Amis amasses a mess, alas

I had some travelling to do so I picked up a cheap copy of Martin Amis’s somewhat recent Inside Story. I like Amis, but it’s hard to conceive that he’s now over 70, the aged enfant terrible, the bad boy turned pensioner, the literary equivalent of the long superannuated Johnny Rotten. Or is that too unfair?

In short, it’s a good book, but much too long, and somewhat shapeless. It’s also, despite his repeated protestations (and contra his heavily credentialled track record), NOT A NOVEL. He comes close to conceding this on numerous occasions, only to backtrack at the last minute. It’s life-writing, autofiction, self-faction, call it what you will. It’s one of those careful hybrids – mostly autobiography but with added caution – a fake name here, a relocated event there, lots of invented conversations which may (or may not) fairly capture his interlocuters in those (often long-distant) conversations.

We meet real people, who might be voicing other people’s opinions. We read conversations that are recollections of a flurry of electronic exchanges. This is real life with a cartoon edge, a rotoscoped biography, simultaneously animated by Amis’s drive to – well, what exactly? Confess? – and by the utter dominance of his point of view. Amis becomes the unreliable narrator of his own life herein. This is the postmodernist sequel to the superb Experience, which he wrote, chillingly, over two decades past. As the earlier book primarily dealt with the death of his father Kingsley Amis, the current text is a similar in memoriam for his lesser fathers, Philip Larkin and Saul Bellow, for his soul mate and brother-in-arms Christopher Hitchens, and for a mostly made up crazy ex-girlfriend.

5 of the Best Literary Frenemy Pairings | Christopher hitchens, Frenemies,  Martin amis

Before I lay the boot in properly, let me pause to enumerate some of the very good things about Inside Story. Firstly, it’s very readable. Amis Jr has long been the consummate Anglophone stylist. That’s his sin and his salvation really. You’ll race through the 500 pages in no time, as I did. Secondly, the title isn’t lying. It really is the inside story, a tale told affectively, interpreted through Amis’s own preconceptions, reinterpretations, and anxieties, which are addendumed by the actual documented facts.

Some of this is familiar turf of course. We have gallopped these pastures before, cantering alongside the magic pixie dream girl antagonist who embodies sexual heat and puritan rejection simultaneously. We have trotted past the name dropping so many times in his non-fiction (and this kind of counts as non-fiction) that after a few pages it no longer rankles or startles, and he at least has the good grace to apologise in advance. Some of these bridle paths are no less enjoyable for being familiar, in fact may even be moreso for avid fans.

(Less appealing than the fact Amis has famous friends is the fact that he has rich ones. This is a highly moneyed memoir, full of jets and soirees and fashionistas, holiday homes in Florida, and impromptu relocations to NYC, or Uruguay. Poverty, or deprivation, don’t live herein. They’re like tramps seen from the window of a passing limo. Amis does point them out, but within a paragraph they’re gone, because they were never really there, in the affluent reality of his later years, if indeed they were ever there at all.)

But all that does bring us to why this is not a novel and why it is not a fully functioning text, whether taken as fiction, autobiography, life writing, or some strange chimaera of all three (strongly laced too with bouts of astute literary criticism, and occasional forays into advice for wannabe writers.) (Amis is the master of measured digression, often in parentheses, and it is infectious, sorry.)

Death stalks the book, a hand perhaps on Amis’s own shoulder as he wrote it. We get ringside seats for the death rattles of Hitchens and Bellow, as well as reportage of the demise of Larkin, and a final, deathbed-like attendance to the aforemention fake ex, who is morbidly (literally and metaphorically, not to mention medically) obese. This is the enfant terrible in old age, ticking off his elders and his peers one by one as they pass, but also feeling it. That’s why it’s not a novel. For all its contrived ambiguity and deliberate fictionalising, this may be his most honest book yet.

This is Amis visiting hospitals, Amis the gentle caregiver, graveside Amis, Amis in his widow’s weeds, Amis in mourning. It’s ultimately life-affirming, especially in its loyal defence of the acerbic and divisive Hitchens. But also, and less predictably, in its curious weaving of fictions and personal preconceptions around Larkin, whose shuffling off this mortal coil is depicted ultimately as a good thing, despite Amis’s somewhat unalloyed affection, due to the fact that Larkin’s life was basically shit from start to finish.

Inside Story won’t win Amis any new readers. He’s not looking for them anyway. He is, one suspects, approaching the kind of tailing off that many writers experience in old age, the kind of thing that made Philip Roth (another of Amis’s pseudodaddies) give up entirely and retire. You need to already know the outside story, you see. You need to know a little of his own works, and those of Bellow and Larkin, and of Hitchens, though he does assist the reader by judiciously quoting from and critiquing all three. Amis was always an excellent reader, and the lit crit component of this book is by far the best of its many ill-fitting alloyed components, if one is able to isolate and enjoy it.

Perhaps more broadly useful however, are the testimonies from within the tabernacle, from where the miracle of fictionalising takes place. Amis in turn describes his own creative method, and its variants over time, and offers multiple entire chapters of advice to aspirants. Much of this is on the level of style, as one might expect from him, and the importance of euphoniousness and elegance in prose. Much of it too is practical. One can only hear of so many successful writers (Kingsley, Bellow, the Hitch, Elizabeth Jane Howard) religiously writing a thousand words daily to become convinced that, pace Martin himself, this is probably the best habit for wannabes to procure.

