Me and Martin Amis go back a long way, but he sort of faded from my awareness after the awful Yellow Dog (2003) and oddly pointless Korba the Dread (2000). Which was a shame, as his earlier books resonated with me more than any other writer. From Success (1978) to The Information (1995), he was the chronicler of England (my England), and the rotten, fizzing madness of modern life surrounding me. Living in London while reading London Fields (1989) was like some intense immersive experience, although with more Keith Talents on the prowl than Nichola Sixes. And then, half way through The Information, it started to go wrong, the omnipresent "offness" that was always in his work, defamiliarizing the mundane into vivid Martian surrealism, seemed to disolve into leery, class contempt. And then he started to turn into a bad dream version of his old man, his politics seeming to zoom rightwards after 9/11.
So I avoided The Pregnant Widow for the longest time. Gone were the days when I'd buy his books in hardback when they were published. (Yellow Dog I got cheap on Amazon after the initial stink died down, Korba, I borrowed from the Library.) I didn't know this novel existed until recently, after the paperback had appeared, and I was wary of reading it even then. The reviews were so-so, and the subject matter didn't seem too promising. And another Keith? Couldn't he leave that name alone?
But then I saw that he had another novel coming out this week, the unpromisingly titled Lionel Asbo: State of England so I thought I'd catch up. And I was at the library with the kids, and it was either that or follow up on my vow to start reading science fiction again, and I wasn't sure where to begin there....
The Pregnant Widow isn't quite a return to form. It's too long, although in a way it needs to be to contrast the endless, youthful, languid, sex-soaked summer of 1970 that occupies the first five-sixths of the book with the 60 subsequent pages that bring it up to date. No much happens, at least not in the first 300 pages, where people talk, and come and go, and read, and talk some more. Big themes lurk: literature and life, love and sex, freedom and liberation, pleasure and morality, but most of it's just talk.
And yet there are passages as good as anything he's written. Like:
As he opened his eyes that morning, Keith thought, When I was young, old people looked like old people, slowly growing into their masks of bark and walnut. People aged differently now. They looked like young people who had been around far too long. Time moved past them but they dreamt they stayed the same.
There's stuff about Islam that doesn't seem to go anywhere. And the delayed payoffs all seemed so minor and petty when they do come along that I kept suspecting I'd missed something. Is the moral of the book simply that the sexual revolution was fun at the time (for men, mostly) but terrible in its consequences (for women, and Amis's late sister in particular)? Not that a novel stands or falls by the moral or themes one reads into it, or fails to find.Amis himself has said that the theme of the novel is the novel, that there's no convenient maxim to take away. I have the feeling I may need to reread the book to make up my mind, but I don't especially want to. But I do want to go get London Fields and Other People out of storage soon, or maybe even have another crack at Yellow Dog. It couldn't really have been that bad, could it?