More Lad Than Bad

Martin Amis, 1978; photograph by Angela Gorgas from ‘Martin Amis and Friends,’ an exhibition of her work at the National Portrait Gallery, London, last year

The Pregnant Widow begins as a beautifully poised, patient comedy of manners, in the tradition of the nineteenth- century English novels that Martin Amis’s college-age hero, Keith Nearing, is reading; then, in the last third, the narrative skips ahead and thins out and speeds up and starts to destroy itself joyously, like one of Jean Tinguely’s self-wrecking sculptures—or like civilization itself in the twenty-first century. It’s as if As You Like It, after carefully staging explorations of love and gender in a sylvan setting, were to knock itself out in a violent, messy, urban free-for-all right out of Animal House. In this respect alone I was reminded of Gravity’s Rainbow, in which the main theme, entropy, causes the book itself to give up on being, intermittently, a fairly traditional historical novel about World War II and to go to pieces, to run down, and the main character, Slothrop, to vanish.

Amis has definitely given us an example of imitative form. In the first two thirds of the book there are even many direct references to Shakespeare’s comedies, and young women are accused of being blokes or even “cocks,” and the feminist revolution is piggybacked on the earlier sexual revolution. It all recalls Shakespeare’s games with androgyny, his boys playing girls playing boys. Toward the end of the book Keith suggests to the deeply ambiguous Gloria Beautyman that she dress up as Viola or Rosalind: “She’s pretending to be a boy. Passing as a boy. Wear a sword.”

After dwelling on a single visit to an Italian castle for a tense, glorious summer in 1970 and working out all the erotic possibilities (the characters even play chess much of the time), the narrator nosedives through the succeeding decades up to the present, losing hopes, loves, friends, and even the lives of the people he (or possibly she) loves along the way in a reckless, pell-mell casting aside of almost everyone he had ever cherished. Very lifelike. That’s what aging does to you.

Philip Larkin had declared that “Sexual intercourse began/In 1963,” and by 1970, when The Pregnant Widow begins, the youngsters have added copious four-letter words to their repertoire as well as saucily direct comments, appalling nicknames, and obscene erotic refinements. At one point Keith thinks: “The word fuck was available to both sexes. It was like a sticky toy, and it was there if you wanted it.” In spite of all these liberties and acquisitions, the youngsters still seem naive, self-hating, and snobbish.

In his memoir, Experience, Amis credits Mrs. Thatcher in the early Eighties with having cut through the British obsession with class of those earlier days: “Whatever else she did, Margaret Thatcher helped weaken all that. Mrs. Thatcher, with her…

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