Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Martin Amis’s Pregnant Widow
This novel is not as bad as I expected it to be. It’s bad, certainly; but not that bad. I’d say ‘it’s not as bad as Yellow Dog‘, but that would be redundant. Nothing could be as bad as Yellow Dog. Having Amis personally come to my house to administer a lava enema would hardly be as bad as that novel.
Old Martin Amis’s version of Young Martin Amis (here called ‘Keith Nearing’) spends a summer in 1970 in an Italian chateau (’chateau-a’? Italian was never my strong suit) with his girlfriend, the ordinary Lily, and their mutual friend the enormous-breasted Scheherazade, plus various other posh-nob comers and goers. Now, in the Amisdrome there are only two sorts of men: on the one hand the massive wankers, and on the other a much smaller selection of massive wankers whose massive wankerishness is restrained under a tinfoil-thin veneer of what an eighteenth-century writer would call ‘breeding’, but which Amis thinks of in terms of education, wit, courtesy and so on. Keith Nearing is one of the latter. And actually, to qualify myself; Amis also includes a male character called Whittaker who’s not a massive wanker at all, although that’s because he is gay, do you see? Amis perhaps thinks this is a signal of his Right-On-ness. In fact I suspect it speaks to a blimpish belief that gays are not proper men, don’t you know. But never mind that for a moment.
Amis’s Keith is a more-or-less civilised massive tool, a student of English literature given to pretentious pontificating, who wants to stay true to his girlfriend but can’t help leching slaveringly over the weirdly unselfconscious sexbomb Scheherazade. Various other characters come and go, although it wasn’t until roundabout p.100 that I clocked Amis was essaying a ‘sex-comedy of manners’ with all this. It is not a success on those terms. I’m not sure there are any terms on which it is. Compared to (say) Alan Hollinghurst’s extraordinarily evocative rendering of a summer holiday in a posh chateau in The Line of Beauty, Amis’s environment feels plastic and unconvincing. His dialogue is always sharp, and sometimes the one-liners hit home; but the sharpness is too ubiquitously honed, too monotonously maintained, and at length it generates a sort of affective dissociation. Interleaved in the main narrative are mini-scenes from 2003, when grown-up much-married Keith is having a kind of nervous breakdown. These bits aim for honest pathos and completely miss their target.
Otherwise, there’s a couple of architectonic structuring themes laboriously applied. One of these is Ovidian, a new Metamorphoses (’Now I am ready to tell how bodies are changed/Into different bodies’, from Ted Hughes’s translation of same, is one of the novel’s epigraphs), which in Amis’s novel becomes about how at adolescence gawky children suddenly change their bodies into loci of extraordinary sexual desirability; balanced at the other end by how middle-age suddenly metamorphoses your youthful frame into something hideous and balding and wrinkled and liverspotted. Another governing theme has to do with ‘the sexual revolution’ as, effectively, a subject for saloon-bar grumbling. Amis thesis is that ‘the sexual revolution’ entailed ‘girls acting like boys’ (which is to say: replacing sexual passivity with sexual agency), which platitutde is troped rather weakly in this novel as a kind of cross-dressing, like Shakespearian comedy.
Amis’s third Big Theme is sex more generally, or sex as a subject of fictional representation more generally; and his thesis here is that Sex is unrepresentable. He puts that right up-front:
Sexual intercourse, I should point out, has two unique characteristics. It is indescribable. And it peoples the world. We shouldn’t find it surprising, then, that it is much on everyone’s mind. 
By the end of the novel this has become a sort of definition of pornography.
Pornographic sex is a kind of sex that can be described. Which told you something, he felt, about pornography, and about sex. During Keith’s time sex divorced itelf from feeling. Pornography was the industrialisation of that rift. 
And this is characteristic. An intriguing first two sentences, there, that drop bathetically into Amis-père-like reactionary noodling. (As if pornography is an invention of the 1970s! As if sexual desire and pornography, the engagement with the subjectivity of another and the sexual objectification of the other, haven’t always been complexly tangled in together as far as sexual intercourse is concerned). But Amis wants at one at the same time to suggest that the sexual revolution was a really bad idea and to not be thought a prude. In this he fails. In accordance with his dogma that sex cannot be represented he dances faffily around the many scenes of coupling and shagging that litter the novel (’the nightly interaction, the indescribable deed, now took place’, 23); but the sex keeps clattering back into describability and, indeed, naffness. Exhibit A in this regard is a Bad-Sex-Award-worthy instance of heterosexual anal poking (Keith and a woman called Viola: life-changing, the novel implausibly insists), which is wincing, and not in the sense you think I mean.
Sometimes the writing achieves a gemlike glitter. I liked Amis on flies: ‘in the middle distance, vague flecks of death—and then, up close, armoured survivalists with gas-mask faces’ . But I didn’t like the way he recycled the selfsame image (’a fly was a speck of death ... armoured survivalist with gas-mask face’ ) hundreds of pages later on. Moreover, moments of nifty description are vastly outnumbered by moments of portentious pontificating. And when he essays this latter, Amis more often than not gets his laces tangled and trips himself over. Who’s brave enough to try to improve Keats’s celebrated poetic equivalence ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’? Why, Amis is:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty. This was beautiful, perhaps. But how could it be beautiful? It wasn’t true. As he saw it. Beauty, that rare thing, had gone. What remained was truth. And truth was in endless supply.
Christ but that’s a moped-crash of a paragraph. Amis, once again, has failed to write the novel worth his (undeniable, but rusting) talent. It’s starting to look like he never will.
Don’t hold back!
Seriously, what is so bad about Yellow Dog? And how did you feel about The Rachel Papers?
If you follow the link in the first line, up there, you’ll see what I think is so bad about Yellow Dog.
The Rachel Papers seems to me a not-bad book: a young man’s novel of the sort that gets a softer ride than it might because it is ‘promising’ rather than spectacularly good. But a writer can’t ride on ‘promise’ for ever.
The intro, in which Amis is doing what late-stage-Amis does best (the steely rue/ grim glee in the bodily disintegration of a late-stage-Amis type), got at least three big, hopeful chuckles out of me. Before chapter one ended, however… the grinding lovelessness of the task at hand became all too… etc.
Hard enough to spin fine fiction from autobiog’s stone; on top of that, in The Pregnant Widow, we’re reading a salvage job of at least half-a-decade’s work. He did it to himself, eh? Mart’s becoming the kid whom everyone started calling a fuckup: gets harder and harder not to fuckup. Until you move.
Mart should move (just for a few years). Capetown?
That “moped-crash of a paragraph” was great. It interrogates a beautiful line and affirms its beauty while also suggesting its falseness. It’s also wonderfully written.
world’s latest erratum: “kid *who*...”