On finishing the first novel from Martin Amis since 2006’s House of Meetings, the reader is left with several uncomfortable questions. Chief among them are: why did Martin Amis write such a strange novel ? Why is he so endlessly fixated on breasts? Does he still genuinely like writing fiction? If he doesn’t, should he continue to write fiction? Are we witnessing the death of a talent? This may sound like the prelude to a dire assessment of The Pregnant Widow and, in many respects, it is. But first, it’s worth restating that Amis – even a weakened, creatively impoverished Amis – has gifts that many writers do not; gifts that peek out at intervals in this 465-page, superficial novel about superficial people.
There’s his talent for description – Gloria, one of his characters, ‘‘combined beauty and dirt, like city snow’’. There’s his capacity to occasionally throw out a pithy line or two – ‘‘What was their attitude to homosexuals, around then? Well, they accepted them utterly, while also congratulating themselves, every couple of minutes, for being so amazingly tolerant.” You can still feel the weight and heft of his extensive knowledge; Amis can reel off contexts, movements and other writers’ thoughts with impressive fluidity.
However, mostly, when you think about The Pregnant Widow, what you think of – regrettably – are women’s breasts. They thrust themselves forwards at every opportunity in this book, distracting, enticing and mesmerising the characters, if not the unfortunate reader. Towards the end of the book, arses – specifically Gloria’s – also become a major narrative theme; Gloria even succeeds in turning a gay man straight, such is her arse’s power. But the entire narrative hook revolves around one woman’s breasts, those belonging to 20-yearold blonde Scheherazade, whose statistics are a marvel inducing 37-23-33.
The action is predominantly set in Italy in 1970. Young Keith has arrived from England to stay for the summer with his girlfriend Lily and her friend, Scheherazade, in a castle which belongs to Scheherazade’s uncle. An idle summer of sunbathing in olive oil, romping naked by the pool and reading classic novels such as Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice beckons.
It should all be tremendous fun – but Scheherazade’s magnificent breasts make life impossible for many characters around her, particularly our hero Keith, and his girlfriend Lily. Lily does not have Scheherazade’s breasts or anything like them. Poor Lily – ‘‘even her dreams were quotidian’’. This maddens Lily, so much so, in fact, that Amis condemns her to spending almost the entire narrative rhapsodising, in Judy Blume-like fashion, about Scheherazade’s breasts.
‘‘They’ve grown a lot in the last six weeks,” she tells Keith. ‘‘They feel different. Much more sensation. All throbby and tickly. And she wants to try them out.” Scheherazade – lonely in the absence of her boyfriend – almost tries them out with Adriano, a pint-sized scion with randy designs. But she dismisses him, after realising that their heights are incompatible. With Adriano out of the way, will Keith manage a leap into Scheherazade’s knickers? Does the reader even care?
Honestly, not so much .The characters are pallid, vapid, vaguely dislikeable, rarely funny and not believable. (Here’s a line from Adriano: ‘‘Coming to the pool? I recommend the spectacle of Feliciana’s physique.”) More damningly, for all their Carry On-like focus on their sexual habits – Keith even keeps fellatio charts – they are not particularly interesting.
Although the pacing of the book is credible enough, you can’t help but feel that something has gone terribly wrong; something that barely qualifies as a side theme has been made into the main narrative. This is sub-plot gone mad. The Pregnant Widow? Invasion of the Giant Breasts would have been a more apt title.
There are broad-stroke lines which attempt to bestow a deeper meaning upon the work. In the introductory section, Amis muses about new disorders such as body dysmorphic syndrome. He writes about how beauty can potentially be infectious and happy people are more likely to be beautiful.
‘‘The surface,” Amis says, ‘‘will start tending to supersede essence.” But this treatise on ageing and beauty has been done far better elsewhere – by Zadie Smith, for starters. Still, Amis tries, in a half-hearted way, to flog his dead horse. ‘‘There used to be the class system,” he writes. ‘‘Now we have the age system.”
Amis also tries to make the case that the women in his book are the first feminists, the ‘‘cocks’’ as he terms them. One female character is called ‘‘the Dog’’. The rule in the novel is that men must not ‘‘fuck the Dog’’, ultimately because she’s more of a lad than they are, and likely to destroy them with her creative sex marathons.
But it’s all somewhat desultory and unconvincing. Amis essentially looks like he has engaged in a damage limitation exercise, imposing a fake structure and a guiding theme on the novel after the fact of several drafts.
He can do little to alter the fact that chapters fade into each other without punch; at best, the book drifts along in a tepid, vaguely soft-pornish fashion, building only around Keith’s intense desire for Scheherazade’s breasts and his earnest wish that she may – oh dear hope! – let him fondle them. This novel doesn’t seem to have any kind of reference to real life.
Most worrying of all is the sense of distance that Amis seems to have from his own characters. You don’t come away from this book with the feeling that Amis continues to have passion for the novel form. The narrative – though stylishly written – doesn’t operate well at multiple levels; it instead combines the worst part of the weaker, late-stage, sex-infused meanderings of Philip Roth with the Eurotrash TV show.
Sadly, it’s not even half as much fun as that sounds. Amis drip-feeds the reader lines from other novels and poems; they are intriguing, but as the narrative wears on, it seems more as if they’re a crutch to bolster his own work.
Does Amis have enough left to say? It has been remarked before that Amis was much better at being a young novelist than he is at being an old one. ‘‘Old age may bring you wisdom,” Amis writes. ‘‘But it doesn’t bring bravery. On the other hand, you’ve never had to face anything as terrifying as old age.”
With The Pregnant Widow, you can find plenty of terror. Unfortunately, as Keith and Amis ‘‘ride the bullet-train’’ of old-age, wisdom is conspicuous mainly by its absence.