BOOKS AND ARTS JULY 7, 2010
The Pregnant Widow
by Martin Amis
(Knopf, 384 pp., $26.95)
Well, another civil, subtle, well-modulated novel from Martin Amis. Wait—what? British fiction’s most flamboyant word-wrangler, subtle? The celebrated character-bully and reader-molester, civil? The epicure of extremism, well-modulated? Yes, apparently. This is a new Amis, similar in theme but different in subject as well as style. An Oxford-educated scion of the literary intelligentsia, Amis has made a career of not writing about his own milieu. His fiction has always been drawn to the depths: to yobs and bims and spivs, to pain merchants and porn mavens, to dart parlors and snooker dens and hand-job emporia— to the Cockney demimonde, with its toothsome vernacular and lurid moral coloration. But not here. You’d have to reach back nearly forty years, to The Rachel Papers, his very first book, to find him attempting a more autobiographical piece of fiction. The social register is middle-to-upper-class, the mental atmosphere bookish, the violence exclusively emotional. The characters are treated, uncharacteristically, with decency and respect—like friends or age-mates, people the author once knew, or was.
The bulk of the story, all but its final sixth, is set in the summer of 1970. Keith Nearing, the protagonist, is turning twenty-one, as his creator did the same season. Sex is on his brain, and in the air. The rules have changed, are still changing, and everyone is trying to figure them out—Keith; his girlfriend, Lily; their classmate Scheherazade, at whose family’s idyllic Italian castle the three are spending their summer break; and the assorted other friends and connections who drift across the scene. The Pregnant Widow is a novel of the ’60s and the sexual revolution, but not in the way you’d expect. The premise promises a lazy, hazy, crazy interlude of sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, but these are well-bred British university students, and this is not Woodstock. No drugs, just a bit of drinking. No music, just a lot of reading. No mud pit, just a swimming pool. And as for sex—yes, there is, but not that much, and not that fun. What there mainly is for Keith and company (and this despite the fact that he and Lily go through the motions on a nightly basis) is sexual frustration.
The story, in other words, is both more interesting and more representative than the stereotypical ’60s flashback. Most kids did not wind up in the Haight or the Village. London swung for a bold and lucky minority. In the suburbs and provincial towns, for the cautious or the timid or the dutiful, liberation was not so swift or sure. The Pregnant Widow may be a novel of the ’60s, but it pointedly starts when the decade is already over. It also starts with Larkin’s famous lines: “Sexual intercourse began / In 1963 / (Which was rather late for me).” If Larkin arrived too early, Keith and his friends have arrived a little too late. The decade is over, and The Pregnant Widow, as its title begins to suggest, is all about the aftermath.
As for the immediate situation, a short numerical sequence, proffered at the outset, suffices to define the triangle that carries the story through most of its length. “Lily: 5’ 5”, 34-25-34. Scheherazade: 5’ 10”, 37-23-33.” The second series might as well constitute the formula for TNT. In the last few months, Keith discovers upon his arrival, the girl he knew as a “frowning philanthropist in flatties and spectacles” has shot both up and out. Now she forms the subtext—if not, often, the actual text—of his and Lily’s every interaction, verbal and otherwise. (“Was it fun?” “What?” “Pretending I’m Scheherazade.” ) As for Keith himself, “he occupied that much-disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven”—in short, is drastically beneath Scheherazade’s league, yet his summer inevitably becomes a tortured effort, first, not to think about her; then, to think about her as often as possible (that would be around the time he starts to see her sunbathe topless); then, to think about getting her into bed.
Amis, always a smooth observer of the sexual comedy, is deft and clever here. Scheherazade shows Keith her room. “He took it in, the white nightdress aslant the tousled bed, the heaps of shoes, the pair of starched jeans, trampled out of, all agape, but still on its knees and still cupping the form of her waist and hips.” Her boyfriend, Timmy, is away, and she essays a tentative affair with a local aristocrat. “She says it’s like being fifteen again,” Lily tells Keith. “You know. Stages.”
