New novels from the aging ‘enfants terribles’ of British letters.
Apr 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 29 • By TED GIOIA
The Pregnant Widow
by Martin Amis
by Ian McEwan
In 2006 the Muslim writer Ziauddin Sardar coined the term blitcon—a compression of “British literary neoconservatives”—as a term of abuse leveled at three writers who irritated him with their belief that “American ideas of freedom and democracy are not only right, but should be imposed on the rest of the world.” The three guilty culprits: Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Salman Rushdie. Alas, Sardar was forced to admit that this same trio dominates the British literary landscape, even enjoying front-page fame in an era when most fiction writers find their name in the paper only if their publishers take out an ad.
Now, two of the blitcons have released major novels within a few days of each other. Amis’s The Pregnant Widow and McEwan’s Solar are generating buzz on both sides of the Atlantic, and are likely to spur further comparisons between two literary lions of roughly the same vintage (McEwan is 14 months older). Both were born at the end of the 1940s, came of age in the fast and loose 1960s, and are now in their 70s as celebrity scribes. McEwan may have more clout with the literary establishment—perhaps best measured by his six appearances on the annual Man Booker Prize short list, compared with just one for Amis—but Amis takes more chances, both in his public persona and his published works.
Indeed, few Americans can appreciate how “controversial” Amis has become in Britain, and how even his smallest actions undergo journalistic scrutiny. Recently the British press spun dozens of stories out of accusations that Amis had puffed on a cigarette at the deathbed of a friend. The matter got so blown out of proportion that Christopher Hitchens, the author’s longtime friend, was forced to enter the fray, calling the accuser “spiteful and false” and admitting that he, Hitchens, may have been the one to light up. In other instances, Amis has been called to task by the press for everything from his frank comments on radical Islam to his salary at Manchester University—$120,000 for 28 hours of work a year.
Those looking for controversy may find an agreeable dose in Amis’s new novel. Even if the author didn’t repeat at several points that “all this really happened,” you would suspect that the story was drawn from true events. At the very start, the narrator announces:
Despite the disclaimer, the names are changed here. The protagonist’s sister Violet clearly draws on Amis’s own sibling Sally, whose alcoholism contributed to an early demise, in 2000, at the age of 46. Elsewhere, we seem to encounter figures based on Hitchens, Ian Hamilton, and perhaps even fellow blitcon McEwan (is he the basis for a minor character here named Ewan?). And our main player, littérateur and aspiring writer Keith Nearing, is an obvious stand-in for the author in this story of young bohemians coming of age during the sexual revolution.
You could probably win some wagers with this book. During my college days, my friends and I played a betting game with The Sun Also Rises. The rules: You offered to pay two-to-one odds to anyone who could open up a random page and not find characters either eating or drinking. The Pregnant Widow promises to be an even bigger moneymaker on the literary betting circuit: I challenge you to find a page where the characters are not talking about sex. I suspect I could raise the odds to five-to-one and still end up raking in the cash.
Note that I said talking about sex, and not the dirty deed itself. Even when his characters decide to couple, Amis typically prefers to present the verbal prelude or the postgame wrap-up instead of calling the play-by-play action. The sheer amount of tawdry banter here is staggering, and even after 300 pages Amis is going strong with dialogue and observations that are a cross between fraternity bragging and advice from a Cosmopolitan how-to article: “The uniform, that of a French maid, was in many ways a success. But it left something to be desired.” Etcetera.
Then again, Amis occasionally takes a highbrow approach: His bookish characters uncover previously unknown sexual themes in everything from Shakespeare to Pride and Prejudice, and sometimes conspire to act out the key scenes in full costume. The plot, admittedly thin, transpires in a castle in Italy in 1970, where a changing cast of visiting twentysomethings test the new liberties of the era. With a flushed sense of excitement they make up their own rules—on what to wear (sometimes nothing at all), where to sleep, and most of all how to describe and theorize this bawdy behavior in words. If, as the narrator asserts at the end of the book, “pornographic sex is a kind of sex that can be described” (emphasis is Amis’s), then The Pregnant Widow could serve as a compendium and case study.
But Amis is not blind to the unpleasant results that often follow the abandonment of moral strictures. Amis has suggested that the sexual revolution contributed to the death of his sister Sally, and a similarly self-inflicted trauma can be followed here in the character named Violet. In contrast, the hero Keith’s sexual license of the 1970s may not prove fatal, yet it also exerts a lingering destructive aura over his later life. In case readers fail to pick up on this—which they might, given the lighthearted and capricious nature of most of the narrative—Amis adds a long coda, in which he outlines what happened to his various characters over the four decades following their decadent Italian sojourn.
Ian McEwan’s Solar, in many ways, picks up where Amis’s novel concludes. We encounter his hero Michael Beard after his decades of debauched living. He is at the tail end of his fifth marriage, each of them destroyed by his infidelities. He drinks too much. He’s grossly overweight and out of shape. He is petty and scheming. But he has one big thing going for him: a Nobel Prize in physics for his Einstein-Beard Conflation, a CV entry that helps him charm ladies and gain sinecures.
McEwan, no doubt, wrote most of this novel before the recent Climategate scandal, but his protagonist would be at home in the world of compromised research and controversial think tanks. Beard has parlayed his notoriety into a government job launching a National Center for Renewable Energy, where he is wasting large sums of taxpayers’ money on a rooftop wind-power machine that will never become a commercial reality. He eventually switches allegiances to solar power, but only after stealing valuable intellectual property from one of the scientists working for him at the center. Although Beard was initially cynical about global warming and its vocal advocates, he jumps on the bandwagon as a way of advancing his own moneymaking solar scheme.
Yet Beard’s crimes at the office are modest compared with those he perpetrates at home. The same scientist whose work Beard has stolen dies in an accident at the Nobel laureate’s house—where he is having an affair with the latter’s wife. Beard uses this circumstance to incriminate another romantic rival, peppering the accident scene with bogus evidence that will eventually send an innocent man to prison for homicide.
The plot is intricate and full of unlikely coincidences; yet McEwan is justly famous for his meticulous plotting, and a certain baroque beauty adheres to his interweaving storylines. The novel begins in 2000, and by the time of its final pages, set in 2009, McEwan has deftly integrated the scientific, domestic, romantic, and criminological elements of his narrative—and somehow manages to have everything come due at once.
Solar is noteworthy for another McEwan trademark: his immersion in the occupational realities of his characters. In Saturday (2005) he conveyed the surgical expertise of his neurosurgeon hero with intense realism. In Atonement (2001) he revealed the same attention to detail in his account of a soldier in the aftermath of the Battle of Dunkirk, and in his story of a World War II nurse in a London hospital. (McEwan’s research on the latter got him embroiled in trumped-up charges of plagiarism. The accusations had little substance, but the resulting tabloid coverage may have influenced passages in Solar that describe Professor Beard’s run-ins with the press.) Now in Solar, McEwan attempts to take on the mantle of a famous physicist, and again he has done his homework, creating a magnificent protagonist who moves effortlessly and plausibly from professional to personal concerns.
Ian McEwan’s writing is tighter than Martin Amis’s, more attuned to pacing and narrative flow. Amis, true to form, is flashier and funnier, and shows he can still wield his caustic wit like a rapier—so much so, that the reader may likely forgive the self-indulgence and meandering of the story line. In short, both of our blitcons are doing what they do best, and it’s reassuring to the rest of us to see these children of the sixties make the leap into another sort of sixties with such command and panache.
Ted Gioia is the author, most recently, of The Birth (and Death) of the Cool.