle-class start in life and could have lived a more comfortable life than he chose to. This choice is crucial to the Bukowski-myth. By choosing to live in Bukowski-land, Chinaski is explicitly endorsing it as having as much, possible greater, meaning than to live in the way that the majority do, the way which society endorses.

It is here, in this conflict between society’s expectations and Chinaski’s choices that sociological models can be applied to determine the reality of Chinaski’s rebellion. It is clear that Factotum explicitly rejects society’s goals and means. He chooses to be poor; he chooses to be unemployed. In Merton’s terminology, this is socially deviant behaviour called retreatism.

By the time Bukowski came to write Hollywood, his attitude to the goals and means of society had shifted. Bukowski had now become a success. His books were selling well in Europe, he had written a well-received screenplay for which he had been well paid, and the resulting movie’s release had boosted book sales in America.[2] Bukowski was invited to celebrity parties where he mingled effortlessly with the famous people there because he had become one of them. Barry Miles makes the point that Bukowski hated the premiere and the people in attendance, but Bukowski certainly enjoyed the spoils of celebrity and the financial security it bought.[3] Bukowski was a success. It is here that the implied Bukowski begins to fall away as the Bukowski-myth is dismantled. Bukowski now explores what it means to be a social conformist by showing Chinaski’s response to his own literary success.

It can be argued that Chinaski made his way to success on his own terms. Until the making of the movie in Hollywood, Chinaski had continued to live in East Hollywood surrounded by drinkers and gamblers, and he had continued to write about them. But as soon as money came his way, Chinaski bought a car and a house and outwardly changed himself to conform to society’s expectations. Chinaski accepted society’s goal of wealth and he accepted one of society’s means of achieving wealth, celebrity. Chinaski conformed to society’s accepted goal of becoming a success and he conformed to society’s encouraged goals to achieve that success.

Strain theory provides a fascinating vantage point from which to analyse and understand the novels of Charles Bukowski. Not only does the theory illuminate important plot points in regard to character motivation, it also allows for analysis of the specific literary devices which Bukowski used to tell his stories. Elements such as liminality of characters and the implied author of the texts are all important features of the world that Bukowski created. The new perspectives provided by the application of strain theory to these novels are fascinating.

Post Office shows the ritualism of Hank Chinaski as he goes to work every day, accepting the means to success, but does not try to succeed in what he does, rejecting the social goal. Factotum (1975) shows Chinaski in the retreatist box, rejecting both the goals and means. Women is the first of the novels to show Chinaski conforming. In the novel Chinaski is a successful writer with a strong fan base, though still living in the slums of Los Angeles. He chronicles his sexual relationships with women in the novel and shows that he has begun to accept the goals and means of society. He is a creative, an artist, striving for success and recognition within his field. Ham on Rye (1982) is set during Chinaski’s childhood and shows the ritualism of his father struggling to find and maintain work during the depression of the 1930s. Chinaski’s father has accepted the means of full-time employment but understands that because of the economic situation he finds himself in, he will not be able to advance beyond his current financial position, rejecting the social goals of upward mobility. In Hollywood (1989) Chinaski is shown again to have conformed by owning social signifiers of wealth, the social goal, and attending celebrity parties. Finally in Pulp (1994) Bukowski rebels in the strain theory sense.

Pulp was Bukowski’s final novel, written as he was dying of leukaemia and published posthumously. Pulp retains some of the autobiographical features of his previous novels but here they are muddled and set in an obviously fictional world. Bukowski includes his favourite writers as characters and makes obtuse and opaque references to real world friends and situations. The novel is unapologetically difficult, uncompromising, and inaccessible. Bukowski has rejected the goals and means of society and replaced them with his own. He sets out to deconstruct the detective novel, to kill it. Bukowski dedicates the novel ‘to bad writing’, showing that he no longer cares for the social means of creating good art.[4] With Pulp Bukowski was writing how he wanted to with no care for the rules of fiction or of literature. Finally, with this last novel, Bukowski rebelled. I believe the only strain theory box which Bukowski did not occupy is that of innovator as his writing never depicted Chinaski acting illegally in any meaningful way as a deliberate response to society.

Despite Bukowski’s use of simple language and simple plots, he utilised some interesting and complex literary devices in his novels. The implied author of Factotum creates an additional layer of narrative between the author and the narrator. This complicated relationship between the voices which present the story are contrasted with a straightforward, simple picaresque and use of the common inverted-U dramatic structure. Conversely, Hollywood uses a simple narrative in which the implied author is slowly removed as the Bukowski-myth is stripped back and the narrator and historical author’s voices slowly become one. The plot is complicated by the presence of movie scenes being shot which are based not only on the historical author’s real life but also that of the fictional Chinaski. The complex relationship between the fictional film based on the fictional character as recounted in a book which is based on the real-life author’s experiences making a real life movie dizzies the reader, showing Chinaski’s own feelings of estrangement at the conformity he is experiencing.

At first glance it seems that the academic literature regarding Bukowski is unanimous in declaring Bukowski an outsider. The titles of so many of the critical texts which look at Bukowski’s life and his work attest to this using words which reference his underground, outsider status. The accepted wisdom suggests that Bukowski is a rebellious author. That was the starting point of this dissertation. I believed that applying a sociological model of deviance, new light could be shined on a writer about whom much has already been written.

While researching, it soon became clear that the academic response to Bukowski was more nuanced than I had previously considered. Most writers agreed that there was a dramatic distance between the narrator and the author. Despite some claims to autobiography, Chinaski was not Bukowski. It seemed to me that not only was this the case, but also Bukowski was not Bukowski, or at least the reader’s perception of Bukowski was at odds with the real man. Chatman’s theory of the implied author illuminates a lot of what Bukowski was achieving through his use of the fictional Bukowski as the authorial voice and by analysing his responses to social anomie within the strain theory model, I hope to have clarified Bukowski’s use of the implied author and shown how it was another literary device which he put to use very skilfully within his work.

Factotum was a book about social deviance written in a straightforward manner which conforms to norms of dramatic structure, while Hollywood is a book about conformity which rebels against normal dramatic structure with its use of post-modern meta-narratives regarding story telling. Ultimately both novels feature points of conformity and deviance as regards literary norms. Miles states that ‘what [Bukowski] liked about his writing was its roughness, and lack of literary qualities’,[5] and yet for all the implied Bukowski’s exhortations to ‘don’t try’ and his claims of simplicity, the historical Bukowski did try and he created some deceptively complex works in the process.

[1]Howard Sounes, (2010), pp. 98-99.

[2] Howard Sounes, (2019), p. xvi.

[3] Barry Miles, p. 252.

[4] Charles Bukowski, Pulp, (London: Virgin Books, 2009), [p. ix].

[5] Barry Miles, p. 252.

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