In 1966, a Motown singer of moderate success called Jimmy Ruffin first posed the question ‘what becomes of the broken hearted?’ And it was in that same year, according to Martin Amis, that humanity discovered sex. He differs here slightly from Philip Larkin, who in his poem ‘Annus Mirabilis’ located the date we started ‘doing it’ properly around 1963, somewhere ‘between the end of the Chatterley ban / and the Beatles’ first LP,’ noting also that such a date ‘was rather late for me.’ Larkin’s focus on the intersection of sex and age would also be a hallmark of Amis’ discussion of the sexual revolution. But pedantry aside, Ruffin’s mellifluous enquiry gained a certain poignancy through the years of the sexual revolution, and afterwards, when there were many more broken hearts to be found. Amis’ novel, The Pregnant Widow (2010), is a semi-autobiographical exploration of this period. Taken from the work of Alexander Herzen, the ‘pregnant widow’ is not so much a character, but rather a stage in revolutionary history.
Poised between the death of the father (the fall of moralistic sexual discretion) and the birth of the child (the rise of second-wave feminism) it is the moment of greatest fragility. Amis takes a nuanced approach, exploring the differing effects of the sexual revolution on a range of characters, from the indomitable femme fatale Gloria Beautyman, to the protagonist Keith Nearing’s childlike sibling Violet, whose story ends in a tragic collision of booze and casual sex like Amis’ own younger sister Sally. This would explain the novel’s subtitle, ‘Inside History.’ The author takes an idealised period (the ‘she decade’, as he calls the 1970s in one of the novel’s intervals) and presents it through the lives of individuals, even his closest relatives like Sally. He admirably seizes on the British media obsession with the Amis family that was for so long used to berate his work (being regularly written off as the less talented offspring of Kingsley), and inverts it to create a thoughtful novel about the social upheavals of the late twentieth century.
Another of Amis’ recent novels, however, takes a rather different approach to social analysis. In characteristic Amis fashion, Lionel Asbo (2012) picks its target: the caricature council estate lout of many a tabloid front page. The novel was thought-provoking in completely the wrong way, the caricaturist’s joke distinctly falling flat. In the most famous of his comic novels, Money (1984), Amis parodies the decadent excesses of wealth. Fair prey, I think, within the context of a decade when cash bought morality off. But what can really be gained from a crucifixion of England’s impoverished classes? W.H. Auden, in his essay ‘Reading’, remarked: ‘one sign a book has literary value is that it can be read in a number of different ways. Vice versa, the proof that pornography has no literary value is that, if one attempts to read it in any other way than as a sexual stimulus… one is bored to tears.’ These words kept floating around my mind as I read Lionel Asbo, with its unpleasant depictions of the down and out: ‘Granny Grace was an early starter, and fell pregnant when she was just twelve.’ My suspicion that this kind of ‘comic writing’ could only appeal to a certain type of person was confirmed as I looked over the novel’s praise. Of particular note was the Mail on Sunday critic’s revelation that he ‘read the book in a sitting, chortling throughout.’ The titillation of the powerful at the expense of the weak seems to be the driving motivation of the novel. As in The Pregnant Widow, Lionel Asbo’s subtitle, ‘State of England’, is loaded with meaning. It cannot simply be read as the chronicle of one extraordinary thug who gets lucky off the back of a lottery ticket. Instead it should be considered with the author’s paranoia in mind, stemming from a preconception that Lionel Asbo and his like are indicative of working class life in twenty-first century England.
Amis has proved time and again throughout his career that he is one of Britain’s most talented writers. The problem with Lionel Asbo lies not so much in the construction of the prose, which is impeccable as always, and in brief but all too infrequent sparks, illuminates even the most inane aspects of life lived in poverty. The novel really suffers because it has nothing to say. Even in attempting to approach the issue of poverty, his efforts stumble. Perhaps this is why The Pregnant Widow, with no working-class characters of note, stands out as a better piece of fiction.
