The so-called enfant terrible of English letters turned 60 last August. Martin Amis is getting old, and he’s worried that he might presently suffer a decline in literary zest. Several critics pre-confirmed this fear with their reviling takes on his last large novel, Yellow Dog (2003) (here, for example). Some have said that Amis is not only on his way down and out; he’s also fully transmogrified into a 21st-century version of his father, Kingsley: a misogynistic, anti-semitic (in Mart’s case, Islamophobic) right-wing bore. Notwithstanding these inane skews of his positions, prose and character, Amis presents in his newest novel a story replete with nods to, among others, George Eliot, Jane Austen and Saul Bellow, to name just a couple of ladies and one Jew. The Pregnant Widow is the work of a self-described feminist, gynocrat, and semitophile, but it doesn’t look like this brilliant satire is going to convince his harshest critics that Martin isn’t and never has been a ‘Keith.’
Yes, The Pregnant Widow stars yet another ‘Keith.’ Keith Nearing, unlike his Amisian predecessors (the despicable Keith Talent from London Fields and Keith Whitehead from Dead Babies), is talented, erudite, progressive and not too short. He vacations at an Italian castle with his girlfriend, Lily; a buxom, but timid temptress, Scheherazade; and the girl with an all-too-round bottom, Gloria Beautyman. The girls, save Gloria, sunbathe topless by the pool, ever eager to ‘act like boys’—that is, to go shirtless and to shag with zealous abandon. Set in the early 70s during the sexual revolution, the girls chatter about their newfound feminine virility and gossip with and about one another, while Keith peruses the great works of English literature, noticing parallel after parallel between the classic comedies of manners that he’s reading and the ironic clique that surrounds him.
Amis will not likely escape charges of misogyny this time around. For one thing, the narrator (whose identity is revealed with a nice little torque late in the novel) describes the ladies by their ‘vital statistics’ (bust-waist-hips). For another, Amis features another femme fatale, who will be the agent of Keith’s ‘sexual trauma.’ These details will probably overshadow the dwarfish Adriano, who represents the slow, shrinking, albeit incomplete, death of male domination; the literal-minded reader will likely regard Adriano’s pathetic attempts to woo Scheherazade with chin-ups, cliched promises of love and rides in fleet automobiles as evidence of chauvinist thoughts lurking in the back of Amis’s mind.
Earlier charges of misogyny were probably what lost Amis the Booker Prize for his classic, post-modern novels Money (1984) and London Fields (1989). Perhaps Amis thinks that, like a sexagenarian Kingsley’s Booker-Prize-winning The Old Devils, The Pregnant Widow will win a belated Booker for him. But this would be a dream for a Keith—a Keith Talent dream of darts championships, a Keith Whitehead dream of tallness and sexual relevance. A hopeless dream. And Martin, as we know, isn't a Keith.
The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis
Jonathan Cape, 2010