Martin Amis would like his latest novel to be read “in fitful bursts with plenty of skipping and postponing and doubling back – and of course frequent breaks and breathers”. The 500-page tome is about “a life, my own” that “won’t read like a novel [but] more like a collection of linked short stories, with essayistic detours”. His heart goes out to “those poor dabs, the professionals (editors and reviewers), who’ll have to read the whole thing straight through, and against the clock”. Does it, indeed.
It seems to me the only way to read this book is “straight through, and against the clock”. Inside Story is an arrogant and long-winded mess with a bad dose of the male gaze that even its supposed self-awareness can’t fix.
Amis claims this will be his last novel. Now in his 70s , “another full-length fiction, let alone another long fiction, now seems unlikely”. So he tries to throw the kitchen sink at it. Reflections on the Holocaust are propped up against encounters with past lovers, takes on 9/11, the state of Israel, thoughts on parenting, Brexit, Trump . . . Oh, and it’s also a treatise on how to write. Of all its offences this, for some reason, was the most irksome.
I could deal with the faux-ingenuity of the form (not only are we suspended between fiction and autobiography, but we jump between tenses, voices, decades). I put up with the snobbish references to “serious writers” and what constitutes a serious person, endured expositions on the Iraq war. I even managed to stomach detailed descriptions of the “sexual terror-famines” supposedly put upon Amis by former lover Phoebe Phelps.
But when he began explaining the use of “who” versus “whom” and the ellipsis (the “dot-dot-dot”, he is sure to clarify) versus the dash, it was time to throw this doorstopper out a window.
Life and death
Closest in form, though perhaps not quality, to Amis’s 2000 autobiography Experience, Inside Story began to take shape over a decade ago, “provisionally and pretentiously entitled Life”. After 30 months, Amis abandoned the 100,000 word manuscript, convinced “it was receding – with its hand at his lips, bidding adieu...”
As it turned out, “it was just Life I couldn’t write”, and the resulting book ended up being about the death, or life closing in on death, a theme he only had a framework for after the deaths of three significant men in his life: the poet Philip Larkin, novelist Saul Bellow and essayist and long-serving friend Christopher Hitchens.
Amis apologises in advance for all the name dropping – everyone from Anthony Burgess to Anna Wintour makes an appearance – but the literary gossip is actually the fun part. (An aside about Larkin possibly being Amis’s father is particularly juicy.)
What he ought to apologise for is subjecting us to long passages of dialogue, the point of which is always to make Martin Amis look clever. On one occasion he reproaches Hitchens for using what he calls elegant variation (where a writer tries to avoid repetition of a word or phrase by using a synonym, but that synonym ends up making the phrase sound even clunkier).
“Yes, well […]that’s what they taught me at school,” Hitchens replies, to which Amis smartly counters “Okay. I’ll stop reproaching you for Elegant Variation. From now on I’ll uh, I’ll upbraid you for Gracious Dissimilitude.” It’s funny the first time, tiresome 400 pages in.
You might call the book ambitious (the perennial get-out clause for the big, baggy book), but for me the only times Inside Story make any impact is when it is straightforward and sentimental. Bellow's descent into dementia in his 80s
is movingly depicted.
At one point, Amis is due to lead a seminar alongside Bellow, but when he arrives at his house, Bellow’s wife warns: “For this class – don’t expect too much from him […]He can’t […]He can’t read any more.” At this, Amis thinks of a line from Bellow’s Herzog: “Life couldn’t be as indecent as that. Could it?”
Similarly, the depiction of Hitchens’s experience with cancer, from which he died aged 62, is heart-breaking. You can’t read a sentence like: “as we drove the slowly melting igloo I’d been living in – the one with its name Hope (or Denial), on a little plaque just above the entry tube – turned to slush,” and feel nothing. And the juxtaposition of the death of a dogged atheist (Hitchens) beside that of a faithful Jew (Bellow) ends up putting forward a clever agnostic take.
Martin Amis is certainly a stylish writer. I just wish he’d stop trying to be so clever about it. But then, I suppose, he wouldn’t be Martin Amis.