In Italo Calvino’s novel The Baron in the Trees, a boy climbs a holm oak to make a point. Fifty years later he’s still up in the treetops: he never touches the ground again. Martin Amis began a similar feat of heroic resolve in the 1970s, and whatever you make of his commitment to an all-consuming idea of style, you can’t say he makes things easy for himself up there. In his new book, his 25th, statements like ‘the doorbell rang’ or ‘the train had stopped’ are still being probed for weak spots. They come out as ‘the doorbell sounded’ and ‘the train was now slaked of motion.’ People or things are ‘slobberingly coated’, ‘fiercely burnished’, ‘vibrantly intrigued’ and also – perhaps less ‘swingeingly effective’ – ‘personally fathered’ and ‘thrillingly serialised’. Is it all right to use the same word twice in a sentence? It can be, in Amis’s view. But a careful writer should ‘try not to use the same syllable twice in a sentence’. There are loving accounts of the endless task of expunging verbal jingles and unimaginative turns of phrase. On that front, every page of this odd book – ‘almost certainly my last long novel’, Amis writes, affectingly and almost plainly – testifies to such snares being ‘terrifically outwitted’, as Saul Bellow once put it.
Inside Story is long but its identity as a novel comes in for immediate qualification. Not surprisingly, it isn’t autofiction of the Karl Ove Knausgaard kind. It isn’t a straight-up autobiographical novel either. Amis uses terms like ‘novelised autobiography’ but says it’s OK to think of the book as ‘a collection of linked short stories, with essayistic detours’. That seems right. Sometimes there are invisible scare quotes, self-ironising or self-protective, around ‘Martin Amis’. At other times he seems to be addressing the reader in his own person. There’s no easy way of drawing a line, but the book’s unsettled relationship with fictiveness doesn’t come across as a game or a get-out clause. Like The Pregnant Widow, his previous long novel, published ten years ago, Inside Story apparently grew from a more conventional work of autobiographical fiction, a huge draft he abandoned in 2005. In interviews he blames life’s shapelessness or an unco-operative subconscious. It’s possible, too, that his usual methods, which he describes as involving ‘gross exaggeration’ and a firm subordination of character to ‘general design’, weren’t much help with admired and already outsized figures like Bellow and Christopher Hitchens. Whatever the explanation, writing novels ‘about real men and women’, as Bellow habitually did, now strikes Amis as ‘an extraordinary thing to go and do’.
His solution is a book that looks a lot like his memoir Experience. There’s the same profusion of footnotes, the same jumpy but organised structure and, he admits upfront, a fair bit of the same material. ‘I won’t be quoting myself,’ he writes, ‘but I will be repeating myself (in paraphrase),’ and some of the book ‘has the character of an anthology’. When not merely ‘relaying necessary information’, he’s usually returning to ‘an unanswered question, one that refuses to leave me alone’. Often, the question has to do with Israel. So once again we’re off to Jerusalem with Bellow after an academic conference in Haifa, or being inducted into philosemitism by a girlfriend during the Six Day War. Another self-borrowing, a story first published in the New Yorker in 2015, ‘Oktober’, serves as a rung on the book’s climbdown from Amis’s Eurabia-fearing posture of 2006-8. Here and there – a scene in which he nervously shows his wife a life-changing letter about paternity, for instance – he seems to be constructing a fictional scene along the lines of an episode recounted in Experience. References to James Cameron’s movie Aliens and Arabella Weir’s book Does My Bum Look Big in This? recur in a way that’s maybe less purposeful.
Experience dealt with a clear-cut crisis, or set of crises, in 1994-95: Amis’s divorce, his father’s death, professional and personal bust-ups, extensive surgery, the rabid press coverage of those things and, on top of all that, his learning that he had a daughter he hadn’t known about and that his cousin had been murdered by Fred West. Hyperbole wasn’t really needed, and Amis made use of restraint as well as his command of voice in working the book into a pattern that didn’t feel willed or self-serving. The crisis in Inside Story is more diffuse. Hitchens’s death from cancer in 2011 is at the centre of it, with Bellow’s from Alzheimer’s in 2005 a little further out. Beyond that, there’s a penumbra of worries about ageing, death and declining writerly stamina. ‘I thought I was finished,’ Amis writes of the black day he decided his draft didn’t work. ‘I really did.’ Less believably, because its only function is to generate curiosity before it’s resolved in a footnote, there’s a thread concerning a period of ‘suicidal ideation’ that Amis says he went through in the years after 9/11. Even less believably, there’s a big chunk of plot about an ex-girlfriend trying to persuade him that his real father was Philip Larkin.
