Required reading, déjà vu: This week marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Take notes — because there will be a quiz. Bring a No. 2 pencil, or two No. 1's.
The Pregnant Widow
by Martin Amis
Martin Amis' sardonic and misanthropic tales of misery and imagination often smack of a postmodern Algonquin and malice in a wonderland of cranky perversity and stinging, nihilistic cynicism. In presenting his priorities, this long-standing and influential UK bad boy once noted that "If the prose isn't there, then you're reduced to what are merely secondary interests, like story, plot, characterization, psychological insight and form." Is he exaggerating for effect?
In any case, it’s sometimes a hit-or-miss affair as to whether Amis’ fictional works of dry Brit lit writ wry and satiric backs up the style with a wallop of substance. At Amis’ best, dazzling verbal pyrotechnics and pretty poison prose couch some intriguing ideas and new twists on old ones, also complementing those pesky, "mere" incidentals like structure, action and — along with sometimes irritating but mostly rewarding fun-zone narratives – perhaps even a good guy or two discernible in the wordplay. Early novels like 1989's bitter and ambitious London Fields remains a multilayered and successfully sustained social satire, while The Information (1995) constitutes a barbed commentary on contemporary culture. On the other hand, more recent works such as 2005’s Yellow Dog is a letdown of ludicrousness and loose ends, with disparate subplots cavalierly reconciled, if at all, while the short novel House of Meetings from 2006 is not a substantial improvement.
As to where Martin Amis’ new book, The Pregnant Widow, fits into the spectrum – more of the latter-day same-ol’ same-ol’ or return to form – remains to be read. Reading being, by the way, a relatively cerebral activity furthest from the minds of our 20-year-old protagonist Keith Nearing and his pals lounging away in a castle in the Italian mountains on summer vacation from college – during the height of the tumultuous transitions being brought forth by the sexual revolution. Reconsidering themes from his early novels — sex, passion, class strife, shame, and obsession, Amis recounts the story primarily in flashback, the narrative alternating between the seminal Italian holiday and Keith's subsequent adulthood experiences. It’s a retelling that also springboards from Amis’ experience as Keith is of the same generation, height and nationality as the author, who at one point declares a biographical aspect, stating that "the summer in Italy wasn't art, it was only life. No one made anything up. All this really happened."
And all this had repercussions and set a certain pattern for Amis and his real-life generation when it came to fleeting love, transient sex, multiple marriages and relationships, and scattered family. In a parallel literary universe, the fuel poured on the Italian castle fire in The Pregnant Widow is instigated by Keith’s relationship with three women with whom he shares the mountain estate. Chief among them – though sex is perfunctory – is his on-again/off-again girlfriend Lily, a little more off lately now that he’s met Lily’s girlfriend, the voluptuous Scheherazade, "oozing out all over" yet suffering from sexual frustration. Then Gloria Beautyman enters the pretty picture, who’s as enticing as Scheherazade and even more available.
An "erotically decisive summer" ensues. Along with discourses on literature, life, and religion – until the girls show up again, I’m guessing. Should make for a stellar “What I Did For My Summer Vacation” report.
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