When asked to name her favourite writer, Susan Sontag would always reply with Shakespeare, much to the chagrin of interviewers and dinner companions, who expected America’s greatest cultural critic to come up with something a tad more obscure. ‘I care passionately about many things that don’t get into my fiction and essays,’ she remarked in later life, ‘because what is in my head seems to me to lack originality – I never thought I had anything interesting to say about Shakespeare.’ The phrase ‘write what you know’ is one of the most overused and pernicious pieces of advice that can be given to an aspiring creative. Pure knowledge of a subject is not the key to good writing, and some of the most beloved fiction is derived from the escapism and extrapolation of an author, be it the fantasies of Tolkien and Rowling which have created generations of voracious readers, or the dystopian worlds of Orwell and Atwood, which still inspire lifelong anti-totalitarian convictions. A certain factual grasp of the subject can of course aid coherent fiction, but greatness, as Sontag notes, comes out of originality. In Amis’ better novel The Pregnant Widow, the narrator’s identity (teased throughout but never confirmed) seems to be the protagonist Keith Nearing’s ‘superego’. This unconscious narration is original and innovative, presenting the temporal situation of the novel (misogyny, homophobia, and other forms of ignorant hatred all rife), but with the sensibilities and prejudices of the author forbidden from interference. Despite The Pregnant Widow being by far the more autobiographical of the two novels, I felt far less aware of author’s presence than in Lionel Asbo, where a sneering judgement cuts across narrative worth.
Amis knows ‘how it’s done’, or at least how it should be done. The story of The Pregnant Widow is anchored in a consideration of the English novel: the protagonist Nearing is consuming all the Dickens, Eliot, and Shelley he can in the summer of 1970, before beginning a literature degree at Oxford. His affair with Glory Beautyman, one of the novel’s central events, is spurred on by a heated debate over Elizabeth Bennet’s motivations in Pride and Prejudice. In one instance, there is a perceptive riff on Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and her illustration of a poor man made wealthy, Heathcliff. The black villain of the moors, in all his complexity, is a far cry from Amis’ characterisation of Lionel (pronounced ‘Loyonoo’, apparently), a Frankenstein’s monster cooked up in a melting pot of tabloid news articles about ‘youth culture’, and heavy-handed pop culture references that could have been lifted directly from Wikipedia: ‘he resembled, some said, the England and Manchester United prodigy, striker Wayne Rooney.’ In The Pregnant Widow, our unconscious narrator describes a writer as the person sipping their drink in one corner of a party; watching, thinking, and formulating. When he emulates this philosophy, Martin Amis is at his very best. But in Lionel Asbo, he resembles the brash provocateur, at the centre of a social gathering, loudly opining on things he neither knows nor cares enough about.
It was really good fortune that saved my faith in Martin Amis. In an effort to catch up on his recent work, I had read Lionel Asbo with disappointment, afraid that one of my favourite authors had cast off on the path of irredeemable decline. But as luck would have it, I found a copy of The Pregnant Widow by chance at a book stall just off London Fields, and did the regular survey: cover, synopsis, praise. The friend who I was staying with did the same, and decided also to take a peek at the inside fold, where on most hardbacks you will find a portrait of the author. We laughed, not because of the image’s affectation, which is common. Rather, because something was so obviously missing. The right hand was poised upward – check. But instead of a cigarette nonchalantly hanging between the fingers, Amis seems to be clutching a marker pen. The subject of ageing is something he takes on with admirable self-deprecation through the novel. Keith Nearing’s internal wrangling on whether to take up smoking again is littered with the justifications of youth: ‘yeah, non-smokers live seven years longer… It won’t be that convulsive, heart-bursting spell between twenty-eight and thirty-five. No. It’ll be that really cool bit between eighty-six and ninety-three.’
The crux of these remarks, and others, is Amis’ creeping realisation that it is hard to age with dignity. The old are caught out in moments of wishful thinking, hovering their hand to hold a cigarette when they packed in the habit years ago. His perceptive ruminations in The Pregnant Widow are the product of an author ageing, but not declining. Lionel Asbo, on the other hand, is Amis’ attempt to be resurrected as the writer of his younger days, crafting biting satire and despicable, but often sympathetic, characters. And yet it misses the mark by a long way. These two novels show us that originality is a far greater thing than cliché, and that thankfully, Martin Amis still has something to say. In the final pages of The Pregnant Widow, Nearing’s superego concludes ‘it’s the deaths of others that kill you in the end.’ Lionel Asbo was published shortly after the untimely passing of the author’s best friend Christopher Hitchens. It was also dedicated to him, although I am not sure that street-fighting Marxist of old would have taken kindly to the book’s sentiment. He was never uncritical of his lifelong confidant, lambasting Amis’ biography of Josef Stalin, Koba the Dread, in a review for The Atlantic. Just like The Pregnant Widow, Amis’ upcoming 2017 novel has been long in the making, with him reportedly starting work on it over a decade ago. Moving from a focus on ageing, to the logical endpoint (death), we can only hope that this new work will mirror the thoughtful contemplation of The Pregnant Widow, rather than the misguided posturing of Lionel Asbo.
Oxford Review of Books, June 2017