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.
What about ‘the three principals’, Hitchens, Bellow and Larkin, aka ‘the essayist’, ‘the novelist’ and ‘the poet’? Very roughly, the Hitchens material can be divided into two: stylised reminiscences of his and Amis’s friendship as young journalists in the 1970s, and a more direct and immediate description, closer to the mode of Experience, of Hitchens’s illness and death, in particular his last months in and out of hospital in Texas. Since they’re carried out in the shared idiom of their friendship, the dramatised conversations aren’t jarring. Amis is more hands-off with Bellow, being a disciple as much as a friend, though he gives him a convincing speaking voice in the recreated dialogue. In effect, he updates and expands Experience’s report of their relationship: there’s a sad account of a nearly wordless, agitated Bellow being calmed by repeated viewings of Pirates of the Caribbean, and a certain amount of pious overwriting. (‘The sea was a force of nature. And so was Saul – so was Saul’s prose. A force of nature’.) The Larkin material is almost entirely essayistic, with lots of quoting from the Selected Letters, a lengthy consideration of his love life – some of it staged as dialogue with Hitchens – and much musing on Larkin’s father’s enthusiasm for Hitler. Towards the end, however, there’s a very strange scene in which an Amisian femme fatale sets out to turn Larkin on at a party in Robert Conquest’s flat.
The femme fatale is called Phoebe Phelps. She’s presented as a slightly older woman for whom Amis had a troubling sexual passion between 1976 and 1980, which would make her a – perhaps the – model for Nicola Six in London Fields and Gloria Beautyman in The Pregnant Widow. It’s difficult to say which of her attributes seems the most made up. She has a past life as a porn model and an escort girl, a loathing for nearly all other women, and some thematically useful knowledge – wormed out of Martin – of the sexual fantasies detailed in Larkin’s then unpublished letters to Kingsley Amis. In addition, she’s an astoundingly hearty eater – on her first date with Amis she has ‘soup with plenty of bread, potted shrimps with plenty of toast, a gurgling, farting beef stew, a crème brûlée with brandy snaps, and a double helping from the cheeseboard with plenty of oatcake’ – with a body her golden-tongued admirer likens to ‘tits on a wand’. (‘Plus the decent-sized arse of course,’ she replies.) Amis often shelters behind the third person in her chapters, remarking that the material is just too shameful and/or sizzling for a closer approach, and the writing reaches back to the way he wrote in those days: ‘All along Park Lane the wedged traffic, red-eyed or yellow-eyed, trembled and steamed.’
This storyline resembles The Pregnant Widow: a pastiche of an early Martin Amis novel done in historical retrospect, displaying a pained awareness that social change may not have felt like pure liberation to each and every woman one pursued in the 1970s (‘I ponced off the tenets of the Sexual Revolution,’ Amis writes, ‘meaning I applied peer pressure and propagandised about the earthy wisdom of the herd’), along with a countervailing need to continue writing provokingly about sex and some weird twists when the damaged succubus’s secrets are finally unpacked. But it’s also part of the effort to wrestle the male writers being memorialised into some kind of novelistic configuration. Amis corrals his memories of New Statesman-era exchanges of ‘mm’s and bons mots with Hitchens into scenes, with Amis complaining about Phoebe – his main complaint is that he isn’t getting enough sex – and Hitchens reproving him for being shallow and having ‘no social conscience’. Years later, a poisonous letter from Phoebe inaugurates the paternity plot on a day when he’s feeling particularly suggestible: 12 September 2001. Kingsley tried to seduce her one night, the letter says, and told her something she now feels compelled to pass on. The idea that Larkin might have knocked up Martin’s mother – who according to Experience ‘quite fancied him’ – preys on Martin’s mind, though Martin’s wife, ‘Elena’ (his real wife’s middle name), points out large holes in the story.
