This is a boomers’ lament of a time of unrequited love, lust, sex and need. It’s a book club bonanza for endless discussion of characters, human sexuality, feminism, lost lives and the writing genius of Martin Amis.
The critics have been on both sides of this novel, from tedious and plotless to magnificent and Booker Prize worthy. It’s a great read for anyone interested in a boomer’s walk down memory lane with the clarity of hindsight on the sexual revolution of the 1960-70s.
This is a tale of sexual drama and trauma rooted in the narrative of an autobiographical protagonist wallowing in a never-to-be-forgotten past. Martin Amis has said as much (“blindingly autobiographical”) and I read that he once claimed men always remember the women they did not have sex with more than the ones they did. They can’t seem to forget the ones they “could’ve, should’ve … but didn’t fuck.” Most men hearing this, at first, appear perplexed, then on reflection, agree. The point is, Amis comes with a perspective, a bias, a hang up and some baggage on issues of sex. Why wouldn’t he, he’s a boomer?
“We may parenthetically note that it is the near-universal wish of dying men that they had had much more sex with many more women.” – The Pregnant Widow.
First things first: Martin Amis
This is the literary talent of Amis at his best. It’s a clever tragdey-comedy, replete with satire, pathos, imagery, humor and linguistic genius that carries the reader, like a balloon, up and over a boring landscape of predictable characters (if you’re a boomer), each trudging through a contrived plot (a summer in an Italian castle with a bunch of boys and girls sexually stumbling into being men and women).
The overarching sexual tension keeps you going and Amis, with his encyclopedia gift of language and the metaphoric craft of Saul Bellow, keeps the pages turning. The plot (getting through the intersection of sex and life?) is tedious at times – after all, it is a grousing lament – and is barely propped up by the anticipation of the next carnal event, imagined or real. It’s like a continuum of foreplay, moving toward some expected climax with the undulations of linguistic arousal brilliantly connecting the episodes of sexual arousal.
“Love, in 1970, appears to have been replaced by “hysterical sex” and of course “hysterical sex means never having to say you’re sorry.” – The Pregnant Widow.
The story, narrated by a ho-hum guy with a ho-hum name, Keith Nearing, meanders along a literary path well-trodden by the lust-riddled prose of Philip Roth (e.g., Portnoy’s Complaint, Dying Animal), the storytelling of D. H. Lawrence (e.g., Lady Chatterley’s Lover) and the sexual metaphors of the Marquis de Sade (e.g., Justine – without the misogynistic horrors). But, like the narrator, the story often doesn’t know where it’s going and like the young people of 1970, it drifts without purpose – other than awkwardly trying to fulfill sexual needs and fantasies. Which despite all the sex, seems destined to never reach a conclusion – many climaxes but no conclusions.
“When I think of revolution, I want to make love. It is forbidden to forbid. Tutto e subito: All and Now. The four of them agreed that they would settle for that. They would all now settle for All and Now.” – The Pregnant Widow.
Book club bonanza
This book is tailored-made for book club members who want to analyze, parse and compare notes on the spectrum of literary craft and the range of sexual emotions that haunted the young men and women of the 1970s. Times remembered, opportunities lost, potency unrequited.
Amis has created a boomers’ rerun, with all its recognizable herky-jerky, emotionally confusing and immature behavior, and added a retrospective ending, a short, squeeze-everything-in sequel.
“But now it was the summer of 1970, and sexual intercourse was well advanced. Sexual intercourse had come a long way, and was much on everyone’s mind. Sexual intercourse, I should point out, has two unique characteristics. It is indescribable. And it peoples the world. We shouldn’t find it surprising then, that it is much on everyone’s mind.”
It all spills out of this twenty-one-year old, literature major’s imagination while he spends a halcyon summer of discontent – despite adequate amounts of sex – in an Italian castle with an odd collection of characters. As he orgasms his way through the summer, he rationalizes “hysterical sex” with Lily, who he supposedly loves; fantasizes sex with Gloria, who he just might get to fuck; and stumbles his way through eternal wet dreams of the beautiful Scheherazade, an irresistible, sexual simulacrum, constantly floating through his thoughts and loins.
“But I know what’s going to happen. You’re going to fall in love with her. Not that you’ve got a hope, of course. But you will. How could you not? You. You fall in love with anything that moves. You’d fall in love with female football teams. And Scheherazade. She’s beautiful and sweet and funny. And madly grand.” – Lily, Keith’s girlfriend.
Castle turrets versus Chevy backseats
Keith narrates in the first-person and third-person and sounds a little like George Costanza of Seinfeld fame, with his fantasies, hang ups and desperate need for affirmation. It’s all recognizable, not just in a George-like character, but in most Boomers’ experience. George didn’t get as much sex as Keith, but Boomers will recognize the summer romp as vintage 1970 – except the sex was more likely in the backseat of a Chevy than the turret of a castle. The summer plot is an ongoing question as to whether Keith will “bed” the gorgeous Scheherazade in one of the turrets.
“But you understand. I don’t want love. I just want a fuck. Now that didn’t sound at all right, did it? But you know what I mean.” – Scheherazade
That’s the theme, if not the plot, in a nutshell – more specifically, in Keith’s nuts. Will Scheherazade be his “could’ve, should’ve,” his desperate need for a climatic conquest of a woman he considers, “from another world.”
“He had lectured himself about not staring at or even glancing at Scheherazade until later on … and merely scanned the outward mould and form, the presentation: black velvet slippers, white dress (mid-thigh) with a loose cloth belt, no brassiere of course, and he could see the hip-high outline of what would almost certainly turn out to be her coolest … But it was different now. This was the birthday present (farcically undeserved) which he would soon unwrap, and these clothes were just packaging: it would all be coming off. Yes, the reptilian condition was upon him. There was only one possible future.”