Keith knew all about stages. With his teeth locked together, he said, “Which one are they on?” “Just kisses so far. With tongues now. She’s building up to tits . . . they’ve grown a lot in the last six weeks. They feel different. Much more sensation. All throbby and tickly. And she wants to try them out.” “Try out her tits.” “Try out her tits. On Adriano.” Lily paused and said, “Then go forward bit by bit and do the same with her box.”
Trying out, bit by bit: that is pretty much what all these young people are doing, agape with thrill and terror at the new possibilities, and the new ways they test and measure you. Given their backgrounds, Lily, Scheherazade, and Keith respectively represent, we are told, intelligentsia, nobility, and proletariat, but now, Keith thinks, there is another system: “the looks system—the beauty system.” Visions, Possibles, and Duds, as he puts it—no more just, and even less re- mediable, than the old arrangement. Lily, a mere Possible, is driven to grief by the proximity of her friend, the Vision. “Oh, Keith,” she finally blurts, “why aren’t I beautiful?” “There are bits of his body he doesn’t like,” we hear of another character. “He’s furious with bits of his body.”
Halfway through the novel, another couple, Kenrik and Rita, fucking their way across Europe, drop in at the castle. If this is the future, it doesn’t look good, at least not from Kenrik’s perspective. “You know the way you and me go on about chicks?” he confesses to Keith, “That’s the way she goes on about guys—guys she’s fucked. Guys don’t fuck her. She fucks them. But listen. We don’t go on like that about chicks to chicks, do we.” The rules, indeed, have changed. The girls have gone wild, or some of them anyway, and the guys have no idea what to do about it.
Finally, as the summer approaches its end, Keith gets what he wants, though not in the way he’d expected. He gets what he wants, and it ruins his life. A long day of mind-altering sex (“There were so many things he hadn’t known you were allowed to do”), but only sex, sex devoid of love or even like, inflicts the psychic injury that thirty years is not enough to comprehend or heal. The novel abruptly shifts gears. From a day-by-day account of that definitive summer, it accelerates, in its last few dozen pages, to a rapid scan of the ensuing decades—a different kind of aftermath. Having patiently laid out his cards, Amis now proceeds to read them, carrying Keith’s future (and that, in glimpses, of his fellow summerers) past the turn of the millennium. Deaths and divorces flash by, crack-ups, betrayals, and lots of very, very bad decisions. The final note is elegiac. A chance meeting brings a bitter and belated clarity, and three marriages on, Keith finally reaches a measure of wisdom and rest.
We’ve been here before, with Amis. The humbling of male aggression and lust, their enclosure within the feminine, the domestic, is also the ultimate destination of John Self in Money (still its author’s finest work, a quarter-century on) and Xan Meo in Yellow Dog (that odious embarrassment). But we reach it here through radically different stylistic means, and therefore, radically different ethical ones.
Style has always been Amis’s greatest strength and weakness. In his study of Nabokov, Michael Wood makes the useful heuristic distinction between style and what he calls “signature.” Signature announces the author’s presence. Style, Wood says, “is something more secretive... a reflection of luck or grace, or of a moment when signature overcomes or forgets itself.” With style, “we think about the writing before we think about who wrote it.” Well, Amis’s style, in his most characteristic works, as glorious as it often is, is all signature, is always signature. Signature is the whole point of it. Look at me, it says. Look at me, me, me:
Even the Asians and West Indians who lived there had somehow become Saxonized—they loped and leered, they peed, veed, queued, effed and blinded, just like the locals.
Richard sent his mind back to the napkin-scarved bottles of old champagne tipped his way by tuxedoed athletes (even the help was hip, was hot) and bims in ra-ra skirts offering canapés made of dodo G-spots and hummingbird helmets.
And there were two or three like himself, the uncrowned kings of Head Injury [i.e. the hospital’s Head Injury ward]—virtuosos of toothbrush and hairbrush, crack urinators, adepts of the shoelace and the beltbuckle, silky eaters: Renaissance Men.
