There have always been two extremes in Amis’s writing, that brilliant observational gift for ironies and a sort of elevated melodrama that stands in for a fuller range of emotion. Both still compete for attention here. There are perfectly crafted scenes that capture the creeping shocks of mortality – Amis finds himself watching The Pirates of the Caribbean on a loop alongside the diminished Bellow, or realising the jest of Hitchens is not, in fact, infinite – but they are rarely left to speak for themselves. Instead, they are bookended with mannered, self-absorbed reflections on the Holocaust, or the state of Israel, or the fall of the twin towers, or hangovers, or full stops.
Amis doesn’t try too hard to persuade the reader that this is all of a seamless piece. Instead he adds more seams. ‘Welcome! Do step on in – this is a pleasure and a privilege. Let me help you with that,’ the book begins. ‘Now what would you like? Whisky? Common sense, in this weather.’ The avuncular novelist has invited ‘you’ to his house in New York for a cosy chat. It emerges that the imagined ‘you’ is a would-be writer, a genderless version of Amis’s younger self, as well as the reader. And the warm welcome is an argument about the way the house of fiction ought to be. (He later pictures the author of Finnegans Wake inviting the reader ‘to a vast and gusty demolition site ... where he gives you a jam jar of brown whey and a bowlful of turnips and eels’.) In his role as host and counsellor to the young, Amis comments on his work in progress, like the narrator of London Fields, in interstitial chapters filled with writing advice and ‘what Gore Vidal used to call “book chat”’. The advice is enjoyably pontifical about such matters as the ‘sonic charge’ of prepositions: ‘of’, ‘to’ and ‘with’ are innocuous, but ‘up’ shouldn’t be reused until ‘two or three hundred words’ have passed.
Well, anyone who read Experience, his 2000 memoir, will be familiar with quite a bit of Inside Story. His father’s infidelities and fear of travel and solitude; his friendship with Saul Bellow; and his friendship with Hitchens. Experience corroborates quite a lot of Inside Story. And if you liked Experience, then you’ll love Inside Story. It has similar rhythms, equally good jokes, equal if not greater poignancies (the scene at Hitchens’s deathbed affected me more than anything else I can remember reading); and, of course, great footnotes.
What is the final verdict, then? Inside Story is odd and sad and funny, sometimes a bit too fond of itself, utterly compelling on grief. It also contains a moment of what one might call vintage Amis, which occurs as the writer turns on the TV to watch the unfolding horror of 9/11. At the same time, he “activated the kettle”. It’s a tiny dollop of bathetic overwriting: while, oceans away, men are hijacking technology to kill thousands, Martin is helplessly making a cuppa. But still, one thinks: mate, nobody activates the kettle. It’s fine just to put it on. Although even as I write that, I imagine Hitch rolling his eyes and saying to his friend, “Oh, man: chicks.”
The absolute best of this book concerns not sex but death. One minute Amis and Hitchens are partying – “Hello boys” is the greeting from the “darkly imposing beauty” – and the next Mart (or as Hitch calls him, Little Keith) is at the hospital bedside as his great friend battles cancer. Amis has battled through Inside Story to declare it will probably be his “last long novel” but I hope not.
I was struck by the Amis paradox: his writing is greatest when he stops aping the Great American Writer. Readers who ditched his fiction because it was either peopled with Ralph Steadman grotesques with names such as Lionel Asbo or playing clever-clever literary tricks with genocide as in Time’s Arrow, will thrill that here Amis’s nonpareil sentences brim with warmth, candour, soul. The most skippable bits are Amis’s baggy disquisitions on 9/11 or Israel or on going for a latte at a French literary conference while President Bush launches “shock and awe” in Iraq. This is really a book about sex and death: one largely in the past, the other looming into view.
The fact is that anything Martin Amis writes is bound to be at least readable and often brilliant. And it is moving to see such high ambition, such lifelong dedication to the relatively thankless task of being a writer. He describes this book as “almost certainly my last long novel”. It isn’t a novel, but let’s hope it isn’t his last book.
It is when he returns to the personal that humour and illumination flow. (According to the Amis Doctrine, these are the same thing). Smoking alone in the garden after Hitchens’s diagnosis, he realises what his powerlessness, his sense of being “criminally underemployed”, evokes: imminent fatherhood. Linking the extremities of life in one vignette by way of an anxious cigarette is one of the book’s little coups. Inside Story has several such moments of perception strewn across its 500 pages. It is just that, in London Fields, Amis’s richest novel, there are several of them in each paragraph.
There are many memorable scenes — Amis, now 71 was never one to stint on melodrama — but Inside Story is too long, too repetitive, too lacking in cohesion and just too self-indulgent. Moreover, he has said a lot of it before, yet has almost nothing to say about Brexit, Trump (neither of which he saw coming), or Western democracy and its relationship with Islam now. Nor about the state of the novel today. Why not? The late 20th century glittering intellectual bubble to which he did — and still does — belong is beginning to feel like a long way away.
It would be easy to pan this novel. For much of it Amis sounds entitled and out of touch, a man plumping up empty pillows of thoughts. Lean on them and they deflate. But in the final reckoning it would be perverse to deny how much pleasure he has given over the past half century. In Inside Story he has gone through all his cupboards, giving us all that he has. Gratitude is the appropriate response. And a polite note, left for the morning — sorry, I found somewhere else to stay.
Even the best Amis (which this obviously isn’t) can sail close to the rambling and bombastic, and even the worst (which this also isn’t) is stuffed full of classy sentences, catchy riffs and excellent jokes. Among the false fronts and dead-ends of this frequently maddening book bask plenty of lusty pleasures. There are some radiantly funny passages, including a send-up of a literary festival in Brittany (“among French intellectuals … it was considered trivial not to be clinically depressed”) and an inspired routine about the sex lives of the elderly (“he would be full of wonder. Wondering about serious physical injury; wondering where on earth he’d put his horn pills; and wondering whether she meant it when she said yes, and whether he meant it when he asked her to”). The clanger-to-zinger ratio, while not quite golden, is comfortably weighted in favour of the latter. And the familiar Amis personality – garrulous, urbane, a bit crotchety – is more or less intact, though softly backlit by a new benevolence.
From the outset, Inside Story provokes renewed wonder at Amis’s bottomless capacity for filial piety. Not content with one father to revere, Amis made a point of acquiring others, most prominently Bellow, “a phenomenon of love”. (Hitchens noted this reflex in his friend, and reported being taken aback when, after delivering a negative verdict on a Bellow novel, he was reprimanded by Amis: “Don’t cheek your elders.”) The magnetism of Bellow for Amis’s generation of English writers is well attested: Hitchens, Ian McEwan, and later Will Self and James Wood, all found something in Bellow’s high-calorie sentences that they couldn’t get at home. It was perhaps, above all, the permission to dispense with the rationed intensity of good mid-century British prose – the clean, spare, simplicity of George Orwell’s diction that reached its apotheosis in VS Naipaul and has been gently ironised by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Amis’s characters are not so much marked with the tragic hero’s flaw as merely unevolved, thrashing about in their Petri dishes as the author gets busy with the eyedropper above their heads. Real people – even novelistic ones – aren’t so obliging. Inside Story, as stylish as it is in parts, isn’t driven or defined by style in the way Amis’s real, fictional fiction is. Some people may find that preferable; I’m not sure I do, though I greatly prefer it to the pompous and male menopausal Experience.