It could be said that Martin Amis is to women what Jeremy Clarkson is to the environment. Yet, in recent interviews, he has been proclaiming himself a feminist, calling his latest novel, The Pregnant Widow, a story about the birth of feminism. "Women cant rise far enough to suit me," he told the audience at the Richmond Book Now festival, "Im a gynocrat Id like rule by women." But Amis is an assured self-publicist and such comments must be greeted with scepticism. It is true that this book explores themes of feminism but none of them are remotely political. Amis, unsurprisingly, is more interested in the sexual awakening aspect of the movement. In short, Amis is putting the sex into sexual equality.
The plot centres around a young group of friends as they spend An erotically decisive summer in an Italian castle in 1970. English undergraduate, Keith Nearing, is an archetypal Amis hero. Intelligent with a staggering point of reference, inadequate both financially and emotionally and fixated on becoming part of the intelligentsia in order to gain access to the inner sanctum of the beautiful people, he wanted to experience beauty to be legitimized by beauty.
Keith is accompanied by a selection of nubile, bikini clad feminists, all characters defined by their relationship to sex. Lily, Keiths ex-girlfriend (but regular sleeping partner) is insecure. Her beautiful, extraordinarily buxom and wealthy friend Scheherazade gets all the attention, not least from Keith. Lily gets a sadistic pleasure from watching him pine after her while Scheherazade is frustrated by the absence of her upper-class twit boyfriend Timmy, who is busy doing Gods work in Palestine, leaving her open to all number of suitors. Then comes Gloria Beautyman, the ample-buttocked incarnation of female sexual freedom, who is unrepentant about a recent indiscretion with a polo player at a society party.
At times the description of twenty-somethings basking in the Italian sun reads like an episode of Hollyoaks, albeit one in which the characters possess a ferocious wit and a thorough knowledge of the classics. It is often unclear how they come to be among each other, and the result is a picture of a world through which the privileged glide seamlessly vague creatures neither one thing nor the other, they were all of them trying to work out who they were.
As the story advances you realize that the book is more lament than titillation as Amis/Keith mourns the passing of youth and libido. As the years advance, Keith continues to pursue the objects of his desire with ever more limited success. Sex becomes a distraction from coming to terms with the aging process. When you become old, you find yourself auditioning for the role of a lifetime; then, after interminable rehearsals, youre finally starring in a horror film a talentless, irresponsible, and above all low-budget horror film, in which (as is the way with horror films) theyre saving the worst for last.
The Pregnant Widow is unlikely to win over a new readership for Amis but it is a return to his earlier form. If you enjoy his wicked black humour, as seen in Dead Babies, theres plenty of it here and, like The Rachel Papers, this book beautifully illustrates the infatuations of precocious young minds, often in salacious detail. The Pregnant Widow is at times in danger of becoming almost pornographic but just when you think you might be reading the lustings of a dirty old man, Amis steers it clear with an adept turn of phrase and enough rapier intelligence to convince you hes much better than that.