The Return of Martin Amis

Photo: Pal Hansen/Contour by Getty Images

Martin Amis’s new novel, The Pregnant Widow, is—nakedly, brazenly, devotedly—about sex. This makes it almost unique in the Amis canon. It’s not a Gulag novel that turns out to be about sex, or a nuclear-war novel that turns out to be about sex, or a Holocaust novel that turns out to be about sex. It’s a sex novel about sex. That directness is strangely liberating, both for the reader and, it seems, for Amis. The frankness makes him look, paradoxically, a little less pervy: He’s not trying to sneak sex in under the guise of high-minded geopolitical hand-wringing—apocalyptic dread as sublimated desire for the forbidden pleasures of anal sex. He’s just being flat-out dirty. He can finally revel openly, without smoke screens, in the richest comic material the human race has yet to discover: breasts, penises, fluids, orifices, costumes, positions, body types, hand jobs, teasing, ogling—the whole titillating tragicomedy of carnal desire. It’s like a master-class for all the young male novelists (Eggers, Kunkel, Chabon) that Katie Roiphe accused, in a recent Times Book Review essay, of being squeamish about sex. The result is Amis’s best book in fifteen years and (at least for 75 percent of it) a nearly perfect comic novel.

This resurgence comes at a very good time, just as some Amis fans (if you’ll allow me to get autobiographical) were beginning to give up hope. Amis’s career has been in a well-publicized gentle decline since 1995, when he published The Information. Since then, his novels—Night Train, Yellow Dog, House of Meetings—have been sparse and middling; his critics have been many and mean. Amis’s work—like his elder Don DeLillo’s—is so dependent on the energy of his prose that, when that energy weakens even slightly, his faults become unbearable. It’s hard to know what caused the drop-off—whether it was age (he’s now 60), the critical sniping, or the nonfictional lure of world events (his recent jousting over “Islamofascism” has sometimes seemed like a full-time career). But whatever he was doing in the five-plus years he spent agonizing over The Pregnant Widow, it worked. This reads like the work of young Amis. I picked it up reluctantly but soon found myself raving about it to everyone I know. It has me fantasizing about a Roth-like late-career creativity burst.

The nearly perfect portion of The Pregnant Widow—roughly the book’s opening 300 pages—is a sexual comedy of manners (our hero thinks of it as a “pornotheological farce”) set in a mountaintop castle in Italy. Its action takes place in the summer of 1970, a moment Amis describes as high noon in the sexual revolution. Old mores have been abandoned, new ones have yet to replace them, sex and love have drifted apart, and no one is quite sure what to do with his or her private parts. Into this moral vacuum Amis tosses a handful of 20-year-old Brits on vacation, then leaves them to contend, glandily, with the chaos of their own desires.

Our hero is Keith Nearing, an aspiring poet and literary critic who believes, with almost mystical fervor, that his stay in the castle will culminate in a sexual rite of passage. (“This is the climax of my youth, he thought. All will be decided here.”) His plan, in the meantime, is to lounge around reading his way through the history of the English novel: Richardson, Thackeray, Austen, the Brontës, Dickens, George Eliot. It’s a clever device for a book about the birth pangs of modern sexuality, particularly since most of Keith’s literary classics are themselves, if indirectly, about love and sex—men and women ogling each other in petticoats instead of monokinis. This layering creates a kind of intertextual pillow talk; the classics serve as counterpoint to the sexual attitudes and adventures of Amis’s own characters. (Austen, in particular, becomes a touchstone: “Pride and Prejudice, Keith could have said, had but a single flaw: the absence, towards the close, of a forty-page sex scene.”)

Amis surrounds Keith, in his castle, with a busy squadron of tempters, temptresses, sexual refugees, and romantic buffoons. There’s Lily, Keith’s intermittently long-term girlfriend, who has just come back to him after a failed experiment in living promiscuously—or, as she puts it, “like a boy.” There’s the improbably named Scheherazade, a former ugly duckling who has bloomed, very suddenly, into a gorgeous soft-porn swan (she spends afternoons poolside, pining for her absent boyfriend and rubbing olive oil onto her enormous breasts). Scheherazade is pursued by Adriano, a four-foot-ten Italian aristocrat, who is in turn pursued by Rita, a sexually predatory single woman everyone calls “the Dog,” who has recently slept with Kenrick, a perpetually drunken friend of Keith’s. Meanwhile, everyone is mystified by Gloria Beautyman, an apparent prude who nevertheless attracts crowds of villagers with the shapeliness of her backside. (Amen, a gay visitor to the castle, vows to turn straight in honor of its power.) Everything, in other words, is ripe for capers, and Amis seems to have all kinds of giddy fun orchestrating them: a shared bathroom, whispered invitations, a spiked drink, faked illnesses, secret trysts. It’s like NC-17 P. G. Wodehouse. It’s so mean and fun and gossipy that I found myself, more than once, literally shaking my head with satisfaction.

One of The Pregnant Widow’s great orgasmic pleasures is the return—after all these years—of Amis’s mighty prose: the metaphors (a helicopter is “a furious asterisk”), the exaggeration (“The air itself was about to throw up”), the comic repetition (“This was a not very erotic remark about a not very erotic situation, and Keith’s reply to it was not very erotic”). It’s all tight and poppy—the kind of writing I’m tempted to quote all day long. Something about these kids in their microcosmic castle seems to have kicked Amis’s motor back into high gear. And energy, in Amis, can make us forgive a lot of sins: the sourness, the silly names, the compulsive Shakespeare quoting, the troubling fixity of the male gaze. It all gets rinsed away on waves of laughter.

Unfortunately, however, Amis isn’t content with his near-perfect comic novel. He keeps writing. When the Italian summer ends, The Pregnant Widow continues. Freed from the dramatic unity of the sex capers, things get ponderous in a hurry. Comedy slides over into the passenger seat; sociology takes the wheel. Minor characters become major. The plot contorts itself in search of current events. We’re asked to care about things the book hasn’t prepared us to care about. It feels a lot like aughts Amis. Not that this necessarily detracts from the high comedy of the book’s first three quarters. It’s just that, after tasting the good stuff again, I want more. Which, in this case, would have been less.

The Pregnant Widow
By Martin Amis.
Knopf. 384 pages.

The Return of Martin Amis