In addition to sexual exploits in the Italian sun, Amis weaves in nuggets of social realism and English literature, all entwined in personal-social reflections intended to rise to a grand crescendo. In the end, he truncates the ensuing thirty years in a few braided strands, attempting to tie up all the characters lives, and deaths, in some sort of ‘lives-lived’ denouement. His degree of success is left to the reader – to a book club debate.
Like the cohort of boomers who spent many a summer dancing, drinking, singing, surfing and fucking their way through the flotsam of the sexual revolution, these characters pantomime their way through the heat of a hot, Italian solstice, hoping quotidian sex will overcome the mundane promise of life.
“Life is made up as it goes along. It can never be rewritten. It can never be revised.” – The Pregnant Widow, “I just want
An excerpt – to whet your appetite
As the summer wanes and Keith’s sexual fantasies of Scheherazade, and her wish, “I just want a fuck,” remain unreciprocated, there’s a promising turn with Gloria, when he surprises her in the bathroom.
“So!” she said. “Then I had a quick shower and I was just putting on some clothes.” “How far did you get?” “Shoes,” she said. They both looked down. White high heels. He said, “So. Not very far.” “No. Not very far at all.” She tipped her head at an angle and gave him a flat smile. The polite cough: “Huh-hm.” Then she looked him up and down in a way that made him feel, for a moment, that he had come to fix the loose tiles or see to the plumbing. She turned and slowly walked. Jesus Christ. Say, No bee sting. Say it. No bee sting. He said, “No bee sting.” She halted, and ran a hand down the small of her back. “To tell you the truth, Keith, I put a dab on that too. While I was at it. You know. Concealer.” He thought, I am in a very strange place: I am in the future. And this is the strangest thing of all: I know exactly what to do … Lit by the innards of the storm, all the colours in the room were lurid, torrid, morbid, even the whites. Another strange thought: the vulgarity of the colour white. Step forward. Stepping forward, he said, after a while, “So pale. So cold.” She moved her feet apart. His towel seemed to make a lot of noise when it fell—like a collapsing marquee. Her dress made no sound at all. 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. He went even closer in. She brought her legs together. “Kadoink,” she said. Make a joke. Make two jokes. It doesn’t matter what they are, but the first one has to be dirty. “You forgot to dry yourself.” Her spine quivered and arched. “Because you were distracted by higher things.” “Look,” she said to the figures in the glass. “I’m a boy. I’ve got a cock too.” Say, You are a cock. Say it. You are a cock. “You are a cock,” he said. “… How on earth did you know? I am a cock. And we’re very rare—girls who are cocks. Stand back a minute.” She leant over with parted legs and her small left fist tightened on the towel rack. “Look. The sting’s actually quite far in. Look.” She was doing something, with her right hand, that he had seen before, but never at this angle. Say something about money. “I want to buy it a present. Your arse. Silk. Mink.” She was doing something, with her right hand, that he had never even heard about. “Look what happens,” she said, “when I use two fingers.” It was then that he had his moment of vertigo. I’m too young, he thought, to go to the future. Then the vertigo passed and the hypnosis returned. She said, “Look what happens. Not to the arse. To the cunt.” He stared on at it leadenly—at the far future. “… Some might say that it’s a bit droll—to start with this. But we’re having a black mass, you and I. You know—backward. Everything the wrong way round. Stay still, and I’ll do it all. Understand? And try your hardest not to come.” “Good,” she said, as, some minutes later, her knees settled on the bath-mat. “Now. The only way to spin this out is for me to be a bit of a chatterer for a while—do you mind? … You can talk while you do most other things … Often to no great purpose, in my opinion … But you can’t talk while you … while you … Now here’s something you’ve probably never seen before … Big as this is, and very hard. As hard as the towel rack. I can make it completely disappear. And then come back even bigger. Oh look. It’s even bigger already.” Yeah, he thought. Yeah, that’s the spirit, Gloria. If you want it big, just tell it it’s big. “Completely disappear. Watch. In the mirror … Again? … Again? … Right. In a minute I’m going to speed up. Now listen carefully.” He listened carefully—as she issued a set of instructions. He had never heard about this either (he would later characterise it as the sinister refinement). He said, “Are you sure?” “Of course I’m sure. Right. I’m going to speed up. I won’t be doing any more talking. But I will be making rather a lot of noise. And afterwards, Keith, we’ll have a light breakfast and go to my room. Agreed? Then at last you can feel my breasts. And kiss my lips. And hold my hand … We’ll make a day of it. Or would you rather get on with your trial review?”
Revolutions and their consequences
The outcome of the sexual revolution of the boomer era is no different than most cultural revolutions and Amis’s title is metaphorically brilliant. The phrase, “the pregnant widow” was coined by Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) a Russian writer, as emblematic of the outcome of revolutions. He was disillusioned with revolutions and their failure to make change and claimed that the post-revolutionary time was like a pregnant widow – the overthrown order was dead but the new order, the heir apparent, was not yet born. Amis’s story exemplifies what he called, “a churning process that goes on for a long time before the baby is born. It’s not the instant replacement of one order by another.” And so the fate of Keith and his not-yet-grown-up friends and their untethered carnal needs is left to the unfolding decades.
“Under the old regime, love preceded sex; it wasn’t that way round any more.”
As most Boomers will attest, change takes time, especially in the ever-frustrating quest for love, lust and sex – even life itself.
Buy the book at the Love & Sexcess Bookstore (20% off).
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