Whatever else these bravura exhibitions do—these image-riffs and diction- dances, these sound-tricks and pun-stunts—they never let you forget about the person who is performing them. When Amis published a collection of literary essays a few years ago, he called it The War Against Cliché, and the phrase functions for him as something like a four-word manifesto (one that descends from Pound’s even terser slogan, “make it new”). Never say anything the usual way. Let every phrase be novel, charged, alert. And that’s the remarkable thing: he manages it. You sit there with your eyebrows at your hairline. But the war against cliché can have its casualties. With Amis, the victim is our own involvement with the story, with the characters, because the style, the exhibition of style as style (look at me!), is always getting in the way. His trapeze act up on the sentences—that becomes the story.
Amis’s style is not just ostentatious, it is also, not coincidentally, aggressive, even punitive—toward his characters, first of all (“crack urinators,” “bims in ra-ra skirts”). His novels are violent, but he is also violent in them. Before they are betrayed or beaten or bankrupted, before their beds or their kids are defiled, their souls soiled and trashed, his protagonists are roughed up by the language that handles them: sneered at and snarked on, battered with bathos, baited like bears in a pit. Amis never picks a fair fight. His novels have the shape of tragedy—ambitions punished, stratagems demolished, blindness exposed—but without any of its dignity. He doesn’t sympathize with his characters, those lowlifes and tough guys, he has contempt for them. He’s Martin fucking Amis, after all, and who the hell are they? The Information, an anomaly in other respects, reinforces the point. There the principal characters—two writers, Richard Tull and Gwyn Barry—do belong to their author’s demographic. But Gwyn is a successful hack, and Richard is a talented failure. Richard has contempt for Gwyn, and Amis has contempt for both. What’s missing from the novel, in other words, is a figure like Amis himself, successful and talented, someone his creator would be forced to regard as an equal.
But it isn’t just his characters. “He didn’t love his readers,” Amis tells us of Richard, “as you need to do.” The remark echoes an older one about Joyce, from the essay that gives The War Against Cliché its title. Amis learned a lot from Nabokov and Joyce, his major models, and some of it is wrong. He learned not to love his readers—to disdain them, rather—and to use style as a form of display, in the alpha-male-gorilla sense, designed to cow the reader into a sense of inferiority. (Of course, each writer’s famously abstruse vocabulary performs the same function: “ineluctable modality of the visible” in Joyce, “ganch” and “phocine” and “houghmagandy” in Nabokov, “punnet” and “intercrural” and “myxomatotic” in Amis.) Style, and also structure: like Joyce and Nabokov, Amis trades in mysteries, in riddles, in revelations halfoffered in quasi-cryptic language. From Money: “You asshole.... You won’t ever guess right. In bed he’s a woman.” It’s a test: are we smart enough to figure it out (in bed he’s a what? in bed he’s a how?), or are we also just assholes who won’t ever guess right?
This is the legacy of modernism, superior art for superior people, but in Amis’s case it also smells of something else. This is how they do it in England—test each other, all the time, to see who belongs. And in the place that Amis went to school, the test invariably takes the form of the Great Oxford Cleverness Derby. It’s an economy of insecurity, which Amis reproduces in his work. He makes us worry about whether we’re smart enough for him, and he worries about whether he’s smart enough for Nabokov and Joyce.
But lately there’s been a shift. Amis’s career began with a series of short, sharply pointed works: The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies, Success, and Other People. Then came the so-called “London trilogy,” actually three novels connected not by continuity of plot but by resemblances of setting, scope, and tone: Money, London Fields, and The Information, sprawling, ambitious works in which their author’s characteristic style and strategies fully flowered. In retrospect, this broad middle phase of his career (which also included two experimental novellas, Time’s Arrow, a misguided attempt at Holocaust fiction, and Night Train, a variation on the detective novel) seems to have terminated with Yellow Dog— which, with its frat-house humor and gleeful sadism, represented a kind of unintentional self-parody of the mature (to use the term loosely) Amis style.
