Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Pregnant Widow

The Pregnant Widow
By Martin Amis

There is a right way and a wrong way to introduce yourself to an author with a long and illustrious career. When I read John Updike's Rabbit, Run a few weeks back, that was an example of how to do it. Start somewhere near the beginning of their career and work your way forward. The Pregnant Widow is a perfect example of how not to do it. Finding the most recent novel by said writer and hope to catch up by the end of that book. It's just not fair to the writer or yourself.

It is difficult to express the range of emotions that Martin Amis' most recent novel, The Pregnant Widow, evoked in me. I am not a member of Amis's generation. I wasn't even alive during the 1960s and AIDS closed the door on the hedonism of the 1970s when I was just starting elementary school. The fact that I grew up in a suburban town in Canada only increases the disconnect. It was hard for me to fully empathize with the characters in this novel, though the themes within are timeless and the autobiographical nature of this novel is heartbreaking I finished the book feeling like I missed something. I would suspect it would be the first 30 years of Martin Amis's career, but I'll have to get back to you on that one.

Like Amis's career, The Pregnant Widow is a novel that spans four decades. Much of the action in the novel centers on the summer of 1970 at the height of the sexual revolution. Keith Nearing (aka Martin Amis in literary disguise) is spending the summer cloistering himself in a castle in Italy with his girlfriend, the ever dependable Lily, and a host of other young, nubile people, including Scheherazade, an impossibly statuesque beauty that Keith falls hopelessly and madly in love with.

The story progresses in classic comedy of errors style (with elements of Philip Roth-esque depravity and discomfort with a touch of Three's Company style humor). The story is rife with sexual tension as Keith stumbles and bumbles in his attempts to bed the recently "liberated" Scheherazade who, like the other women summering at the castle, is known to prance around the pool topless (and often bottomless). But Keith's litany of neuroses and hang-ups are his undoing. Upon "striking out" with Scheherazade the story flies wildly off the rails in search of a meaningful ending (and if there is one fault with this book it is the last third, much of which I questioned the need for). It was at this point that I felt I was lacking some of Amis's prior work as color for this particular novel.

Along the way, Amis introduces us to a parade of interesting characters including a 4 foot 10 inch accident prone Italian, a gold digging socialite and, my favorite, Jorquil, a foppishly hilarious count who (I imagined) walks around the pool with neck-straining medallions and a hairy chest that would make Tom Selleck blush.

At its heart The Pregnant Widow is a novel about narcissism. The narrator of the novel is none other than Keith (and, by extension, Martin Amis's) superego. What could be more narcissistic than a novel narrated by one's superego? This is my first Martin Amis novel but from what I understand, Amis has explored the narcissist on several occasions in previous works, so I think he's got a good handle on the subject matter. There's a reason Amis's generation is called the Me Generation and it is unapologetically on display in this novel, not that there's anything wrong with that. Keith represents Amis who, through this story seems to be self-examining and re-evaluating his past from the perspective of a man with a lifetime's worth of regret.

This novel may not do much in helping the reader decide who they are in the present tense but it does do a good job of examining who we were (and when I say we, I mean those of my mother's generation mores than my own). There is a sense within this novel that the sexual revolution of the 1960s was a panacea our ailing, stiff collared society. Sexual liberation was to be the "end of history" in a sense and everything thereafter would be different. Of course, almost half a century we know this is categorically not the case. In fact, the latter third of the novel explores the notion that not only did sexual liberation not herald Arcadia, it also served a soup├žon of its own problems in return.

One such sexual casualty is examined the pulsing subplot involving Keith's sister Violet. While only hinted at during the first half of the novel, Violet returns over and over in the latter half of the novel as a (perhaps) anti-thesis to the notion of narcissism.  In 1970, Violet is an psychologically under-developed young girl with the beginnings of very real problems with alcohol and promiscuity. As the novel progresses, Violet fleshes out into a full blown tragedy. Along with Keith's parade of failed relationships and marriages, Violet is the very essence of how the 1960s went all wrong.

(Tangentially, Violet is a thinly-veiled (one might say not veiled at all) depiction of Martin Amis's real life sister, Sally Amis, a woman and tragic case who has been characterized in many of Amis's novels. In this sense, Violet is a perfect example of a victim of the sexual revolution).

