The Pregnant Widow
BY MARTIN AMIS
ALFRED A. KNOPF, 384 PAGES, $26.95
Martin Amis’ Money was a superb novel. Still is. Don’t let anybody tell you different. Vintage 1984, its Rabelaisian account of the self-destruction of John Self, its unreliable, infinitely defilable narrator, a one-man Bubble about to burst, prophetically embodies and foreshadows the societal bubbles to come. Money is a tour de force that goes beyond comic self-abnegation to an almost-spiritual affirmation through degradation. Indeed, I once wrote an essay inspired by this theme—and its recurrence in the best of Amis’ work—with the (deliberately) ponderous title “Ecstatic Mortification: The Self-Loathing Spirituality of Martin Amis.” No one could burst the bubble of contemporary civilization’s sacralization of “self-esteem” better than M.A.
I know, I know, I’m supposed to review Amis’ new novel, The Pregnant Widow, but I wouldn’t have undertaken what has become a deeply dispiriting task if I hadn’t still had an affection for Money’s hilariously purgative dazzle.
And don’t get me started on The Information, the single most gaspingly funny and yet cringingly grim portrait of writerly self-laceration—if you set aside Geoff Dyer’s inimitable Out of Sheer Rage (for which, should you not have read it yet, you will be in my undying debt when you’ve done so).
Oh, right; yes, The Pregnant Widow. Sorry. I hope I haven’t given away any hint of how I feel about it in comparison with Amis’ earlier work. Maybe the most succinct way of putting it is that Amis was brilliant as a dirty young man, not so great as a dirty old one. He wants to be Larkinesque. (The amazing poet of modern melancholy self-abnegation, Philip Larkin, was a great friend of Martin’s father, Kingsley Amis; young Martin was mesmerized by the sorrowful humors of Larkin’s self-flagellating muse, which gave a dignified edge of sadness to the mad indignities in young Amis’ best books.)
Actually, I find it almost hard to believe this novel is by the same Martin Amis who wrote Money and The Information and London Fields. You know the popular kitsch series Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, etc.? (Where have you been, then? Not to a chain bookstore, evidently.) I bring up zombie Austen because The Pregnant Widow reads as if a zombie Amis wrote it. As if he’s been taken over by a mediocre, undead version of himself. There are bits and pieces of simulated life, a witty riff here and there, occasional flare-ups of the once acutely alive Amis—but, by contrast, this novel staggers around clumsily, lunging at significance: mortality, age, the sexual revolution, the meaning of sex, the meaning of breasts. Yes, the meaning of breasts. It is almost as if Martin Amis had taken his father Kingsley’s oft-quoted, deceptively simple, profoundly puzzled lines: “Why did I like women’s breasts so much? I was clear on why I liked them, thanks, but why did I like them so much?”—lines that Martin, in fact, quotes (without attribution) in this novel—and decided to write a 400-page novelistic exegesis on the subject. This despite the fact that in his autobiography, Experience, Martin Amis can be found telling his father to his face that he focuses too much on breasts in his fiction. It is one of the ways in which The Pregnant Widow reminds us of how, as a novelist, Martin has become all too much Kingsley’s son, and not in a good way.
Because, alas, Amis the younger—who had always been so sly and funny about his male characters’ enslavement to the charms of alluring (and clever) women—has here reduced all the crazy fun of it to the dimensions of a voyeur’s peephole.
In this case the breasts being peeped at belong to a young woman, blonde and beautiful and with the all-too-heavily-laden name Scheherazade. It is 1970, and she is one of a group of mainly English, college-age young people spending a summer holiday together in someone’s Italian castle. Because it is 1970, Scheherazade sunbathes topless at the castle’s pool, and—as in the fatal encounter of Actaeon and Diana—a glimpse of her breasts proves to be virtually traumatic and earthshakingly transformative for Amis’ stand-in, Keith.
Keith spends most of the novel scheming to find a way to possess them—them, it seems, more than her. In looking back, from the perspective of late middle age, on this opening episode of the sexual revolution, Amis’ Keith reduces everything—all the brio and freshness—to a pubescent’s first view of Playboy: an exquisitely nuanced vision of motel-channel soft-core porn.
Once, Amis’ women (remember Nicola Six in London Fields? or Selena in Money?) were quick-witted, misterioso con artist / goddesses, complex as well as sexy. Here, they are basically platforms for breasts. Amis has reduced sex, the sexual revolution, the quintessence of female eros, and male desire to these two objects of scrutiny. Ninety percent of the plot is devoted to Keith’s delirium over Scheherazade’s breasts and Keith’s (surprise!) ultimate failure to attain carnal contact with them. She seems to have—or he seems to notice—very little else to recommend her.