Yellow Dog, in other words, was a dead end, and however vociferously its author defended the novel in public, he must have realized as much himself. His next novel, House of Meetings, took a completely different tack. The Amis style was gone, because the Amis narrator (who was either a third-person presence or a first-person protagonist who sounded just like him) was also gone. The result was Amis’s finest book since Money. The narrator is a survivor of the gulags, and this is how he sounds:
For as long as I could bear it I sat with them in the shadows. Ten minutes. In the station hotel the water in the bathroom ran black. And this didn’t in the least surprise me or concern me. What color was water supposed to be? I looked in the mirror and I felt I could just remove it, my face. There would be clasps, behind the ears, and it would come away.
This is a totally different sound: restrained, quietly forceful—the simplicity of ripened art. Amis appears to have learned how to get out of his own way, to give himself over to a character, to dissolve cleverness into craft, “signature” into true style. Ironically, his novels had always tried to make a case, underneath all the mayhem, for simple human decency. Now, at last, he had a style that practiced what it preached.
The Pregnant Widow argues that the shift wasn’t merely an artifact of the previous book’s particular narrator and subject. The novel returns to the third person and to a whole range of typical interests: social comedy, domestic relationships, England and the English and sex, sex, sex. But it does so without the edge and burlesque, the mood of menace and scorn. The voice isn’t bland, it’s just sober, and subtle: “But it was a good entrance—Timmy’s. Long, slender, loose, vague, and somehow limply stylish—like a doodle from a talented hand.” The humor, as in Keith and Lily’s “tits” exchange, is allowed to emerge naturally from the situation, without being goosed all the time by the language. Characters, even outrageous ones such as Rita (the one who goes on about guys), are served up straight and allowed to make their case. “Ah,” she says, “he’s after sympathy, is he”—“he” being Kenrik, who’s just denounced her to the company at large:
He’s after pity. Because he’s terrified. He wants his mummy. You’re just oldfashioned, love. You’re like secondhand furniture. See, for Rik, what he likes is a nice little simperer—a simperer with a sopping hanky. Ooh, you mustn’t. That’s rude, that’s bad. Oh go on then, you animal, do your worst. I promise I won’t enjoy it. God, were we ever as dull as that, us birds? Were we ever as bloody dull as that? . . . Now who’s coming dancing. I want to wag a hip. Time for me limbo.
Rita is crude, but she’s right: it was time for her limbo. What was really changing, as the world was changing, as sex was changing—and this is one of the novel’s largest subjects—was the birds. The guys were already like that, and now the girls were becoming that way, too, if they dared. “I’m a boy,” says the woman who deflowers Keith’s soul, “I’ve got a cock.... I am a cock.” But it cut both ways. Feminism thought that men were the ones who were going to have to change, the narrator says, but in fact it was women who did. On the other hand, as Rita knows and as Keith and Kenrik traumatically discover, women had the sexual power now. “The She Decade,” Amis renames the years upon which the world was embarking that summer of 1970. So the story gives us Lily and Scheherazade and Rita and any number of others, all trying to figure out who they wanted to be, and all the men can do is drag along, rather limply, in their wake, waiting to see what the future is going to look like.
Keith puts the matter a little differently: “What were heroines allowed to do?” he asks himself again and again. He’s studying English, and when he’s not thinking about Scheherazade, he spends the summer reading his way across the classic English novel, from Pamela to Women in Love: Emma, Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, Jude the Obscure, etc., etc. It is a body of work, of course, whose essential question is precisely that. The novels try to figure it out, and so do the heroines: what were they allowed to do? Needless to say, Keith’s syllabus becomes the frame of reference through which The Pregnant Widow—and the characters themselves—attempt to get a purchase on what’s going on in front of them, and the story develops into an intermittent seminar on Sex and the Single Girl, 1740–1920. “One fuck in two thousand pages.... Guess what she does afterwards. Dies of shame.” “Catherine Morland has big tits... her figure gains consequence... that’s code for big tits.” “There’s the lovely Dorothea, and you lust after that grasping bitch Rosamond Vincy.”
