London: Martin Amis winds down his latest novel, ‘The Pregnant Widow,’ very nicely. Too bad the setup drags on so long.
That drag will be unnerving to fans of Amis who are still feeling the hangover of his 2003 novel, ‘Yellow Dog,’ which one critic notoriously likened to catching your favorite uncle masturbating in a schoolyard.
And while it may be unfair to recall that criticism after his last novel, ‘House of Meetings,’ was greeted with a sigh of relief and hailed as a return to form — that book was set in Russia and seemed more like Solzhenitsyn.
‘The Pregnant Widow,’ at least, feels like an Amis novel.
Actually, there are so many of the usual Amis suspects on hand, the novel often feels like a pastiche of his previous works.
The main character, Keith Nearing, is a self-involved English student straight out of Amis` first novel, ‘The Rachel Papers,’ who shares a first name with the protagonist of Amis` 1989 masterpiece, ‘London Fields.’
The setting, featuring a gaggle of golden youth holed up for a summer inside an Italian castle, recalls Amis` 1975 novel, ‘Dead Babies,’ but the characters here are more benign — the most malevolent being a miniature Italian count with a vast fortune and a penchant for self-punishment and the cryptically named Gloria Beautyman.
Also present are the overarching themes Amis is so fond of — usually having to do with sex, literature or, best yet, the juncture of the two.
The text is peppered with definitions of choice words broken down to their roots in Latin and elsewhere, betraying Amis` love of wordplay but doing nothing to advance the plot, which mostly revolves around Keith lusting after the breasts of his girlfriend`s second best friend, Scheherazade.
Yet, for all the exotic trappings, we have to take Amis at his word that it is the summer of 1970 and sexual revolution is in the air because he does little to illustrate the period or the tumultuous events taking place beyond the fortified walls.
Instead, we get deliberations over the implications of going topless by the pool and who is wearing whose pants filtered through Keith`s steady diet of English literature.
Early on, Amis warns that Keith could have been a poet except for the events of that fateful summer, but that seems unlikely from a character whose big epiphany is that each classic English novel affords at most a single instance of sexual intercourse — a sentiment he expresses in somewhat more vulgar language.
Keith dawdles and despairs for so long over his desire to couple with Scheherazade that even his girlfriend, Lily, begins to wish he`d get it over and done with, and the reader may fear that Amis` sexual revolution is of the tantric sort, where the climax is put off so long it no longer matters if it is ever achieved.
Then, just when the book seems like it may not even be trudging toward its single instance of sexual intercourse, something unexpected happens and the novel snaps to life.
All of Amis` past mastery is suddenly back on display. Even the postscriptlike final chapters are transformed into engrossing page turners.
The reader won`t know whether to forget everything that came before or try and go back and search for missed clues suggesting the better novel that suddenly appeared from out of nowhere.
The book opens with a quote likening the transition between two forms of social order to a pregnant widow and adds that a lot of water flows by between "the death of one and the birth of the other."
So, while the book purports to be about the sexual revolution, it has more to do with the birth of the modern novel where sexual activity is no longer limited to a single act of intercourse.