Let’s do a quick taste test. Identify, if you please, the author of the following passage:
“It was by no means the worst of all possible pubs, the carpets not much damper than bathmats, the tureens of the ashtrays not yet brimming over, the clientele not audibly planning your murder… As I was ordering, I felt a waft of yeast on my cheek and a tap on my shoulder, and even before I turned I felt the arrival of violence (violence at my expense).”
Even if the particular sentences aren’t familiar—the novel it’s taken from was only released last month, after all—the identifying marks are all there. There’s the spiky wit. The carefully measured rhythms and repetitions. And the expansive vocabulary, paired with an almost comically whole-hearted embrace of the skuzziest corners of English pub culture.
In fact, maybe it’s way too obvious: the owner of these words is Martin Amis.
The above is a quote from his buoyant new book, The Pregnant Widow, but in terms of location and atmosphere, it’s actually far from representative. For the bulk of his twelfth novel, the British pot-stirrer and stylistic virtuoso has up and relocated to an idyllic Italian castle in the summer of 1970. The goal? To see if 20-year-old Keith Nearing can take advantage of the burgeoning feminist revolution and have a bunch of promiscuous sex with his fellow vacationers. And if there’s any time left over, he’s also got a suitcase full of classic English novels to power through.
Keith starts out more or less devoted to his on-again, off-again girlfriend Lily, who’s recently returned to him after a year of her own sexual adventures—or, in the novel’s vernacular, “acting like a boy.” But he quickly becomes infatuated with her impossibly busty friend Scheherazade, who has a rather careless habit of sunbathing topless. Then there’s Gloria, a later arrival, whose backside defies both physics and swimsuit technology.
Everyone at the castle talks freely and graphically about sex, gossiping about each other’s underwear preferences and masturbation rituals. (The latter is ingeniously dubbed “applied narcissism”—a telling detail, since the book as a whole can be seen as one long, loving navel-gaze.) Keith, though, is the only one of the bunch who aims to walk the walk. Schemes are hatched. Plots thicken. Most go horribly awry.
And everything is filtered through the peculiar lens of his reading list, where chastity and feminine virtue are always of the utmost importance. Keith notes that “the English novel, at least in its first two or three centuries, asked only one question. Will she fall? Will she fall, this woman?” Of course, as a character in an English novel himself, and one living in an age of decidedly looser morals, Keith has his own meta-dilemma to contend with: “What’ll they write about, he wondered, when all women fall? Well, there’ll be new ways of falling…”
As with everything Amis publishes these days, The Pregnant Widow arrives with an attendant cloud of public chatter. How much of the book is, as he once claimed, “blindingly autobiographical”? Is this one good enough to finally net him a Booker Prize? Or is its treatment of the rise of feminism too crass and reductive for any of this to matter?
My sense is that, in the long view of Amis’s career, it’ll be seen as a smart, kinetic oddity that nonetheless clatters around a bit too much for its own good. Despite the serenity of the setting, it’s quite a noisy novel. You can feel Amis’s desire to never write an unoriginal sentence soaking into every page; his descriptions of Italian birds and flowers are almost violent in their restlessness. And there’s a long parade of codas that amounts to little more than an 80-page, where-are-they-now credit sequence. If he does win the Booker, I’ll consider it a retroactive award for 1984’s Money, which remains the funniest and most audacious book I’ve ever read.
On the other hand, there are literally hundreds of worse descriptions for a novel than “quirky Amis b-side.” I make no secret of my unwavering devotion to the man’s writing, with its myriad leaps and somersaults and uppercuts. If his career has looked a little unsteady these past few years, the new book is a swift reminder that there’s still some gas in the tank.
He also remains far more subversive than most of his detractors will acknowledge. For all its rampaging hormones, The Pregnant Widow is thoroughly in control of its narcissism and gutter-mindedness—and if you don’t think there were horny opportunists like Keith circling the margins of the sexual revolution, well, you’re only kidding yourself.
Sure, Keith has a habit of sizing up his companions in a particularly sleazy way. Lily is introduced as “5’5”, 34-25-23.” Scheherazade: “5’10”, 37-23-33.”
But by the time he starts leering at a nearby fountain—“approximately 7’6”, 44-18-48”—you have to realize that the joke has been on nobody but him all along.
Knopf Canada, 384 pp., $32.95, hardcover
(review also appeared in SEE Magazine, June 24, 2010)