Amis is gesturing toward the main tradition of English fiction, but his imaginative limitations debar him from entering it. The Pregnant Widow is no more a heroine novel than any his others, its focus still on male experience, its women still figments of masculine desire. He can show women behaving independently, but unlike Richardson or Thackeray or Hardy (to say nothing, of course, of George Eliot or the Brontës), he cannot endow them with imaginative autonomy. His engagement here is purely critical.
But though he may not enter the tradition, he does impressively reinterpret it—or at least tease us with the possibility of doing so. At the center of the discussion is Jane Austen—Amis’s first literary influence, the writer he credits here with inaugurating “the line of sanity” in English fiction, and the most celebrated explorer of the question of what heroines were allowed to do. And at the center of the center, of course, is Pride and Prejudice. In the middle of their long day of debauchery (that is, at the center of the center of the plot), Keith’s ravisher, who’s been reading Austen’s book, mounts a rather stunning argument about its heroine. “She’s as bad as I am, she is.” In other words, “Elizabeth’s a cock”—sexually ravenous, adventurous, aggressive. “She can’t be,” Keith protests, “There weren’t any then. Surely.” But the evidence, though scattered, is surprisingly persuasive, and if Elizabeth Bennet’s not the girl we thought she was, then who is? The whole canon, apparently, is up for grabs. “In a thickened voice he said, I’m going to give you Sense and Sensibility.”
Were women changing, or were they only revealing themselves—like Keith’s instructress herself, who before that day had seemed to be the furthest thing from a “cock”—for what they’ve always been? And if heroines were allowed to do just anything they wanted now, then what kind of shape were our lives supposed to have? “The only way to deal with being a cock, then,” Keith is told, “was marrying for love. Good sex had to follow the emotions. It’s not like that now.” So what is it like? Keith, “all clogged up with the English novel,” keeps wondering what genre he’s stumbled into that summer. Was social realism going to hold, or would events take a turn for the fantastic? (He’s a K in a castle, after all.) Was this a Russian novel, or only an American one, or better still, an English one?
The Pregnant Widow, thanks to Keith, is Amis’s most self-consciously literary fiction—rather too much and too essayistically so—but the question is one he’s asked before. “What genre did his life belong to?” thinks Richard in The Information. “It wasn’t pastoral. It wasn’t epic.” Genre dictates character and setting and mood and event, but most of all, it governs fate: the form that lives are going to take. The old genre, which depended on girls who weren’t allowed to do too much and didn’t even want to (“Ooh, you mustn’t”), was not, Keith was realizing, going to hold anymore.
Amis plays a double game here. On the one hand, he tells us that there’s another genre, “Life,” and that that’s all we really have a right to expect: “the world of Well Anyway, and Which Reminds Me, and He Said, She Said”—one damn thing after another, with no sense or pattern, no moral shape or generic consistency. On the other, he stuffs The Pregnant Widow with a surfeit of form. The novel’s main body is divided into six parts. Each part has four chapters followed by an “interval” that flashes forward to Keith’s climactic recognition and crisis a third of a century later. Every part and chapter has a title, that most traditional way of endowing the flow of contingency with focus and meaning. And the story, throughout, is festooned with allusions, which are ways of making pattern across time—not only to the classic English novel, but to Dante and Milton (fallen angels, reptiles in gardens), to The Tempest (sea changes) and most consistently and conspicuously, to Ted Hughes’s Tales from Ovid (bodies changing into different bodies, as Scheherazade’s does literally—the inciting event—and others’ do in other ways, but always through the force of eros).
Is this an ironic game—an excess of order in a novel that narrates the breakdown of order? I don’t think so. Amis is not pretending to try too hard to make sense of what Keith and his millions of age-mates were going through, he really is trying too hard. Behind the Cockney cacophony, his novels have always possessed an articulate moral shape. Action leads to consequence, sin to retribution; nemesis may be delayed but never denied. Dark manipulators lurk behind the scenes, directing the characters’ destinies: Johnny in Dead Babies, Fielding Goodney in Money, Nicola Six in London Fields, Joseph Andrews in Yellow Dog (and Joseph Stalin, for that matter, in House of Meetings). The world is dreadful but coherent.
Here, improbably, the whole course of Keith’s life is determined by that day in 1970. As usual, Amis leaves the crux of the matter dark, but the suggestion seems to be that the encounter wasn’t simply loveless sex, eerily impersonal and somehow even fraudulent, it was loveless sex with Keith as object, and not a particularly valued object, either. He was used and discarded, violated by a “cock,” and the experience constituted a kind of psychological castration. A “wound,” the narrator calls it on the very first page, “a sexual trauma.” There’s a silent allusion, to a passage that combines both Joyce and Shakespeare, that seems to be at work beneath the text. Stephen Dedalus, spinning out his theory of the Bard’s life in Ulysses, arrives at the marriage to Anne Hathaway, conducted when Shakespeare was eighteen and Anne was twenty-six—callow boy and traveled woman, just like in The Pregnant Widow:
He chose badly? He was chosen, it seems to me. If others have their will Ann hath a way. By cock, she was to blame. She put the comether on him, sweet and twentysix.... Belief in himself has been untimely killed. He was overborne in a cornfield first... and he will never be a victor in his own eyes after nor play victoriously the game of laugh and lie down.... The tusk of the boar has wounded him there where love lies ableeding.... There is... some goad of the flesh driving him into a new passion, a darker shadow of the first, darkening even his own understanding of himself.
A pretty idea, in Amis as in Joyce, but finally too pat. Keith’s undoing is forcefully rendered but seems too narrow a point upon which to balance the story. And not just his story, but that of the entire era—which, Amis insists, is our era still. A consciousness of history, how it moves and molds, has long set the intellectual terms of Amis’s work. His novels about Auschwitz and the Gulag are obvious manifestations, as are his writings on terrorism, collected recently in The Second Plane. But his other novels, too, have wanted to discover where we’re going, and always paid a lot of attention to people who “came from the future,” as Night Train puts it, and point the darkened way ahead—people like the shooting victim in that novel, or Steve Cousins, the hood, in The Information, or Keith’s seducer here.
The explanatory ambition of The Pregnant Widow is not small, as the epigraph from which the title comes announces at the outset. “Not an heir, but a pregnant widow,” Alexander Herzen said, is what the death of a social order leaves behind. Before the next can emerge, “a long night of chaos and dissolution will pass.” It is that long night, Amis argues, through which we are traveling yet—a night of foundered lives and torn relationships, psychic disfigurement and social dementia. Which ought to sound familiar. The Pregnant Widow is a work of archaeology, a Rosetta Stone for its author’s oeuvre. That long night is precisely what he’s always been describing in all those novels about the ’80s and the ’90s and the ’00s, and now he’s trying to go back and explain how it all came to happen.
The first answer, he suggests, is the divorce of sex from feeling, from meaning. “She went at it as if the sexual act, in all human history, had never been suspected of leading to childbirth.... All the ancient colourations of significance and consequence had been bleached from it.” But beneath even that, he insists, is the sin of self-love:
The first thing she did, with her gaze on the mirror, was attend to her breasts in a way he had never seen before. She said ardently, “Oh, I love me. Oh I love me so.” Neither blinked as thunder split the room.
The mirror, the pool: the novel’s chief intertext, imaged and quoted and paraphrased throughout, is the story of Echo and Narcissus—love starved by self-love, self-love entraining its own destruction. “All decades,” the narrator says, “were now me decades.”
On a superficial level, this is hard to argue with, but there are problems. For one thing, the novel doesn’t measure up to its own ambitions. It’s a small story for so large a subject—small in scope, but more to the point, small in impact. Amis often has this trouble, fumbling his frissons, leading us a long way to deliver an emotional charge that’s much less potent than he seems to think it is. Here the historical lessons are conveyed by and large discursively, the narrator standing back and moralizing on a story that is, however well told, finally rather slight. We don’t feel the meanings, we just listen to them.
For another thing, is this really true? Did loveless sex and excessive self-love really not exist before the ’60s, or does Amis imagine, like all the other Boomers, that contraception, dirty sex, and female orgasms were waiting around for them to come along and dream them up? And to the extent that it is true, didn’t we know it already? Do we really need Martin Amis to tell us, in 2010, about the consequences of the sexual revolution? He has perpetrated this sort of effrontery before. Koba the Dread, a non-fictional precursor to House of Meetings, lectured us about the evils of Stalinism fifty years after the fact. Amis is one of those people—speaking of self-love—for whom nothing happens until the moment they think of it.
He also needs to think a little harder. Narcissism, as an explanation for everything that’s happened to personal life over the last four decades, is as glib and simplistic as it was when Tom Wolfe first pinned his label on the ’70s. As a novelist, Amis leans too heavily on the psychological as a source of historical understanding, with no apparent awareness of the social or the economic. He is also too charmed by the shapeliness of the monocausal explanation. There’s an analogy here with Keith’s story. One event explains the protagonist’s life; one concept explains the life of the entire culture. Amis’s essays on Islamic fundamentalism make the same aesthetic mistake. It’s all about cultural humiliation, he says. Or it’s all about sexual frustration, or the promise of heaven, or “boredom” (which I still don’t understand). One of those things, but never more than one at the same time, never the complex explanation, the nuanced understanding, the messy, seasoned, cautious view. He likes to have things figured out. He likes to put them in a box, so he can get started on the wrapping.
If the interpretation he offers in The Pregnant Widow is too easy, so is the solution. Amis calls himself an agnostic, but for about the last fifteen years he has been a votary of that most common creed among the liberal middle class, the religion of children. “Whatever else they may get up to,” he wrote in 1995 in an essay on the childless Philip Roth, “children prolong your story. They escort you from the biological desert, where all you hear are the jabberings of sex and death.” The Information, published the same year, likewise offers offspring as the great oasis, and the idea is repeated in both Yellow Dog and here. “Geopolitics may not be my natural subject,” he wrote in the preface to The Second Plane, “but masculinity is.” The trials of the male beast, maddened by sex and terrified by death, are indeed his constant theme. A growing horror of physical decay, the weary animal slumping toward the grave, and a sharpening ache for the domestic, the peace of the female sphere, are the ground notes of Amis’s work over the last decade and a half. Beneath the bad-boy bravado lies a broad, soggy bog of sentimentality—its source, as always, selfpity. Amis’s real quarrel with the sexual revolution seems to be that in provoking women to conduct themselves sexually like men, it has destroyed their civilizing function—their ability, not to serve men, but to tame and thus redeem them.
It is surely no coincidence that Keith’s familial configuration mirrors that of his creator. Each has two sons by a previous marriage and two daughters by the current one. Amis’s first child, whom he fathered as a young man in the course of a brief affair and didn’t meet until the girl was nineteen, is paralleled by Keith’s stepdaughter, Sylvia, twenty-nine at the story’s conclusion and enlisted by the novel as a spokesperson for the higher truth— one of those wiser, more evolved nextgeneration types that show up in Boomer lamentations. Feminism, Sylvia says, demanded the wrong thing. Instead of worrying about sexual freedom, it should have gone all out for “fiftyfifty”—household duties fully shared in all their dreary particulars. (It seems to me that that’s exactly what it went all out for, but never mind.) In other words, it should have pushed men further into domesticity, not away from it. Sylvia’s own marriage, staunchly fifty-fifty, represents the novel’s rather easy vision of a brighter future.
Sentence by sentence, Amis still writes some of the keenest prose in English today. But looking back a quarter of a century to Money, when he was the most promising young novelist in Britain, you have to ask yourself what happened. “Although his prose was talented,” we read of Richard in The Information, “he wasn’t trying to write talent novels. He was trying to write genius novels.” No one, it now seems clear, will ever say that about Richard’s creator.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His memoir about reading Jane Austen will be published next year by Penguin.