Every decade or so, Martin Amis publishes a sort of supersized progress report on his life (and art) so far.
The novel London Fields (1989) capped his early period of satirical, and apocalyptic, urban grunge. Then the majestic family memoir Experience (2000) set out his stall as a grown-up soul-bearer and truth-teller. If A Pregnant Widow (2010) reverted to fiction, the author’s semi-disguised biography shaped its people and events – above all, the tormented life and early death of his younger sister, Sally.
Now, after a false start several years ago, Inside Story wraps memory and invention into a mammoth confessional package.
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Amis calls this a “novel”, but it recounts much (not all) of his past in high-definition detail that reads, he admits, like “a collection of linked short stories, with essayistic detours”.
He frets briefly over the “morally treacherous ground” of auto-fiction, but leaps right in with a buoyant disdain for the genre’s quagmires and quicksands. His spouse, children and siblings appear under the lightest covers (Sally, for instance, becomes “Myfanwy” – her middle name). Other family and friends keep their own monikers (father Kingsley, mother Hilly, avuncular inspiration Philip Larkin). So do the two beloved soulmates whose passing prompts the longest, and strongest, episodes: novelist Saul Bellow and journalist Christopher Hitchens.
Substantial stretches, set in late 70s London and New York after 9/11, feel like direct, if gaudily decorated, memoir.
Intermittently, Amis mounts the podium to lay down the law on fiction (with social realism its “lone superpower”), on geopolitics (he remains, as ever, a “gradualist of the centre-left”), on the art of writing (drive out all clichés and listen to “the rhythms of your inner voice”), on the need for writers – for everyone, indeed – to make “sober, decent terms with death” while we can.
‘Now 71, Amis worries about the gathering twilight – though he did that at 31, too’
And then, at intervals, a kind of mid-period Amis novella intrudes. It tells of his convulsive five-year affair with a woman he calls “Phoebe Phelps” – the archetypal Amis femme fatale, financier, escort and procuress. Her erotic allure and business acumen mask “the gravity of a wrecked childhood”, with its weight of suffering shockingly drip-fed.
Amis always loves to bind microcosm to macrocosm, private passions with global affairs. As the Twin Towers crumble and he learns of Phoebe’s buried horrors, he senses “the weight of what came down”.
Over 520 pages, Inside Story gathers just about every weapon in the writer’s armoury into a Bumper Book of Mart – the grotesque, hyperbolic fiction; the tender tributes to friends and family; the corrosively witty takedowns; the shame-faced but swaggeringly funny avowals of youthful excess; the grandiose edicts on literature and politics; most of all, the restless circling around the idea, and the process, of death.
The losses and partings which punctuate his book confirm “how busy death always is, and what great plans it has for us”.
If you enjoy keeping company with Amis – his eye, his mind, his lexicon – Inside Story serves a lavish buffet. The book sprawls; it irritates; it may even outrage. But it exhilarates much more.
Now 71, Amis worries about the gathering twilight – though he did that at 31, too.
He fears that, in their senior phases, major writers tend to become “watery and slightly stale”. Not in this overproof barrel of death-haunted fun.