:: Article

‘A Long Night of Chaos and Desolation’

By Max Dunbar.


The Pregnant Widow, Martin Amis, Cape 2010

‘The obloquy that Martin Amis increasingly attracts reflects the fact that he occupies an unusual, and in some ways anomalous, position in our culture. As one of Britain’s most serious and celebrated novelists, he is someone whose every word and action is pored over. Yet while other writers of similar age and stature – Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Hilary Mantel – are on the whole accorded respect, and even reverence, Amis’s reputation has dipped to the point where he is in danger of becoming a national pariah.’ William Skidelsky‘s words do explain a lot about the attention Amis receives – the non-story over those euthanasia comments, in which the novelist was hammered for making a sensible and civilised argument, one that was made the same week by Terry Pratchett in a Dimbleby lecture given to kind and thoughtful comment.

Not all the opprobrium is unfair. At first it was good to see Amis wade into the debate on terror and religion, in which he took a position different to that of most writers and artists; but then he followed this up with some nasty, vicious and indefensible comments of the Mark Steyn school (‘Has feminism cost us Europe?’) which he should have retracted long ago: as Amis himself said of Roman Polanski, you cannot hide behind a false universalism.

Yet Amis has never quite had it easy. As a young writer he had to sprint out of his father’s shadow, a task he didn’t manage until the keystone book Money in 1983. Often criticised for his vanity and arrogance (as if vanity and arrogance were not positive qualities; were not, in fact, essential survival traits in the world we live in) there’s an undercurrent of insecurity that runs throughout the work. Take Success, Amis’s flatshare novel, with its duel narrators: one is confident and successful, the other flailing and failing. Amis may have looked like the flash libertine Gregory Riding; inside, you suspect, he was always a cringing, tearful Terry Service.

The Pregnant Widow has been hyped as a four-hundred page orgy, but it’s not. A lot of the time, nothing much happens. Students sit by the pool, talk student talk, attempt coursework. This is not to say that the book is uninteresting. Through his narrator Keith, Amis captures the essence of youth: the sense of being at the centre of all that is possible, and yet somehow missing out – the party down the hall, and the exam in the morning. He lays down the young man’s habits of feeling and thought with an amused and yet ultimately sympathetic pen. Having made a guaranteed sex date three days hence, Keith is convinced that he’ll die before that time: fall victim to ‘acts of God, and earthquakes, and nuclear war, and extraterrestrial invasion, and plague and volcanoes.’ Tender and corrupt by turns, Keith keeps a spreadsheet of all the women he’s been with and how far he’s got: it’s a dull fact of life that when men, on their deathbed, think about how it has gone with women and love, something like this list is what they mean.

The Pregnant Widow began as an autobiographical novel with the Italian summer as a brief midlogue. Reading through an early draft, Amis decided that Keith’s decisive holiday was the only part he liked, so he expanded it and trashed the rest. The book works well as an ensemble piece, with the female characters particularly well drawn – but then Amis will never get credit for his strong heroines; Nicola Six, Gina Tull. The gay Middle Eastern refugee Amen acts as an otherworldly messenger, bringing news from the theocratic East, setting up a kind of parallel story that lets us see how women in the Islamic world deal with oppression as well as how women in the Western world deal with liberation.

And yet I felt Amis should have expanded the book still further, headhopped a little, so we wouldn’t be stuck with Keith’s naive and venal perspective the whole time. There are characters half-glimpsed that you want to know more about: the Hitchens surrogate Nicholas, and of course Keith’s sister Violet, the revolution’s ultimate casualty. It’s the mark of a great writer to create characters that hang around long after the final page. And in that too Amis has captured life; we realise too late who gave us the most, and always too late to give anything back.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 11th, 2010.