Regardless of Amis’ leaden attempts to complicate it, this goes beyond objectification to simpleminded reductionism. But this imitation of life by the undead zombie Amis serves only to underscore what’s missing—the true delight in illuminating the low-down depths of the highbrow psyche that Amis used to provide in his acid-etched high / low lingo. For sex and sensibility, Amis was the sharpest observer of self (and Self) one could find. Here, the sharpest knife in the drawer has been blunted.
There are moments (and they are few; actually, maybe two) that serve, especially in a book that so self-consciously tells us it is taking on Death and other Last Things, only to remind us of what we’ve lost. The first such moment is a clever throwaway: Amis’ disquisition on the way a subtle student of Jane Austen can discern how that author indicates ample breasts: by saying, of one of her young female characters, that her figure had grown “consequential.” Yes, it’s still the same topic, but at least the pursuit of the question—and the answer—is amusing.
The second moment is Amis’ riff on the New Atheism; more accurately, it is an apparent parody of a New Atheist riff that Amis—somewhat anachronistically because the rhetoric is so much the product of a contemporary, contemptuous character dropped into 1970—has Keith deliver at a particularly inopportune time, one that ruins Keith’s exquisitely, painfully calculated, about-to-be-consummated possession of those consequential breasts.
I say “apparent parody” because it’s not clear what Amis’ own attitude is toward his character’s mocking comparison of Jesus and Santa Claus and the respective epistemological status of their stories. Is this a sly dig at Amis’ BFF Christopher Hitchens, the high priest of the New Atheism, or does Amis want to provoke on his own? It’s one of the few nonobvious moments in the book, at least.
And, okay, there’s one woman character worthy of Amis: Gloria, who’s great at cutting Keith down to size with her truth telling. One wishes she had been Amis’ editor.
Meanwhile, there are all sorts of things to be annoyed about. The first (and most annoying) thing about The Pregnant Widow is the title and its sophomoric reach for transcendent literary significance. Yes, we get it, Martin: life and death, somehow intersecting, converging in the phrase; but there are so many pregnant widows (and their children) strewn across the landscape of this book in a heavy-handed way that I stopped counting. And Amis never, as far as I can tell, does much more than place them, complacently, in our path, assuming that we will stumble upon Higher Meaning in the juxtaposition. Alas, he seems not to have found it himself much beyond the literal.
The second most annoying thing about The Pregnant Widow is the way it flogs the old, tired, and coy game of, “Is it autobiographical or not?” This by-now-infinitely-tedious wheeze (one of my favorite Amis slang words) is dropped in at several points: All this is real, it really happened, but isn’t that just what you’d expect an unreliable narrator to say? (As if we will be all wowed by it, or by the deliberate shuffling of life and art that Philip Roth has already beaten to death all these years.)
The problem is that—except to someone so blinded by self-esteem (once the enemy) as to think that we will be so grateful for a glimpse into the fabulous life of the author that said glimpse will infuse pallid prose with flashes of Byronic lightning—the possibility of its reality does not endow triviality with any greater depth. Amis seems to have forgotten something he wrote in Experience: “The truth is that you can’t put real people into a novel, because a novel, if it is alive, will inexorably distort them.” Or the novel will be distorted by them, the novelist’s familiarity with them deceiving him into the assumption that we will find them as interesting as he does.
Alas, in The Pregnant Widow, the possibility of factuality does not remedy the paucity of the fiction.
The third most annoying thing about the book might be summed up by a phrase that once was popular in the Yale English department: “The Fallacy of Imitative Form.” This was the fallacious notion, or so we were told, that to render the inchoate chaos of the world, the structure of a work of art must itself be inchoate and chaotic.
And so we have ostensibly daring intrusions into the narrative by the voice of Keith’s conscience, who has little of interest to say aside from announcing that he exists and is often at odds with Keith. And the plot, which at first seemed to have a unity of time and place, disintegrates into a series of updates that have all the riveting appeal of one of those yearly, holiday-time family catch-up letters. There are about a half-dozen updatings of the various romantic entanglements of the original 1970 Italian-castle gang of boring toffs and topless girls, along with a jarringly sad subplot about the death of Keith’s sexually promiscuous sister. Zombie Amis uses this to make a lunge for emotional depth. One almost thinks this subplot was imported from another novel Amis wanted to but could not write, and is used here to give a “consequential” gravity to the apparently harmless doings of the sexual revolution’s pioneers.
Indeed, one wonders whether the entire Pregnant Widow is trying to give birth to a different novel, a novel about the sister’s death. The connection between the sexual revolution and the circumstances of the death of The Pregnant Widow’s self-destructively promiscuous sister suggests that Amis wanted to Say Something Big about the dark side of sexual libertinism.
Maybe next time he’ll deliver.
Ron Rosenbaum, a columnist for Slate , is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler.