June 20, 2011

Martin Amis Looks Back

The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis
reviewed by Courtney

Martin Amis has had the kind of long and significant writing career that young writers hope for, gaining a reputation with notable novels like Money and London Fields, which dealt with the corruption and problems of modern life through a combination of quick humor and acutely articulate prose. He began work on his most recent novel, The Pregnant Widow in 2003, speaking publicly about its autobiographical nature and his struggles to complete the narrative. The long wait, and pre-release hype made The Pregnant Widow highly anticipated, which buildup only highlighted the unimpressive reality of the final product.

Far from his best effort, The Pregnant Widow comes across as self-indulgent and unedited, an unfortunate result from such a talented writer. The beauty of his prose is undiminished, and parts of the novel are as flawlessly constructed as the passages that defined Amis' earlier work, but without a well-constructed plot, these moments of brilliance fail to sustain the 480-page narrative. The novel deals with the feminist revolution, detailing a 1970 vacation in Italy taken by the narrator, Keith Nearing and a group of friends.

Keith and his girlfriend, Lily, are guests in a castle in the Italian country owned by a wealthy cheese-baron. In the castle, Keith finds himself drawn into an elaborate social game as the group of friends attempts to navigate the changing standards and expectations of the sexual revolution. The novel's setting is interesting, the elegant and old-fashioned castle accentuating the characters attempts' to embrace modernity. A much older Keith narrates from 2009, allowing for a retrospective evaluation of the actions of his younger self.

The main problem with the novel is that there is no real established conflict. The framing structure of Keith's narration effectively sets up the plot, but the promised devastating event seems largely unremarkable. Amis' moralizing on the confusion and misdirection of the feminist revolution, though clearly well intentioned, comes across as condescending and unsupported. It is difficult to blame conflicting standards of female sexuality for the events of the novel when the clearer culprit is the morally unsupportable actions of the somewhat unlikable characters. What is intended as a sweeping statement about coming of age in the midst of a sexual and cultural revolution is instead a lagging and somewhat judgmental narrative about the trials and follies of youth written by a clearly aging writer. His characters are not just unlikable, but unconvincing.

Amis admits to extensive struggles with the formation of The Pregnant Widow, even claiming to have essentially scrapped his initial draft and begun again entirely, repeatedly pushing back the intended release date. This struggle comes out clearly in the novel itself, it is easy to see how he had to fight to build a novel out of what is sufficient basis for a short story or novella at most. There is simply not a strong enough plot or compelling enough characters to maintain a novel of this length, and the didactic nature of much of the narrative serves to emphasize, rather than disguise this lack.

Posted by at June 20, 2011 04:45 PM
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