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Less of the Amis dazzle than usual
on 9 April 2010
Let me first say that I am a Martin Amis fan from way back. I have read - and I own - every book he has written (assuming, of course, that the ever-elusive Invasion of the Space Invaders does not really exist), and my wife gets tired of the War against Cliché I insist stays on the dresser no matter what. You get the idea. Now.
As usual, plot is not really a Martin Amis concern. What we get here is a camera focusing its hard stare on a cloistered (I think that word unusually apt) set of young people spending a hot 1970s summer in a castle in Italy. Wikipedia has the following to say about his 1975 book Dead Babies: " [the novel] has a typically "sixties" plot, with a house full of characters who use various substances.". Here, by contrast, we get a castle full of characters who "use" and/or think about sex. They use and/or think about sex for, oh, I'd say a good 350 of the 460 pages. The remainder of the book relates what happens later to various characters - particularly what happens to the main protagonist Keith. Plotwise, the extended castle introversion is, in my opinion, just no good. It is just flimsy scaffolding for Amis's language, and a very long setup for the final bit which does have a plot that truly engages. Martin Amis has indicated that to know the man - the life - will not affect the art, but here he works hard to dispel this notion. If you know something about his background, and more particularly about the fate of his sister Sally, then the veil between art and life, in the final 100 pages, seems but a mere ripple. This makes the final part of the book intensely sad - I'd go so far as to say that its pathos actually salvages the work.
You don't buy a Martin Amis novel for plot but for style and theme. The theme here is, purportedly, the flip side of the sexual revolution - what it did to women who used their new-found freedom to act as men, even though only very few women truly wanted to be "cocks" as one of the characters in the book has it. Such a theme demands a long hard look at sex, and a long hard look we get. Now, he has himself written about the perils of writing about sex (it being a matter of trying to pilot between a Scylla of schlock and a Charybdis of pornography - and usually failing). His chosen method seems to be to be as candid as a Philip Roth but to avert his gaze in the last instant. Even so, I argue that it occasionally bumps into both Scylla and Charybdis, and I further ungenerously suggest that 100 pages could be cut from the castle chunk of text with no appreciable loss to the reader.
Martin is Mr. or even Dr. Style. Flashes of brilliance are almost unavoidable, and yes, his language in the Pregnant Widow will sometimes dazzle the reader - when it is good, it is really good. I can't really corroborate this (too lazy), but it seems to me that there is more dialogue per text mass than in any previous book. True or not, I submit that stylistic dazzle is not part of that dialogue, and, hence, that stylistic dazzle is in rather spartan supply when compared to the rest of his corpus.
A while back I read Neil Powell's sort of biographical "Amis & Son: Two Literary Generations", and Powell did me a major disservice when he offhandedly alerted me to an Amis stylistic tick. Once noticed, it is hard to ignore, and for this reader it has spoiled much of the book currently under review. The tick is this: in-paragraph repetition. It is absolutely everywhere.
Sometimes in individual sentences:
"After Lily, post-Lily, the new rules of engagement..."
Sometimes more extended:
"The Me Decade wasn't called the Me Decade until 1976 [...] they could be pretty sure that the 1970s was going to be a me decade. This was because all decades were now me decades"
And sometimes he manages to interweave two such repetitions:
"It was all being arranged, history was arranging it - just for Keith. Or so he felt. It was all being done with Keith in mind."
For the old Amis hand, other ticks stand out here too. A specialist's interest in physiological abnormality is something we have come to expect. Massive arse, massive bust, small and/or dysfunctional penis - we have seen it all before. And don't get me started on height. It would seem Amis has given this matter a great deal of thought to put it mildly. Here we get 4'10" Adriano as the midget jester (about the same height as "Keith" back in Dead Babies, methinks), whose diminutive status is much discussed and mocked (What is it with the name "Keith", by the way? Its singular allure to Amis is clear given the number of books in which a major character is so named, but as a reader my patience with Keiths is wearing thin).
His father complained that he was wont to "bugger" with the reader, and this book is no exception. In Brideshead Revisited, Waugh wrote (of a discussion) that " it circled and swooped like a gull, now out to sea, now right on the patch where the offal floated." It might have been about the Amisese mode of narration. We get "the present"; we get "the past", and we get a third person perspective which is sometimes interrupted by an omniscient and smug authorial voice (on occasion rudely butting in to get its say). For me, this omniscient voice is little more than a ploy to inject energy when it, say, indicates that a character certainly needs his wit about him as things are about to get worse. This intrusive mode of narration used to feel much fresher in earlier books.
To read or not to read?
Should you buy it? That depends. I bought it, I read it, and I will buy his next novel too. There is a danger, I think, that his huge stylistic ability will eventually become such a bloated gravity well that it will fall in on itself. Whenever he has something substantial to pin his tapestry of words on - such as a proper plot (real or imagined), a review object, or a strong personal opinion, then he shines. But whether or not he has any gripping fictional stories left in him is a big and gradually more looming issue. The difference between the plot-vacant first 350 pages of bloatware, based on an ephemeral idea, and the moving final 100 pages, where the idea finally hardens, is piercing evidence where his true strengths lie, and his growing unwillingness to avail himself of them. Do you love language for itself, and for what it can be in the hands of a master: buy it, and be impressed. Do you want a book that will have you pat its back lovingly when you have finished - don't.