Book review: A Martin Amis Retread

Martin Amis,x-default
Novelist Martin Amis David Harrison / Eyevine-ZUMA Press

In Martin Amis’s first novel, The Rachel Papers, 19-year-old Charles has girlfriend troubles, family troubles, money troubles, and body troubles (he’s short, skinny, and morbidly obsessed with his teeth). In the 37 years since Charles’s debut, Amis has written journalism, criticism, and a dozen novels. He is one of Britain’s best-known writers, a common figure in both the tabloids and the op-ed pages. He’s been married twice, become a grandfather, and buried his own father, the novelist Kingsley Amis. It would seem unavoidable that life has changed his perspective—his 2000 memoir was called Experience. Yet his latest novel, The Pregnant Widow, opens with a 20-year-old named Keith worrying about his girlfriend, his family, his lack of money, his short stature, and his bad teeth.

Writers like Amis, one assumes, acquire a certain wisdom over their careers: what they know at 20 must be different from what they have to say at 60. Otherwise, why do they keep writing? (And why do we keep reading?) But what if that assumption is wrong? What if, as The Pregnant Widow suggests, experience teaches us nothing—if our 20-year-old selves are as wise as we’ll ever get?

The Pregnant Widow intersperses scenes of young Keith with glimpses of current-day Keith, now in his late 50s and still brooding about his 21st year. He hates getting old: “When you become old, you find yourself auditioning for the role of a lifetime; then, after interminable rehearsals, you’re finally starring in a horror film—a talentless, irresponsible, and above all low-budget horror film.” But Amis has always delighted in detailing the betrayals and indignities of the body, just as Charles, in The Rachel Papers, delights in detailing the perceived grotesqueries time (all 20 years of it) has wreaked on his physique. The Pregnant Widow has more breadth than The Rachel Papers, but its concerns are the same: the inevitability of death and the disintegration of romantic illusions. In other words, growing up.

Amis is not the only writer to find a groove and work it (are you listening, Mr. Roth?). What makes him unusual is that his books so often deal explicitly with the accrual of experience. In novels such as London Fields and Time’s Arrow, knowledge of history itself changes characters, often to catastrophic ends. But in The Pregnant Widow, he seems to be throwing his hands in the air and admitting personal history has taught him nothing. This, perhaps, is his real point: that experience makes us sadder, but not wiser.

The book takes its title from the Russian writer Alexander Herzen’s contention that a departing social order leaves behind not a fully formed replacement but a “pregnant widow,” not yet ready to birth the new mode of being. Set mainly in 1970, the novel concerns the aftereffects of the sexual revolution, a time when everything was changing. But, as Amis sees it, 40 years on, the more things changed, the more they stayed the same.