Monday, January 27, 2014

Martin Amis' The Pregnant Widow

There is one major advantage and one major disadvantage in reviewing a book two to five years after it first appears: one can assess others’ thoughts about it in the context of personal reactions, and so form a richer conversation about the work; and one can also be in danger of repeating others’ arguments about it, whether pro or con. The benefit, for me, while weighing in on Martin Amis’ 2010 The Pregnant Widow, is that most of the commentary on the novel has been of the “Martin gets it wrong, again” variety, so the four-years-delay disadvantage doesn’t seem to apply as much.

Reviewers are often frustrated moralists. Amis’ sparkling and intelligent prose, here as in all of his efforts, both fictional and essayistic, gets hasty and begrudging slow claps, like an opera-goer who nods at the coloratura’s performance while noting the political statement her choice of dress implies. That’s a little unfair, of course, because Amis, in this novel of 1970 sexual experimentation and expectation (wait for it), broadens the comic tone to make many forceful conclusions regarding residual damage undergone by his characters in the novel’s forty-year follow-up. The concentration on ideas of the sexual revolution (awful, and false, term) is still misplaced, then, but I’d give it more of a pass if the arguments made more sense. First to the actual prose, including dialogue.

“The deep streets, the crushed cobbles, the fig-dark shadows, all silent in the siesta hour, which were given over to the faint trickles of digestion.”

“[W]hen he saw his first child on the paediatrician’s monitor, delightedly busying itself like a newt in a millpond, all ashiver with festive and apparently humorous curiosity, Keith’s first thought was of Adriano and his hunger: the hunger of the enwombed Adriano. The tiny ghost and his face of pain.”

“Drawn like iron filings in obedience to magnets of varying power, the young men squirmed and milled and then divided – with graphic candour – into two columns ...”

“[H]e felt like a man due to begin a prison term of fantastic duration ... like an ascetic backing into a pothole in Surinam, committed to remain within until the arrival of Christ or the Mahdi (or the End of Time).”

“ ‘What is old money?’ “
“ ‘It’s what you get when you did all your gouging and skanking a couple of centuries ago.’ “

“[Y]oung men in sharp shirts and pressed slacks, whooping, pleading, cackling – and all aflicker, like a telekinetic card trick of kings and queens, shuffling and riffing and fanning out under the streetlamps  ... The energy coming off them was on the level (he imagined) of an East Asian or sub-Saharan prison riot.”

The above quotes were cobbled together in five minutes, and from a text not marked beforehand in any way. Fairly random, in short. On most pages, there is virtuosic evidence; on every page, there is felicitous syntax and rhythmic creativity. But the moralists want to concentrate instead on the ideas. OK. Fair game.

Amis’ Achilles heel isn’t the oft-denounced attention to, and ineptness of, his plot machination and detail. He isn’t a meticulous plotter, but this isn’t genre fiction. No, it’s his overambition. Amis has provocative ideas, and some of them are even convincing, but the comic narrative, here as in London Fields especially, is trampled upon by feet of apocalyptic nonsense, structurally and emotionally out of tune with the story-proper. Amis himself is also a moralist, of course, and in The Pregnant Widow he’s not shy, particularly in the fractured post-Italy catch-up, about ruminating on decay, death, sexual satisfaction and shifting social politics (the fifty-fifty work detail at home, in a needless and obvious point, seems to be the only altered reality over the past two decades). But Katha Pollitt has nothing to say about Amis’ scarring visual, surely the most important passage in the novel, of Keith thrusting into Gloria from behind while they both look into the mirror. This scene makes redundant and paltry and long-winded any meta-commentary on narcissism during the sexual revolution. And just those two words, usually capitalized, get the theorists, feminists or otherwise, out from under their intertextual footnotes, to drop sweet dung from twentieth-floor ivory tower turret-cracks. From Pollitt: “What bothered me most about The Pregnant Widow, though, is that it just doesn’t ring true to feminism as experienced by women in 1970. I’m exactly the same age as Martin Amis, and granted, our lives were very different.” Yes, your lives were very different, as were every one of the millions of lives different, one from another, during the seventies. So one must allow one’s story to be heard from a unique perspective. That’s where Amis gets in trouble with the grand statement. But when he sticks to the tower in Italy, the story is convincing. Pollitt doesn’t get it. The narrative wasn’t true to her, but she seems to miss the elementary and cogent point that it’s being told by one narrator, who happens to be male and, much more importantly, also happens to be narcissistic and naive. Of course he doesn’t register the full interior drama and concerns of Lily or Scheherazade in the novel, though the complex Gloria, the rapacious Rita, and (in an admonishing context) the disturbed Violet are given vivid and believable space. Keith’s awakening has to do with learning how to negotiate sex without love. The eternal problem (which has nothing to do with its so-called original appearance in the sexual revolution) of the sex-love split is captured remarkably well by Amis in the suspenseful episodes between Keith-Scheherazade and Keith-Lily, but in addition, what did the nay-sayers think all the references to D.H. Lawrence, Philip Larkin, and Jude The Obscure were about?

Michiko Kakutani thinks the novelist’s characters “so shoddily drawn and so off-the-rack generic that Mr. Amis is keen to emphasize their vital statistics, as this may be the only way he can remember who is who.” This is ridiculous. As mentioned above, the characters are strongly etched, distinctive, and represent different facets of what one or another real-life Lily or Rita was going through at the time (or in any time). And the focus on vital statistics, aside from being hilarious, is there to make a larger point. Keith is twenty years old. It may be superficial or demeaning (don’t forget, the highly-educated young women in TPW also talk non-stop about arses and tits, and though Pollitt wouldn’t believe it, it actually happened then just as it happens now), but it may also be Amis’ way of depicting the young coping with their insecurities by catty superiority. Hardly an anomalous situation.

Ron Charles objects to Amis “filling a long novel with bizarre tics and body parts instead of, say, actual characters”. Again, this is missing the reason the concentration of “body parts” is there at all. Keith is obsessed with sex. This is not news to any other twenty-year-old. Despite the focus on body parts, however, Keith still manages, in a hot castle filled with the unchaperoned driftngs of attractive young women, to read long English novels, and to think and talk about what he has read. He has an ambition beyond the bed, then, even at twenty and even in this circumstance, and he would later become a commercial (if not literary, we don’t know) success from that second obsession.

Despite the novel’s occasional and unfortunate serious tone, especially in the disappointing sixty-page round-up, The Pregnant Widow is a delightfully lightfooted meditation on formative sexual experience and the mark it leaves. The sexual revolution was always (I can’t resist) overblown, but it’s a good decade in which to investigate farces as well as arses.

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