Keeping It Real: On Martin Amis’s “Inside Story”
By Sunil IyengarOctober 27, 2020
Inside Story by Martin Amis
Misleadingly, the statement suggests a low bar for entry as an Amis character. Never mind the sublime effects he once wrought with such trashy deposits as John Self and Lionel Asbo. Here the dilemma is one of indiscriminate intake: “[L]ife has a certain quality or property quite inimical to fiction,” Amis says. “It is shapeless, it does not point to and gather round anything, it does not cohere. Artistically, it’s dead. Life’s dead.” Most storytellers, when confronted with an imperative to be fact-based, earn their keep from selection. They make us applaud the art of choosing which people, events, and scraps of dialogue to retain or pass over. Not Amis. He relies on his distinctive voice, parenthetical deeds of compression (on the order of Vladimir Nabokov’s “picnic, lightning” to register Ma Humbert’s death), and literary allusions to carry the day. More than once while reading Inside Story, your reviewer harked back to Ford Madox Ford’s 1931 memoir Return to Yesterday, which bears this caveat:
Where it has seemed expedient to me I have altered episodes that I have witnessed but I have been careful never to distort the character of the episode. The accuracies I deal in are the accuracies of my impressions. If you want factual accuracies you must go to … But no, no, don’t go to anyone, stay with me!
With Amis, there isn’t a question of the characters and incidents of Inside Story being even partly made up. Many are already a matter of public record. Three of the central figures in this novel — Philip Larkin, Saul Bellow, and Christopher Hitchens (labeled “The Poet,” “The Novelist,” and “The Essayist” in Amis’s closing chapters) — have garnered tributes from the author on numerous other occasions, in print or speech. While recollecting their lives and deaths, Amis processes the events of September 11, 2001, the second war in Iraq, Brexit and President Trump, and the European migrant crisis — and resumes his long-running, confessedly baffled inquiry into the causes and effects of antisemitism. Along the way, Amis ingratiates us with a workshop tour. He offers some literary dos and don’ts (but not enough, it would seem, to merit the book’s sweeping subtitle, “How to Write”); he uses wittily discursive footnotes to cozy up to the reader; and, above all, he entreats, with Ford: don’t go to anyone, stay with me!
From the opening pages, Amis dons the mask of a voluble host (“Welcome! Do step on in — this is a pleasure and a privilege. Let me help you with that.”), a ploy that might have curdled quickly if he did not flatter us with the sense of being feted at an all-night literary cocktail party, one at which an outrageous secret or two will turn up before dawn. The trick is more likely to succeed if the reader is an Amis fan in the first place. Those who have kept tabs on his latest interviews and YouTube appearances will have encountered rough drafts of some of the mini-essays he hazards here — on the global decline in violence as reported by Steven Pinker; on the writer’s need to avoid word repetition and its opposite, elegant variation; and, for that matter, on the idea of novelists as hosts.
This last hobbyhorse is not as tame as it sounds. Amis agitates about today’s “reordering of the relationship between writer and reader,” a relationship that “has ceased to be even remotely cooperative.” In his view, “[d]ifficult novels are dead.” Gone too are “long, plotless, digressive, and essayistic novels” such as Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, once a best seller despite its sprawl. In case we’re left wondering if this pronouncement applies to the present work, Amis comes clean: “For self-interested reasons I like to think this sub-genre retains a viable pulse; but broadly speaking the baggy monster is dead.”
A dead form of literary expression is one thing — what about dead words or phrases? It may be a shock to catch the author of The War Against Cliché starting a sentence with one: “Mark my words: every piece of vital information has to be clearly stated in plain English; when it comes to inferring and surmising, readers have downed tools.” But this concession is part of a greater bid to be understood. Take the sentence just quoted: apart from the metaphor (“downed tools” is a British phrase, signifying a workers’ revolt), its diction embodies the flat, unadventurous quality of the principle he is enjoining. It’s all in keeping with a new dispensation, whereby “the aerodynamic, the streamlined, the accelerated novel” (Amis’s emphasis) reigns supreme.
The change in literary climate has occurred because “social realism, always the dominant genre, is now the unquestioned hegemon. A social form — you might even say a sociable form.” Here we have the rationale for much of what follows in Inside Story. If the title of his 2000 memoir was a nod to the Blakean passage from innocence to “experience,” then the new book worries over questions that began to pile up when the author was in his 50s (termed by Amis “the Crap Decade”). They are more than your standard midlife crisis. Instead the questions center on four relationships that formed his identity as writer and thinker. I’ve already mentioned Larkin, Bellow, and Hitchens. The fourth, a former lover he calls Phoebe Phelps, gives the novel its narrative thrust. She saves Inside Story from shriveling into literary and sociocultural table talk, though admittedly of a high order.
