You won’t catch Martin Amis standing still, mucking about, or idling around. Amis, the British novelist and essayist about and for whom there is always something new, has been writing seriously since the 1970s. The Rachel Papers (1973), although a love and acne-ridden debut novel powered by youth, to more extent than most young debuts, set the stage for his future writing. To this day his writing is dynamic and bright as a firework, forever touching universality in his themes, love and sex usually jostling for position.
Amis remains Britain’s good old bad boy: although he now largely spends his time in the US with his wife, Isabel Fonseca. He has left behind his younger days when he would peacock around in a velvet jacket doing a number on London’s ladies. It’s still a very good day for the press if he grants a spiky soundbite on feminism, religion, English gangland, or politics — all subjects about which he has something to say in both fiction and essay.
His latest work, Inside Story is an autobiography, but only of sorts. It’s a quite different beast to Experience, a more straightforward memoir published in 2000. Inside Story is about so many aspects of Amis’ life, while at the same time it’s a novel. Indeed, nothing in Martin World is content to be just one thing: life events stand or fall vis-a-vis the concept of a plotline, romantic encounters are pretty much the ending, the storyline, and the character, and the character is destiny.
Inside Story has the complexity and interest of a dream. Amis invites us into the rooms of his house, introducing a ghostly note of familiarity. A close friend’s death haunts the whole thing in ways difficult to explain. The style of Inside Story is, by and large, part of the message itself. (Amis has previously explained the falsity of thinking that prose style can be separated from content.) There’s a lot to it.
Ordinarily, all this would compete for pole position on the page but the sheer size of Amis’ world and worldview makes space for everything. Wife and children are touchingly and tenderly shown off, Christopher Hitchens, in all his gregarious glory, is celebrated and mourned, and there’s Amis’ famous father, Kingsley Amis, to be accounted for. In the index alone, Kingsley’s entries include “views on antisemitism” and “views on women”. These are, of course, never explained away or excused: the love from son to father seems in many ways easy, but it isn’t uncritical.
The book is characterized by a lot-to-get-through and by the story moving around in multiple dimensions: Inside Story easily time-travels through happy meetings with Saul Bellow through to his Alzheimer’s and death. It meets with the “alluringly amoral” character of Phoebe Phelps, his ex-girlfriend during the ’70s. He explores thoughts on writing and just what it was with Philip Larkin. There’s no spine-diving allowed for readers looking for a quick fix of Amis at his coltish best; photographs are scattered throughout.
Amis knows he’s getting older: preparing himself (although “nothing can prepare you”) for meeting Phelps for the first time in 30 years, he says “our meeting impends before me like the worst kind of medical examination. Which it is, in a sense. An hour with Doctor Time”. But for a work in which death so frequently features, and the attendant revelation that none of us have time to mess about – we are told that Kingsley Amis spoke at Larkin’s funeral about “the terrible effects of time on everything we have and are”. The sense of time of Inside Story feels appealing slow and voluptuous, each section a pocket of spacetime with its own rules.
For all his derring-do and self-possessed prose, one gets the sense that, if it weren’t for love, there would be no point in Amis getting out of bed in the morning. There have been tin-eared accusations towards him of “misogyny” and the women in his novels have been looked at with an unsparing eye, but then, so have the men. In Inside Story Phelps, whom Amis says is an “anthology of various women”, runs on ahead with the hapless Amis usually following a few paces behind. It’s a sort of Leonard Cohen-ish state of affairs where women are alternately the possessed and the possessor and are usually in for hard-nosed worship and anyway, he’s got Isabel Fonseca now.
Fonseca, referred to throughout as Elena, shows up in relation to and with thoughts on everything else that matters to Amis, Larkin, Hitchens, Phelps. Half the action is contained in the many footnotes: here’s a bit about British Muslims, there’s a bit about Hitchens having to cancel a book tour for Hitch-22 due to ill health, then we’re back to Phelps again. Detail, here as in most of Amis’ work, contains the bigger picture, and vice versa.
The writing switches from first- to third-person, with Amis noting that the use of the third person can act as “armour”. The reader comes away with the impression that Amis could probably use it, having borne so much. Inside Story is striking in its experimental cajoling of fact into fiction and its related questions – will it fit, does it matter, will this do? Amis says in Inside Story that “art consists of choices, with life, you just take what you’re given.” In as much as this is true, it would take a fine author to breathe a novel into a life.
Where things don’t quite add up, Amis fashions the untidy sum into a sort of punchline; where there aren’t any punchlines, Amis makes the mess into his own cosmic joke. Inside Story is the grimoire of Martin Amis, giving heady clues to inner workings – of him, of life, and of love – while keeping plenty of the mystery. If you said, “my thing with Phoebe Phelps went on until Christmas 1980” thrice at a mirror at midnight Amis would probably appear in the reflection. You would do well to promise yourself you will read more Martin Amis in 2021. Swear on a copy of Inside Story.