Certainly, they don’t want to procure the tobacco habits of the protagonists, all of whom smoke prodigiously and many of whom die as a direct result therefrom. Oesophageal cancer makes a number of special guest starring appearances. They probably don’t want to procure the sexual habits either. Here we have a septuagenarian looking back on the roistering and rogering of his carefree youth, which sounds appalling of course, and at times it is, especially since he appears to be making quite a bit of it up (as people do in novels, admittedly). But Amis is too good a writer to offer boastful braggadocio or bedpost notch counts, even though there is no doubt that his conversations with the dying Hitch probably went down that route more than a few times.

(An aside: has anyone ever previously noted the astonishing resemblance that Amis’s second wife, Isobel Fonseca, bears to his stepmother, Elizabeth Jane Howard? In the portraits of the two herein, only a handful of pages apart, they are of approximately the same age and look almost identical.)

All of Amis’s curious obsessions are here too, of course. He just can’t help returning again and again to the Nazis and the holocaust, despite multiple books already under his belt on this sensitive and well-explored theme. This obviously connects to Amis’s own Judeophilia, which manifests in terms both familiar (his marriage to a Jewish wife; his relationship with Bellow) and not (his love of Israel; his repeated climbing of Masada; his implicit envy at Hitch discovering his own Jewish background.) For Amis, the 20th century novel was primarily the Jewish-American novel. Once this is grasped, his adulation of Bellow comes more sharply into focus, as do aspects of his own work.

But it’s not just the holocaust he remains worrying away at. The sexual revolution and its darker ramifications again loom large here, perhaps as large as in any book of his since The Pregnant Widow. We get, partly mediated by Hitch, the Gulf War and 9/11. And from outside, as if stood alongside the tramps looking in on the soirees, the repartee, the canapes, we get tantalising glimpses of how Amis’s Rat Pack ran in the Seventies and Eighties. Prodigious smoking and drinking and bedhopping, of course. But it’s not far from there to get to Keith Talent or Lionel Asbo, to name his most and least successful fictional protagonists.

So all the familiar elements are there, from both his journalism and his fiction. But the manner of glueing the parts together seems badly awry. Amis relates how he previously tried to write this same book a decade earlier under the title Life: A Novel, but found that it failed. One wonders how much of that book ended up in this one, and whether Amis’s florid bow and stride offstage at this book’s conclusion reflects more of an enforced retirement than a choice to ease back on the throttle.

The last autobio I read was that of Brian Aldiss, who, more honest than most, and also wiser than most, both admitted to having affairs during his marriage and avoided discussing it for more than a paragraph or two out of 500 pages. Is that honest? Not entirely, no. One presumes that some of those affairs actually mattered to him. But writing from the end of his long life and career, Aldiss knew that to dwell on such things is not merely offensive to those who were not jettisoned along the way (Mrs Aldiss for starters), but also a form of self-indulgence akin to masturbation.

There is, in short, a decorum about Aldiss’s memoir that’s missing from Inside Story. Decorum about things like sexual fidelity of course, but also the decorum required of an autobiography structurally. Aldiss begins with his childhood, moves through his wartime experiences into life in Oxford, the first science fiction publications, marriage, divorce, remarriage, children, and eventually we come to the end, which naturally is not quite the real end, since Aldiss was still alive to write the book.

By contrast, Inside Story lacks all such decorum. Amis does skirt over his own first marriage failure, which he wrote about previously elsewhere, but is otherwise indiscreet (and disloyal?) enough to leave readers frowning at the behaviour of Kingsley for hundreds of pages, not to mention including a proper character assassination, a hit job performed on Monica Jones, Philip Larkin’s long-suffering amour. Note, I’m not critiquing this on its content. We expect Martin Amis to be indiscreet, unusually honest, and highly opinionated. I’m criticising the baggy shape of its presentation – the trademark Amis time displacements here failing, despite his careful marshalling of decades-striding metaphors and comparisons, to resonate at all.

Towards the end, after writing highly movingly about Hitch and Bellow, Amis seems spent entirely. He throws his hands up in the air, abandons all pretext that he’s writing a novel, and begins inserting entire how-to-write sections, as if to offer some tangible useful didactics to make up for the failure to generate a coherent plot out of his life. Perhaps he saw this coming, or perhaps he edited afterwards. But this is where and how the book opens, with Amis saying that “life is dead”, meaning that its shape is not conducive to arresting fiction.

If this really is it, if he fully intends to follow his Jewish-American pseudodaddies into retirement, then it’s a somewhat a missed target. Amis has been remiss. Amis has produced a bit of a mess, in fact, stylistically and structurally (though probably not personally, despite the outrage of Antonella Gambotto-Burke.) But even at his weakest (and there are parts herein which are among his best prose yet) he’s still one of England’s most compelling writers. And of course, we will always have Money and Success. Whereas Amis himself has money and success (see here, look through the window, fellow hobo, at his townhouses, his transatlantic shuttling, his fabulous friends…)

He is stone cold correct about one thing, though. Younger people often consider that having children is a trap, he tells us by way of telling Hitch. (Or perhaps the other way around; Amis often struggles in dialogue herein to distinguish his own voice from Hitchens’, tellingly.) But in fact, as he or Hitch or Amis-Hitch confirms, not having children is the trap. The trap poor miserable Larkin fell into, but not Hitchens (three kids) or Bellow (four kids) and certainly not Amis himself (five kids, two grandkids). Inside Story comes to read like a counterblast to Larkin’s (in)famous poem “This be the Verse”, in which the old curmudgeon concluded:

Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

Amis’s inside story seems to be: we are all going to die, and before we die we will mourn for others and grieve, and these things are all best done – the grieving, the mourning but especially the dying – with family close by. It mightn’t be the end note one expected from the author of The Rachel Papers, but it’s reasonable.

I still have no idea why he invented the crazy ex-gf plot, though.