1 March, 2010Issue 11.4FictionLiterature

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Butterfly Broken Upon a Wheel

Peter Snow

The Pregnant WidowMartin Amis
The Pregnant Widow
Jonathan Cape, 2010
480 Pages
£18.99
ISBN 978-0224076128

Martin Amis’s new novel, The Pregnant Widow, takes its title from the Russian writer Alexander Herzen’s observation that after great social change “the departing world leaves behind it not an heir, but a pregnant widow. Between the death of the one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.” Long and painful in its own gestation, this novel targets the narcissism of the 1970s “Me Generation”, the sexual revolution unleashed by its members, and the traumas it engendered. Since that revolution, Amis argues, surface has superseded essence. Detecting a “dissociation of sensibility” between feeling and thought akin to that infamously diagnosed in 17th-century English poetry by T.S. Eliot, he tracks a fault line in generational mindsets and lifestyles.

Though disastrous for the novel’s hero, Keith Nearing, a runtish English literature student, this generational break proves even more catastrophic for the female characters. In a misguided attempt to “turn boy”, they plunge into predatory promiscuity and ultimately miss their chance to have children. They lead lives of sorry proxy or just end up dead, like Keith’s sister, Violet, who “dates” football teams and whose fate in the novel sadly parallels that of Amis’s own sister, Sally. In the sexual competition inaugurated by the 1970s revolution, the book concludes, “the boys have won again”.

The novel begins with Keith—an occupant of “that much-disputed territory between five foot six and seven” (and the latest, incidentally, in a line of unfortunates bearing that name in Amis’s fiction)—settling into an Italian castello for the long hot summer of 1970 with Lily, his sharp-tongued girlfriend, and the toffish, glamorous Scheherazade, whom Keith secretly schemes to seduce. Inevitably Keith’s plans, which involve spiked drinks (a trick learned from his current reading matter, Richardson’s Clarissa), go comically awry. He is then unexpectedly enticed by an icy Scottish house-guest, Gloria, into a 13-hour sexathalon, an obscurely dislocating experience that pitchforks him into a dismal “Larkinland” of sexual inadequacy for years to come.

The book then takes us up to the present day. Keith, one more drop in the “silver tsunami” of pre-Alzheimers Boomers, is left grappling with disappointment and fear of death, “the dark backing a mirror needs before it can show ourselves”. The key question on your deathbed, he concludes, will be: “How did it go for you with women?”

Big meaty themes then, and you cannot fault Amis for lack of ambition. If successful, he could perhaps have achieved that still unattained goal, the Great Boomer Novel. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

In his attempt to craft his Boomer masterpiece Amis has clearly been inspired by several of his literary heroes. Among the influences detectable in the novel is that famous lepidopterist and lexical conjurer, Vladimir Nabokov. Unfortunately, grasping after Nabokovian magic gossamer, Amis cannot resist complicating his narrative with leitmotifs and fine-spun webs of imagery. The list of motifs goes on and on: Narcissus and Echo; mirrors and windows; hermaphrodites; flowers; birds; and insects—including, of course, butterflies. There is enough clever image-mongering here to keep an army of semioticians and graduate students industrially employed for a generation.

Amis’s surface has indeed superseded essence. In this novel, symbol repeatedly trumps character, plot, episode, and action. It is impossible, for instance, to fathom the precise details of what went on in the pivotal sexual encounter (it seems to have involved dressing up as Elizabeth Bennett and something called the “Sinister Refinement”) or see what was so awful about it that it kicked Keith into touch, sexually speaking, for so long.

On his symbolic chessboard, Amis shunts the characters about like pawns until they lose all credibility and conviction. Take Gloria: even if you can swallow the icy Scot’s sudden sexual volte-face in the bathroom with Keith, her final chance meeting with Keith in a London pub as a stout, born-again, veil-wearing Moslem beggars belief. We are expected to swallow that she is in fact much older and more foreign than she seemed, having been born in Cairo in the 1930s, who to atone for her sins, has re-embraced her natal religion.

The “Me Generation” undoubtedly has a fixation with sex and death (funny, incidentally, how the Boomers, having thought themselves the first generation to discover sex, now think the same about dying), and Amis captures this well. He is also illuminating on the role of “subliminal nuclear war” in their early development. But he leaves a lot out. Sexual liberation began at least half a decade before 1970 and, pace Philip Larkin, probably before 1963. Indeed a credible case could be made that the unmooring of the Me Generation resulted not from their own sexual experimentation but the relationship breakdowns and parenting failures of their own fathers and mothers of the wartime generation. Amis himself has noted that his own parental circle “were all at it” as he was growing up, and his book Experience (2000) tells how it was the sudden savage break-up of his parents’ marriage that sent him spinning off course as a teenager.

Absent too are other key fixtures of the Me Generation. Apart from a solitary slab of hash, drugs never make an appearance in the novel. Nor are politics mentioned, not even Vietnam. And as an account of the Boomers’ legacy it is similarly myopic. The Boomers, for good or for ill, ushered in a whole raft of changes: the digital revolution; gay liberation; feminism; a concern with personal freedom, human rights, and the environment; AIDS; a drugs epidemic; the death of deference and the dismantling of large chunks of the existing social structure. Little of this is reflected in the Pregnant Widow. While it would be absurd to expect all of these to be represented in one novel, there could have been suggestions there was more to the Boomer revolution than sex.

But a judicious sense of balance isn’t, of course, what Amis is about. One has only to consider his wackier recent pronouncements: his proposal in the launch interviews for this book that walk-in suicide booths be opened on every street corner where Alzheimer sufferers could off themselves, or his statement in this novel that the only way to deal with a wild child like Violet would be Islamic or Mediterranean honour code repression.

Amis wants to have everything both ways. He claims to be on women’s side but consistently writes about them in a disparaging way. He patronisingly introduces stereotypical Islamic characters, then adds injury to insult by finding merit in the most illiberal and distasteful aspects of their culture.

Often you can’t help feeling that all Amis really wants to do is make a bigger splash. In Experience Amis summoned his younger self, the green velvet suited dandy strutting in his loons and platforms up and down the King’s Road trying to look cool and pull the birds. That adolescent dandy, albeit more wrinkled and thinner on top, is still stepping amongst us.

There are good books and bad books; there are also good bad books (entertainingly bad ones) and bad good books—into which sad category The Pregnant Widow falls. For there are many fine things within it. Amis handles his dialogue deftly, cleverly catching the way the young in conversation click and ricochet like billiard balls off one another’s surfaces without ever really connecting. Amis still has all the moves. No one can skewer you with a sentence like him. One of our finest literary essayists and autobiographical writers, he still has talent and to spare. What a pity he has blown it in this novel.

Apparently, writing The Pregnant Widow freed Amis from a long writer’s block, and he now has two new novels under way, the first featuring a crook who wins the lottery and his cohort, a Jordan-like celebrity called Danube. This sounds promising and may herald a return to the Swiftian disgust of Amis’s masterpiece, Money (1984). Amis will tell things stylishly (how else could he tell them). If he also tells them straight and cool and level, who knows, he could yet write the great novel of our times.

Peter Snow read English at University College and is currently a freelance writer based in Oxford.