The Return of Martin Amis

Martinamis100517_250 Sam Anderson in New York Magazine:

Martin Amis’s new novel, The Pregnant Widow, is—nakedly, brazenly, devotedly—about sex. This makes it almost unique in the Amis canon. It’s not a Gulag novel that turns out to be about sex, or a nuclear-war novel that turns out to be about sex, or a Holocaust novel that turns out to be about sex. It’s a sex novel about sex. That directness is strangely liberating, both for the reader and, it seems, for Amis. The frankness makes him look, paradoxically, a little less pervy: He’s not trying to sneak sex in under the guise of high-minded geopolitical hand-wringing—apocalyptic dread as sublimated desire for the forbidden pleasures of anal sex. He’s just being flat-out dirty. He can finally revel openly, without smoke screens, in the richest comic material the human race has yet to discover: breasts, penises, fluids, orifices, costumes, positions, body types, hand jobs, teasing, ogling—the whole titillating tragicomedy of carnal desire. It’s like a master-class for all the young male novelists (Eggers, Kunkel, Chabon) that Katie Roiphe accused, in a recent Times Book Review essay, of being squeamish about sex. The result is Amis’s best book in fifteen years and (at least for 75 percent of it) a nearly perfect comic novel.

This resurgence comes at a very good time, just as some Amis fans (if you’ll allow me to get autobiographical) were beginning to give up hope. Amis’s career has been in a well-publicized gentle decline since 1995, when he published The Information. Since then, his novels—Night Train, Yellow Dog, House of Meetings—have been sparse and middling; his critics have been many and mean. Amis’s work—like his elder Don DeLillo’s—is so dependent on the energy of his prose that, when that energy weakens even slightly, his faults become unbearable. It’s hard to know what caused the drop-off—whether it was age (he’s now 60), the critical sniping, or the nonfictional lure of world events (his recent jousting over “Islamofascism” has sometimes seemed like a full-time career). But whatever he was doing in the five-plus years he spent agonizing over The Pregnant Widow, it worked. This reads like the work of young Amis. I picked it up reluctantly but soon found myself raving about it to everyone I know. It has me fantasizing about a Roth-like late-career creativity burst.