The Pregnant Widow, By Martin Amis

Has the sexual revolution ever seemed so boring?
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The Independent Culture

As per usual with Martin Amis, this new novel has been preceded by a fair amount of hype, mostly surrounding his subject matter (the sexual revolution) and the fact that he took umpteen years to write it, by his own admission struggling with various autobiographical elements. The action, if you could call it that, takes place primarily over one summer in an Italian castle in 1970, where a core of three friends are visited by various acquaintances, everyone struggling to find their place in a new post-1960s sexual landscape.

The narrative focus is on Keith, a precocious, 20-year-old English literature student who spends his time screwing Lily, an insecure and sisterly law student, while also trying to get into bed with Scheherazade, a recently blossomed, voluptuous friend of them both. Into this triangle step several minor characters – Adriano, a muscular Italian midget; Whittaker, Keith's urbane, gay friend, with a Muslim toyboy in tow; and the ridiculously named Gloria Beautyman, even more voluptuous and beautiful than Scheherazade, apparently. And then, for 400 pages or so, nothing whatsoever happens.

Nothing happening wouldn't be a problem, of course, if Amis threw the reader a bone or two, but the writing here is strangely dead on the page. Part of the problem is that The Pregnant Widow reads as if its author couldn't make up his mind what kind of book it should be. There is an aura of memoir about it, as signalled in an introduction by Keith dated 2006, and in subsequent contemporary intervals to the events in Italy. Here, Keith, now getting on in years, is in a mood to reminisce: "Then 50 comes and goes, and 51, and 52. And life thickens out again. Because there is now an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being, like an undiscovered continent. This is the past."

Which leads us into interminably long, meandering passages in the Italian castle, full of supposedly witty conversations, lots of lounging around the pool and endless narcissistic navel-gazing. Amis seems to be aiming for a mixture of out-and-out satire and comedy of manners in these passages, but his affection for his vapid ensemble means that most of the humour fails to hit home. He wants to make the reader laugh at the absurdity of these creatures, but he also wants you to take their sexual self-interests seriously, and the two aims simply don't sit together.

Amis seems aware of this problem. In one of Keith's present-day interruptions to the narrative, he writes: "Sex is bad enough, as a subject, and the self is pretty glutinous too." And yet Amis continues to subject the reader to reams of both, unwilling to turn his gaze away from that tedious, soporific Italian summer. Which is a shame, because when he does drag himself away, the writing becomes immediately more engaging.

The last 70 pages of The Pregnant Widow see Amis filling in the lives of his cast from 1970 to 2009. Freed from the need to give unnecessary portent to the events in 1970, and detailing the psychological fallout from the sexual confusion of that era, his simple and streamlined prose leaps off the page. At moments like these, Amis is a powerful writer, but the vast majority of The Pregnant Widow is a self-obsessed irrelevance, leaving the reader with a monumental feeling of "so what?"