An insidious aspect of Phoebe’s letter is that, by making Amis a Nazi sympathiser’s grandson, it strikes at the small share in American-Jewish identity he prizes in his friendship with Bellow and in his marriage. It could almost be a fictional inversion of Hitchens’s discovery that his mother was secretly Jewish. In spite of Elena’s warnings that 9/11 has made Amis more than usually ‘impressionable’ and ‘credulous’, it leads to a more general identity crisis, and here the book seems to circle covertly around the question of ‘a wild overreaction to September 2001’. Amis doesn’t address the thoughts on the collective punishment of Muslims he would adumbrate five years later, and all the rest of it. But the sheaf of chapters dealing with 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq – which, he reminds us, he didn’t support – is structured around the notion of damaged psychic defences and increased receptivity to voices that don’t mean well. A self-parodyingly self-satisfied account of a trip to France at the beginning of the Iraq war ends with a strong suggestion that only someone sick at heart would narrate so boastfully. The section closes with the New Yorker story, which looks benignly on Syrian refugees. A footnote adds that ‘any generalised fear of Muslims … is caused either by delusion or by political opportunism.’
On the related question of Hitchens’s views on Iraq, and his vote for Bush-Cheney in 2004, Amis exercises his powers of restraint. ‘While never, ever admitting he was wrong’, Hitchens was ‘tormented by the proliferating disaster of Iraq’, Amis writes, and in a heavily ironised third-person scene (‘they addressed their rather superior beefsteaks and quaffed the more than acceptable Bordeaux’), set in 2003, he says: ‘You know what I reckon it was? Hitch got too close to power.’ But he doesn’t presume to speak for his friend, and a willingness to admit defeat in the face of Hitchens’s intransigence, even to let him have a bit of mystery, is an attractive feature of the portrayal. Amis is good on the way Hitchens’s charisma worked in person, the easy way he could persuade you that ‘even his self-mythologising was … part of a project of self-deflation’, and understands that the ‘extravagant idiolect’ of Hitchens’s speech can ‘look florid in print’. Sometimes Amis manages to make it work anyway. In a long sequence at the MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston, it turns out that Amis used denial to get himself through. The two of them never spoke about Hitchens’s approaching death and now he wonders what they might have said. Coming from Amis, ‘I don’t understand you, Christopher Hitchens’ isn’t a bad parting compliment. Hitchens’s last words were: ‘Capitalism … Downfall.’
It’s hard to arrive at a measured view of all this. The barrage balloons of fame or notoriety following these people around keep getting in the way, and there’s always so much going on. Even after the book’s last four or five resolutions, Amis finds room for another argument with himself about Israel, two passages (one reprinted) on Elizabeth Jane Howard, and a post-postscript describing a dream about her dog. Another difficulty is the range of Martin Amises on offer. Here he’s a distinguished, thoroughly normcore man of letters, there he’s a feral, muscle-flexing cult writer, and there, there and there he’s in various in-between states. He’s capable of saying ‘Tolstoy is the presiding spirit of this chapter’ in a footnote, or likening a nasty case of flu he got in the 1970s after writing a less than wholly honest article about call girls – so he says – to the suicides of conflicted Soviet poets. At the same time, there’s usually a chance that he’s joking. He takes an unpretentious, anxious interest in holding the reader’s attention, and from time to time he can still get out from behind the rhetorical afflatus and come at you with sheer voice. His heart goes out, he says, to the editors and reviewers who will have to read the book without skipping or pausing. Measured views are probably the least of his concerns.
As for the fine simplicity associated with the idea of late style – well, believe it or not, there is one concession to this. It’s more a conceptual than an actual concession, which isn’t to say that Amis, in his role as frame narrator, isn’t a more gentle, less absolutist presence than he used to seem to be. The cult of simplicity takes a kicking in The Information, a novel he published 25 years ago, and I’d always assumed that the veiled target was a line of Raymond Carver’s: ‘At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing – a sunset or an old shoe – in absolute and simple amazement.’ But according to Inside Story the original provocation was a television play in which an elderly poet gaped similarly at an orange, a play that Amis and his father ‘writhed and swore and sneered our way through’. At the end of a long thread of argument about writers needing to be ‘stalled adolescents’, Amis takes his one of his sneers back: the play ‘was trite and corny and thoroughly and comprehensively balls-aching – but it wasn’t wrong … To be a poet, to be a writer, you have to be continuously surprised.’ That’s the concession. After all these years, you wouldn’t want him to climb down any further.