This novel was at point blazingly brilliant, at others a meandering slog, but perhaps this was my fault. As an introduction to the work of Martin Amis, I'm not sure this was the best choice. When tackling an author with a canon as large as Mr. Amis one is perhaps not advised to read his most recent offering. I continuously thought I was missing out on parts of this novel that I couldn't possibly understand without having read his previous novels. Having done a little research I confirmed that The Pregnant Widow is an extension of a lifetime of work. It's an excellent book, no doubt and it should have been short-listed for the Booker Prize, but if you haven't read any of his previous work, I would suspect that you, like me, will come away from this book slightly unfulfilled.


Shout Out

Since I am completely dedicated to the continuity of this blog (I really like that all my blog posts coincide with a book finished) I am forced to put this little idea of mine down at the bottom of my posts (to paraphrase Jesus: Nobody fucks with the continuity). I want to start adding a link at the end of my blogs to other bloggers who are currently peaking my interest. A glance into what I'm surfing. If you've read this far, I strongly urge you to visit these blogs.

First up, the sublimely eclectic Books & Bowel Movements. I honestly think this is one of the most ingeniously written blogs out there. Check it out. You won't be disappointed.


Jenny said...

This does not sound like the type of book I'd like AT ALL for so many reasons but I also just hate walking away from a book feeling like I missed something.

Jonathan Wilhoit said...

Your reading selections continue to impress. I'd actually never heard of Martin Amis until now, but it sounds like I should have. Though, I have to ask--is Amis pretty much the same as the rest of the "hippie authors" of that era, or is there something that sets him apart?

Oh, and I'm definitely visiting your blog shout out--based on the blog title alone. And your recommendation, of course. ;)

Ryan said...

Jenny. It's infuriating!

Jonathan. He's not Hunter S. Thompson or Ken Kesey, if that's what you mean. I'm not well versed in British authors of that era, but Amis seems reign supreme among them. I'll give him another shot, though something earlier.

Also, I doubt I would call them "selections." My shelf of books is dwindling and I literally read what I have. Luckily they're good.

Angling Saxon said...

Just jumping in here, haven't perused this excellent blog in a while. Your reviews are terrific to read, and I hope you get lots of appreciation for them.

That said, a facepalm-like comment seems in order: you've never read Martin Amis before, and another commenter, who turns out to be a "pretentious book nerd" has never even heard of him? Wow. I'd add more to how gob-smacking that is, but (...steps away from keyboard, rests chin in one hand and looks thoughtfully up to the ceiling in search of an analogy...) I’ve got an appointment with a couple of pop music reviewers, I’m taking them some CDs; seems the one’s never heard the Beatles, and the other’s never even heard OF them!

Okay, I’ve picked my jaw up off the floor. Basically, if you like books in English and stuff, you need to read some Martin Amis. Once you do that, you will feel compelled to read ALL of Martin Amis. While I don’t profess to a comprehensive knowledge of late 20th century fiction, I think I believe it that some people say he is without peer in his ability to be so very freaking astonishing. A good place to start is Time’s Arrow (1991), and then get your hands on Money (1984) and London Fields (1989). Success (1978) and Dead Babies (1975) are very 1970s-ish, but in utterly compelling ways. The Pregnant Widow (2010) was very good, and I think your review does it justice, though I would add that it works extremely well as a document of one particular baby boomer’s life without the need to identify with the main characters of the story.

Ryan said...

While I make no excuses for not having read Marin Amis prior to this novel (one can't read everything... I've never read Ernest Hemingway and up until the other day I'd never heard of James Patterson) I can scold you for the analogy.

I think comparing Amis to the Beatles is a bit of an overstatement. If Amis is the Beatles, who would Shakespeare or Dickens or Austen or Joyce be in this analogous world? If we are calibrating our analogies we've have to set the Beatles as Shakespeare which would mean a writer such as Martin Amis would better be compared to Oasis or The Who. No less shameful in ignoring, but more in line with their place in literary/pop music legacy.

Also, I think a lot of North Americans haven't heard of Martin Amis.

Angling Saxon said...

Amis is a giant of late 20th century fiction. Not having heard of him is weird if you're interested in books.

But maybe the analogy with the Beatles went too far. I was probably exaggerating wildly for effect. Maybe he's Elvis Costello. But that analogy doesn't accurately convey his stupefying talent. Yeah, I'm obviously a fan.

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