By Martin Amis (Knopf, $26.95)
Parul Sehgal, Time Out New York / Issue 763 : May 13–19, 2010
For all its ambition and verbal pyrotechnics, Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow is basically a book about boys and girls—or rather, one boy and many girls. It’s Amis’s most nakedly autobiographical novel since The Rachel Papers, and when the narrator tells us, “Everything that follows is true,” it isn’t difficult to believe that Amis himself passed—as the book’s Keith Nearing does—a sexually transformative and traumatizing summer in a castle in Italy on the cusp of the 1970s. And it’s not just any castle—it’s where D.H. and Freida Lawrence once vacationed. The book is drenched in allusion, not least because twentysomething Keith is a sad young literary man reading his way through the canon of the English novel. When, that is, he’s not having dull sex with his dull girlfriend, Lily, and mooning over her pneumatic (and ponderously named) best friend, Scheherazade.
The love-triangle setup is classic Amis, and it’s a measure of his skill (and a supporting cast straight out of a Fellini film) that he prolongs the payoff as long as he does, making this book a study of anticipation enlivened by some slapstick scenes (dwarf, trampoline) and sparkling prose. Amis’s pleasure in language is on full display (his characters don’t masturbate, they engage in “applied narcissism”). Of course this enthusiasm can misfire; see Amis’s unpardonably bad metaphors for breasts (“inseparable sisters,” “twinned circumferences”).
The structure creaks a bit as Amis stuffs The Pregnant Widow, self-referential and gravid with history as it is, with a shallow analysis of religious extremism and his usual moans about Islam. No one should read Amis for sociology. But one should read him for his descriptions (even characters’ teeth are attended to with fetishistic precision), and one must read The Pregnant Widow for its evocation of youth without innocence, and of the sexual revolution’s “tingle of license,” where words—not just bodies—were liberated.