Inside Story

Martin Amis

Jonathan Cape, £20

Review by Richard Strachan

If this is Martin Amis’s last long novel, as he claims in its pages, then he has left us with one of the most atypical and perplexing books of his career. It has all the appurtenances of non-fiction (index, photographs, footnotes), and in tone, register and subject it’s clearly a continuation or a deepening of his 2000 memoir Experience. But while the book is emphatically subtitled “A Novel”, Inside Story feels in many ways more like an anthology; a thematic compendium of essays, stories, insights and reflections.

“This book is about a life, my own, so it won’t read like a novel ¬– more like a collection of linked short stories, with essayistic detours,” he writes. It is to be approached in fits and starts: “My 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.”

The narrative spine is provided by Amis’s recollections of a youthful affair with a woman called Phoebe Phelps, the clear template for characters like Nicola Six in London Fields, and by his memories of close friends and mentors Saul Bellow, Christopher Hitchens and Philip Larkin. This balance between sex and death, the preoccupations of youth and age, is the springboard for a range of disgressive musings on the nature of literature, 20th-century history, the Holocaust and Israel.

But there is more to art than life, Amis declares. With its “poverty of incident” and “repetitiveness”, life lacks the shape and charge of fictive patterning, and with its playful interweaving of fact and fiction, the book challenges its readers to unravel the two. The Phoebe Phelps storyline, for example, becomes more like a controlled novella; with its restricted information and its sense of narrative development and closure (and its audacity in casting doubts over Amis’s parentage), it gains more artistic force than mere recollection could ever provide.

The title also holds a double meaning that provides a guide to the book’s central concerns. We are invited in to see the behind-the-scenes events of Amis’s life and the surprisingly obsessional world of his psychology, but he is also taking us inside “story” here, inside the craft of fiction. The book is interspersed with short didactic chapters about “How to Write”, which consider questions of the literary “ear”, “decorum”, and the primacy of social realism over the experimental. This is essentially the workshop of Amis’s inimitable style, and when he turns that style towards events that we know to be true – the mental decline of Saul Bellow after developing Alzheimer’s, or the long hospitalisation and death of Christopher Hitchens – the effect becomes profoundly moving and serious.

If Experience was Amis elucidating the visible events of his life, the one-10th of the iceberg sitting above the waterline, then this book is a dark and tender exploration of the part that lies submerged. What he’s exploring is the deep strangeness of his literary imagination, the murky, subconscious obsessions that emerge in his fiction: suicide, murder, brutalised masculinity, the shock-horror of mass consumerism and the tentative redemptions of love and life. At the same time, this is at heart a book about the acceptance of death, about how the gift your dead friends can leave you is an increased joy in and appreciation of continued life.

For all Amis’s sometimes annoying tics and idiosyncracies (his obsession with etymology, or the unearned profundity in which he couches some of his statements), there is a deep sincerity to this book, and a sense of hard-earned wisdom. In his review of a 1984 collection of Saul Bellow’s stories, Amis identified the characteristics of “Late Bellow” as being “to do with last things, leave taking, and final lucidities”. That, it seems, is what we are getting with Late Amis too.