We’ll return to Phelps presently, but first, more of that delicious table talk. Hitchens is in fine form as a conversationalist. In deference to what Amis says is “the most programmatically repellent character I have ever tried to create” — Keith Whitehead in Dead Babies (1975) — “The Hitch” constantly calls the novelist, his best friend, “Little Keith.” (It’s telling that the much-missed Hitchens already has made a cameo in at least one other friend’s novel, Thomas Mallon’s 2015 Finale.) We see Bellow succumb to Alzheimer’s disease and we glimpse a “weeklong wake” celebrating his life through readings from a kitchen table. Reflections on another hero of Amis’s, Nabokov, and on writers once important to him (John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Graham Greene) abound. As for name-dropping (“I was comparing notes with a much younger novelist, and I asked her, I asked Zadie [Smith] …”), Amis assures us: “You’ll get used to it. I had to And it’s not name-dropping. It’s not name-dropping when, aged five, you say ‘Dad.’” Then again, few of us have had a British literary icon such as Kingsley Amis for a father. Intrigues in the senior Amis’s ménage, and a sudden enigma that arises around the relationship of Philip Larkin to the younger Amis’s mother, Hilly, compose a key plotline.
It has not been remarked enough how, besides sharing a rich legacy of comical writing, both Amises display a preternatural gift for dialogue, a vigilance for solecisms and other markers of shoddy expression, and even, in their later years, a variety of conservatism. Politically, of course, Amis Jr. is a mainstream liberal. (In contrast, Kingsley, who remained communist for much of his youth, exemplifies the lesson of Robert Frost’s couplet: “I never dared be radical when young / For fear it would make me conservative when old.”) Also, he wears none of his father’s storied prejudices. Yet a book he once considered writing — The Crap Generation, a critique of Gen-Xers — might have been offered by Kingsley had he lived beyond 1995:
It would be non-fiction, and arranged in short segments, including “Crap Music,” “Crap Slang,” “Crap TV,” “Crap Ideology,” “Crap Critics,” “Crap Historians,” “Crap Sociologists,” “Crap Clothes,” “Crap Scarifications” — including crap body piercings and crap tattoos — and “Crap Names.”
This prospectus has the same dull, repetitive, as-told-to-a-mate humor to be found in the correspondence of Larkin and Amis père. Fortunately for Martin Amis and his readers, the plan was scotched by his wife, the writer Isabel Fonseca. Some of the banter between the two, and vignettes of their domestic life (in 2012 they moved to Brooklyn; their home caught fire four years later), tether Inside Story during Amis’s existential flights. Wordplay is the household currency. Amis addresses Fonseca as “Pulc” (for “pulchritude”). As if internalizing geopolitical affairs and cultural memory to make them more stable, more vivid, the couple refer to nations as people and to their two daughters as “the Jews.” Far from lending an artificial flavor to his scenes, these mannerisms give Amis’s novel a baseline reality, a sense of rootedness it would otherwise lack.
The job of Inside Story is to document Amis’s conflicted state as he strives to grow more comfortable with and in this reality, to find what he calls his “destined mood” for late middle age. Talking of himself, he oscillates from “I” to “Martin” or “he” with dizzying speed, as if to mime his restless search. But the switch also has to do with putting distance between his present self and his psychosexual past. “The words come much more willingly when you wear the loincloth of the third person,” he writes on one occasion, confessing to having once falsified an article for a porn mag. Detailing his private history with Phelps, who turns out to run an escort service, he records successive depths of self-abasement, culminating in a “Night of Shame” that unwittingly exploits a trauma from her childhood. The ballad of Phelps and Amis is the real “inside story” of Inside Story. It hums with self-recriminations and strains of paranoia that revisited the author on September 12, 2001.
In his own memoir, Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens writes a harrowing chapter about the suicide of his mother, Yvonne. “Whenever I hear the dull word ‘closure,’ I am made to realize that I, at least, will never achieve it,” Hitchens says. Amis finds not closure so much as greater resolution and resolve by contemplating the example of his best friend. Describing Hitchens’s death at 62 of esophageal cancer, he exhibits Joseph Severn’s sketch of the dying Keats. Like something out of W. G. Sebald, the conjunction is uncanny, even improbable, but it serves the author’s purpose. Amis witnessed an ethereal grace in Hitchens’s bravery and forbearance under trial. He pledges to honor it by reconciling to “the invisible ink of happiness” that runs through his own life today. By hewing more closely to the present, he can bypass the twisted roads of self-interrogation and the distorted views along the way. In a chapter on “Masada and the Dead Sea,” Amis says as much. In an aside to Hitchens, he deliberately misquotes T. S. Eliot: “[H]umankind, Hitch, cannot bear very much unreality.”
Sunil Iyengar writes poems and book reviews. He works in Washington, DC, as an arts research director.
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