Welcome to The Valve
Login
Register


Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

Articles
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

Comments
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

XHTML | CSS

Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

 


Blogroll

2blowhards
About Last Night
Academic Splat
Acephalous
Amardeep Singh
Beatrice
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogenspiel
Blogging the Renaissance
Bookslut
Booksquare
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cliopatria
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
CultureSpace
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Fernham
Ferule & Fescue
Ftrain
GalleyCat
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
Idiocentrism
Idiotprogrammer
if:book
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Kitabkhana
Languagehat
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
MadInkBeard
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Moo2
MoorishGirl
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Philobiblion
Planned Obsolescence
Printculture
Pseudopodium
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
ReadySteadyBlog
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
S1ngularity::criticism
Say Something Wonderful
Scribblingwoman
Seventypes
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Splinters
Spurious
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
Uncomplicatedly
Unfogged
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
Waggish
What Now?
William Gibson
Wordherders

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Martin Amis’s Pregnant Widow

Posted by Adam Roberts on 03/10/10 at 05:40 AM

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. [7]

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. [461]

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’ [47]. 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’ [311]) 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.


Comments

Don’t hold back!

Seriously, what is so bad about Yellow Dog? And how did you feel about The Rachel Papers?

By Colleen on 03/10/10 at 01:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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.

By Adam Roberts on 03/10/10 at 01:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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?

By StevenAugustine on 03/10/10 at 05:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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.

By on 06/01/10 at 08:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

world’s latest erratum: “kid *who*...”

By StevenAugustine on 06/02/10 at 02:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:

Name:
Email:
Location:
URL:

 

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: