In Martin Amis's new novel, writes David Wallace-Wells, the author's narcissism is by turns incorrigible, searching and inspired. "After a couple of hours at their desks, on September 12, 2001, all the writers on earth were considering the course that Lenin menacingly urged on Maxim Gorky," Martin Amis wrote months after the attacks on New York and Washington, "a change of occupation." "The so-called work in progress had been reduced, overnight, to a blue streak of autistic babble," he confessed, in a candid essay published first in The Guardian and then again in The Second Plane, his peculiar, sometimes maddening meditation on the fate of the liberal imagination under a reign of terror. That autumn, he observed, many writers of fiction had become writers of essays, a strategy Amis called "playing for time," even as he did the same. But by the spring, that strategy seemed a dead end, he wrote, and perhaps even cowardly. To surrender the novel meant turning one's back on private lives to participate instead in an eerie public fantasy, meant allowing imagination to be ironed out from underneath and replaced with the firm platform of ideology. It meant consenting, Amis suggested, to the calcification of liberal culture, which he called, warmly but ambivalently, "the ideology of no ideology."
The closest Amis gets at the outset of The Pregnant Widow to that chastened standard is a return to a familiar mythology of self - himself. (The new novel, though not his first since 2001, is the first to be conceived in the defiant spirit of The Second Plane.) His clear surrogate is Keith Nearing - clever, caddish, with a "very misleading chin" and stature in "that much disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven" - and the novel is an idle reminiscence of a summer holiday in his own late adolescence, a scrapbook of sexual awakening and an acknowledgement, perhaps, from Amis, the most distinguished British aphorist since Oscar Wilde and the author of a dozen novels inspired and disappointing in equal measure, that his finest literary creation may well be his own public life.
"Everything that follows is true," Amis writes, early in the novel, echoing his earlier promise that the book would be "blindingly autobiographical". "Italy is true," he continues. "The castle is true. The girls are true, and the boys are all true." Having embraced, for periods in his mesmerising career, both historical fiction and millenarian metafiction, Amis offers here some delectable sub-fiction - the variety of stylised memoir he once called "higher autobiography." What makes it "higher," in this case, is not simply the snakeskin varnish of Amis' inimitable style but its ambition to eulogise a generation - Amis' own.
"They were the children of the Golden Age," he writes, of the postwar babies born in the British boom, the first generation to adjust their eyes to the afterglow of empire and their bodies to a culture of pleasure in which everything was available and nothing, therefore, seemed truly at stake - "The Golden Age, when they never had it so good". And yet, as Amis has reminded us again and again - in novels animated by the fear of annihilation and orientated by apocalyptic threats nuclear, cosmological, and even narrative - the decades of the Cold War were not placid dreamscapes but, even for those drowning in affluence, a "contest of nightmares". "During this period, physical violence was somehow consigned to the Third World," he notes, in one of several historical intervals shuffled into The Pregnant Widow, while on the Gold Coast of the First World, "everyone lived. There the violence was all in the mind."
But violence has a very peculiar value for Amis; it means vitality. And vice versa: "This is the story of a sexual trauma," he writes in the opening lines of The Pregnant Widow, but as the summer wears on, its central "trauma" - a sudden and unusual sexual encounter - seems hardly to damage the protagonist as much as it does inspire him. In fact, it positively organises his life, an older Keith acknowledges later: "The Italian summer - that was the only passage in his whole existence that ever felt like a novel. It had chronology and truth," Amis writes, "but it also boasted the unities of time, place, and action; it aspired to at least partial coherence."
The real rupture in The Pregnant Widow - one presumes Amis considers it the central rupture of his generation - is the Sexual Revolution. "Girls acting like boys," as he puts it, with characteristic chauvinism. Some did benefit from the liberalisation of sexual mores, he suggests, especially at the outset, but on the male side of the ledger - that is, his side - the long story is of "the incredible shrinking man." (He doesn't sketch the other side of the ledger, the putatively positive one, all that plausibly, but neither is he as dour about the fallout as Michel Houellebecq.)
Like any revolution, this one delivered more than just what was promised at the outset. "The first clause in the revolutionary manifesto went as follows: There will be sex before marriage." The second item: "Women, also, have carnal appetites." Point three "was a kind of sleeper clause," Amis writes: "Surface will start tending to supersede essence." This last item is of particular interest to Amis, whose narcissism is incorrigible even when it is searching, and who speaks directly to the reader in several plotless, reflective interludes presenting Keith in late middle-age. (The summer in Italy dominates the plot of the novel, but these interludes represent its conscience.) Here, Amis treats us to meditations on Ted Hughes' Echo and Narcissus, implies that a doctrine of free love is merely a decree of self-love, and presents his surrogate in a kind of perpetual combat with mirrors, self-scrutiny, and disgust.
The body, which once seemed to contain a revolution, now offers limits, and, in the place of possibility, something like knowledge - one hesitates over the word "wisdom" with Amis, who has been at his best always working through a kind of inspired juvenilia. And yet The Pregnant Widow is governed not by solipsism but by a sort of fatalist wisdom - that the only real apocalypse is the personal one, and that millenarianism of the kind that presided over so many of Amis' most memorable novels is a delusion of consequentiality, produced by the panicked desire to see one's own generation as the significant one.
That dream of significance, which comforted and horrified boomers in equal measure, dissipates over the course of The Pregnant Widow, a novel as approachable as a deflated parade float; and as Keith ages and the "revolution" recedes from view, his author, too, seems to acquire a dash of humility. Amis has always seemed largely immune from the anxiety of influence that animates the writing of so many postimperial British novelists, from AS Byatt to Zadie Smith, and seems more at home grouped among his American contemporaries and near-contemporaries - think Don DeLillo, think Thomas Pynchon - for whom the postmodern impulse to pastiche was less an epicurean obligation than a gluttonous opportunity. His treatment of sex, though similarly gluttonous, draws on a different strain of American postwar fiction - the generation of Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and John Updike, each of whom presented sex as a crucible of real meaning, a burst of utopianism uncorrupted by politics, and the source of new magic in a dusty world. But as Amis' golden generation enters its golden years, the carnal knowledge so espoused by its favourite authors seems to him less the source of genuine revelation and more the fanfare of self-love. Narcissism could not a revolution make.
For Amis - narcissist, stylist and, as he wrote recently, "the only hereditary novelist in the anglophone literary corpus" - the separation of life and literature, or of fiction and autobiography, seems almost impossible, perhaps even undesirable. And yet his show of self-scrutiny in The Pregnant Widow is not, ultimately, in vain. "He learnt something along the way," Amis writes, "and something literary: why you can't write about sex." The site of revelation is a bordello, where Keith is presented with a fat brochure of possible orders. "Leafing through the glossy pages, he felt the brothel goer's mad power - that of choice," Amis observes. "Power corrupts: this is not a metaphor. And writers were instantly corrupted by the mad power of choice."
David Wallace-Wells is an editor at The Paris Review in New York.