Martin Amis’s fiction has always contained a singular velocity of voice. Novels like Money, Success, and London Fields are rife with pyrotechnic modifiers, and narrators drinking and weeping and burning through shambolic lives with their cool, murderous linguistic brilliance eternally intact. Reading Amis’ cast of boozing British Icarii refusing to melt all over the page is a thrill, a joy, and a middle finger raised in solidarity against the pedantic drudgery of cause and effect that can bog down more moralistic prose.
In Amis’ new novel, Inside Story—his 15th and the 71-year-old says is likely his last—it’s not that this voice is gone. It’s that for perhaps the first time, it is subsumed to the heart. A seamless, insouciant mashup of autofiction and imagination, Inside Story is driven by Amis’s relationships with three very real, deceased friends— Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin, and Christopher Hitchens. And as Amis weaves his relationships with each between dispatches from Uruguay, Israel, and the erotic questing of “Martin’s” youth, it becomes clear that no verbal jazz hands could outstrip the impact of their lives and deaths told plain.
This sprawling and deeply-felt novel is not an instruction manual on living a worthy life, but the question of how to do so animates and bedevils many of the novel’s primary characters. Is it through god, or sex, or poetry, or whiskey, or war? Far be it from Amis to give an explicit answer—this is art, not a refrigerator magnet—but Inside Story is nonetheless an implicit invitation to follow the heat of your pulse while you’re still lucky enough to have one.
Following such a pulse myself, I called Amis up for a conversation on death, love, sex, and writing, excepts from which appear below:
Each of your Inside Story characters read to me like either a cautionary or exemplary tale. Bellow and Hitchens are full of vitality, excitement, and a “compulsion to stride into fears.” But Larkin lives forever “outside the flow,” at least romantically. What gives?
With Philip, it was self-inflicted. I’ve known some dreadfully unattractive poets who have plenty of girlfriends—they seem to have a special entrée.
And why was he so unhappy? There’s a massive industry that devotes itself to sorting people out, and without much success. My mother, who loved Larkin, said he was frightened of women. But Larkin never sought advice because he didn’t live in the age of solving such difficulties. He would have found it obscene to intervene in fate. Instead, he made a ridiculous decision, guided by Yeats’ false choice between the “perfection of the life or of the work” to let the life go, which was fine until his poetry dried up. And then what did he have? That choice is a fool’s errand in both directions. You can’t have a perfect body of work or a perfect life—no artist does.
You’re British, living in America. What about America do you think is conducive or not to becoming a writer?
Literature tends to follow political power. Russia emerged as a great power around the same time its writers were emerging as a huge force, which was also when Britain was flexing its might and writing the novels you’d expect from a country that saw itself at the center of the world. What I think America’s got is a lot of native genius. There’s an awful lot of vigor, and particularly vernacular vigor. But Mississippi and Massachusetts don’t have a great deal in common. And what an enormous challenge that is to the writer with an American-scale ambition to write a novel called USA. It must be very exciting.
What do you think inhibits excitement and freedom in writing?
Happiness? There’s that Henry de Montherlant quote: “Happiness writes in white ink on a white page.” But that suggests happiness is a stupefying state, and I don’t think it is. Curiosity is more what you need, and a sense of wonder that is constantly replenished. It’s when that runs out that you die as a writer.
Can you resuscitate that wonder if it runs out?
I think either you’ve got it or you haven’t, and you don’t know how long it’s going to last.
In his twenties, your narrator meets a traumatized thirty-something named Phoebe, and they go through several years of intermittent sex and intimacy. His curiosity about her never slackens, even 40 years later. Do you think everyone has their version of a Phoebe?
An old girlfriend once wrote me saying that we all had these strange relationships when we were young. That they seemed like the most natural thing in the world then, fascinating and consuming, but when they’re over, you look back and think—that that really was a strange relationship, a weird relationship. I think everyone has those.
And those obsessions that are so unsayable outside fiction and so perfect within fiction. Those improprieties.
I know Freud is largely discredited now, but no one can discredit him as a writer. And certain images he’s planted in us about how a human is organized are indelible. One is the polymorphous perverse. In our infantile years, we’re tasting things, sticking things in our mouth, casting about in this voracious way. And things get stuck. And once they get stuck, that’s it, and that’s how some people find themselves committing—I mean, look around.