Dead in the Water
The Age of Irony won’t grow up
Aug 9, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 44 • By DAVID GELERNTER
Political attitudinizing hasn’t changed much in the meantime. When Vietnam comes up in 1970, the dominant attitude is about the same as the hero’s in later, epilogal years on the topic of Iraq: “American presidents, in wartime, are always re-elected. There would be regime change in Baghdad, in 2003, so that there would be no regime change in Washington, in 2004.” That long-ago Italian summer was stiff with lust but wholly innocent of passion. Amis makes the point by showing us young men whose desires focus not so much on particular girls as on particular anatomical strong points of particular girls. Love is an ironic joke. In the epilogue, the hero marries, but the attraction between husband and wife was “just love,” and so the marriage never had a chance.
Widow shows us that nihilism, like swamp gas, had stolen into the air of 1970 and smothered everything passionate, genuine, and serious. To these sad young adults, the cultural revolution of the late 1960s was Vesuvius exploding in a fog of killer irony. And Amis’s characters, according to the longish epilogue, stay trapped in these same attitudes decade after decade, like living mummies. And as for today’s young adults: On the whole they are indistinguishable from Amis’s 1970 models. The novel rarely even bothers with the incidentals that distinguish then from now. The hero smokes, and that’s about all.
The Widow’s story hinges on a single sex act that changes everything. The hero duly notes “the arrival of sexual intercourse, in 1966,” imitating Philip Larkin’s famous report (which Amis quotes) that “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three.” Only it didn’t, and this is a consequential misconception. Sex had been regarded as a satisfying activity, worth pursuing despite technical difficulties, for some time.
Martin Amis’s father was the novelist Kingsley Amis, whose best book appeared in 1960, Take a Girl Like You. Like Widow, it is about the single sex act that changes everything. (Many novels can be described this way: reductively, or simplistically, or ironically.) Take a Girl is nowhere near as brilliant as Widow, nor is Kingsley capable of writing Martin-style—fuming, corrosive prose that smarts and bites. But Take a Girl is a more humane book than Widow. And it is set in a period (circa 1960) that today’s culture leaders have never heard of. Religion, especially in Europe, was a feeble old man, seemingly spent. Sex before marriage was commonplace. And yet many girls did not choose to indulge. Larkin’s famous poem informs us that “Up to then”—before the great discovery of 1963—“there’d only been / A sort of bargaining, / A wrangle for the ring.” (As if a woman’s wish to be married were childish petulance.) But Take a Girl shows us a heroine whose objection to sleeping with her boyfriend is not religious and does not depend, either, on their not being engaged.
Nor does she object because she is too frigidly unliberated to enjoy sex: She wants to sleep with him (she is very clear about this), yet chooses not to. But in the end she does. Why? Because she has fallen in love with him. Even so, she is torn; but ultimately, being in love, she wants to please him.
What happened between Kingsley’s 1960 and Martin’s 1970 to change a young heroine’s opening position from no to yes? From “no unless I love you” to “yes unless I don’t like you”? What happened during the 1960s was not the gorgeous burst-into-blossoming of the sex tree but the collapse, like an astonished building that, having been dynamited, falls suddenly out of the sky, of the complex structure of chivalry, religion, and tradition that used to support and succor the girl who said no. And again, once the big change had taken place, nothing much else changed in the next four decades.
Ordinarily you’d barely notice that, in Take a Girl, the hero’s love of American jazz is part of the story. It’s only noticeable in comparison to Widow and that balmy Italian summer of 1970, where nobody seems to love anything. The circa 1960 idea of love and sex being somehow intertwined in many female minds, of men and women approaching sex in fundamentally different ways—not because women have been warned off sex, or pettishly insist on marriage or an offer first, or have a superstitious reverence for virginity—still less because they are worried about the failure rates of contemporary contraceptives. All this is, ironically, too subtle for modern ironists to understand.