Inside Story: How to Write, By Martin Amis, Jonathan Cape, 522 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1787332768
On page 208 of Martin Amis’s new novel I developed a toothache. A bruised molar on my lower east side – long nursed and fretted over – suddenly throbbed into sinister life. I was already, of course, in a distinctly Martin Amis frame of mind, but this seemed rather too pointed a coincidence. As I wrestled the paracetamol from its packet (and as I began roughing out the opening sentences of this review in my head), I wondered if perhaps I could get away with an Amisian introductory strophe: a paragraph-long riff, perhaps, on the idea of the toothache as a form of ad hoc literary criticism. Because as it happened – and as I had, thanks to my insurgent molar, only just noticed – more or less the only classic Amis topos missing from Inside Story is toothache. What better than a toothache of my own to nudge this insight loose?
Well. Let’s put the dutiful Amis pastiche aside for a bit, and have a look at Inside Story – which may not feature toothache but which does feature a nostalgic neigh from pretty much every other Amis hobbyhorse you can think of. In fact, there’s quite a bit of recycling going on. In a cautionary footnote, on page 7, Amis advises: “This long novel is almost certainly my last long novel, and some of it – about 1 per cent – has the character of an anthology.”
Rather more than 1 per cent, I’d say. Exempli gratia: The young Martin (and Amis is his own protagonist here) impresses a potential girlfriend, Phoebe Phelps, by saying he works for the Times Literary Supplement. Didn’t Richard Tull impress his future wife thusly in The Information (“All those prissy syllables”)? And again: the young Martin – in his uncertain twenties – drives back to his flat after spending the weekend with his father Kingsley and his stepmother Jane (“how far I was from the adult – the finished imago”): that’s from Experience, the memoir Amis published in 2000. A fond riff on Anthony Burgess’s distinction between the “A” novelist (a solid traditionalist) and the “B” novelist (a reckless experimentalist): this pops up in The War Against Cliché (2001) and once again in The Rub of Time (2017). Tea with Saul Bellow on the rooftop terrace of the government guest house in Jerusalem: he did it in Experience.
There’s more. A riff on Northrop Frye’s proposal (in The Anatomy of Criticism, 1957) that the four chief literary genres (tragedy, comedy, romance, satire) correspond to the seasons of the year: he did it in The Information (1995). The image of the childless and wifeless (and now homeless) man, with a suitcase, in a callbox: that’s from The Information too. A quick disquisition on Montherlant’s remark that “happiness writes white”: that’s from London Fields (1989). Old men described as “Decembrists”: that’s from Yellow Dog (2002). September 11th and its epiphenomena: he did them in 2008’s The Second Plane (and there is a chapter, here, called “The Second Plane”). Falling cherry blossoms, “as if all the trees were suddenly getting married”: this very phrase appears in The Information. A complaint about Henry James’s reliance on elegant variation: that’s from The Rub of Time. As I read, the margins of my review copy gradually filled up with abbreviated titles: Exp. The Info. LF. Koba. We’ve been here before. Are we happy to be back?
But first, the question of genre. What are we dealing with here? A novel, says the title page. But Inside Story isn’t really a novel. It certainly doesn’t read like a novel. Sure there are characters, plots, flashbacks, interlarded excursions and divagations: that sort of thing. But the characters don’t really act like characters: they are oddly volitionless, tending toward a state of passive suffering. (Much of the book is taken up with describing the last months of Saul Bellow and Christopher Hitchens.) And the plots don’t really act like plots: they generate some mild suspense, dither on for a hundred pages or so and then expire unceremoniously in the footnotes.
So, is Inside Story a memoir? We may be on firmer ground here: Amis himself tells us that the book is “not loosely but fairly strictly autobiographical”. And the form of the book, with its footnotes and subheadings, its anecdotal interludes, and its round-the-houses narrative structure, is essentially that of Experience, the actual memoir that Amis published twenty years ago. And yet the thing is called a novel. What gives?
Amis himself calls Inside Story an example of “the huge sub-genre known as life-writing” (how’s that for a capacious holdall?). Giles Harvey, reviewing the book for The New Yorker, went the whole hog and called it autofiction. What is (or was) autofiction? A slippery hybrid of fiction and autobiography, autofiction is (or was) fiction written by writers who, as they passed through various graduate seminars and fellowships and editorial internships, found that they had become too clever and too self-conscious simply to tell stories, or even to do what the metafictionalists of the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s did, that is tell stories about telling stories. Often seen as a response to the intellectual mise en abyme left behind by the exhausted project of metafiction – which climaxed, and expired, in the work of David Foster Wallace – autofiction is in fact a late descendant, not of the finicky postmodern novel as such but of its brash and arrogant cousin, the New Journalism. Writers of autofiction did what Hunter S Thompson, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe did, except that instead of embedding themselves journalistically inside large social or political occasions, the Autofictioneers embedded themselves in themselves.
A certain masturbatory upper-middle-class claustrophobia was perhaps the inevitable result, even as the best Autofictioneers (Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk, Karl Ove Knausgaard) strove to include the world in the self, by reaching towards something that they felt might be described as “politics”. To my mind the New Journalists, striving to include the self in the world, had it the right way round (compare the political imagination at work in Mailer’s The Armies of the Night to the faltering, squeamish progressivism on show in Lerner’s The Topeka School). But context is everything, and in the half-century that elapsed between the heyday of the New Journalism and the heyday of autofiction, the profession of writing became institutionalised (see, inter alia, Mark McGurl’s book about fiction in the age of the MFA, The Program Era ). Between the writer and the world, the institution sits, discouraging egress. (Don’t blame the writers, and don’t blame the universities. Blame capitalism.)
And again: since 1968, when Mailer published The Armies of the Night, politics itself appears to have undergone a qualitative change. Mailer could write about conservatives and liberals in the knowledge that “conservatism” and “liberalism” still meant something, more or less. Now politics is a rolling grift, with nobody pretending otherwise. The inward turn – the turn towards the self as the last bit of solid ontological ground on which the novelist might stand – became, perhaps, unavoidable.
This is a roundabout way of saying that Inside Story doesn’t really sit comfortably in the autofictional shade. Amis, during the high noon of his career a fully-paid-up postmodernist, is, like the Autofictioneers, now looking for a way out of postmodernism. But it isn’t the self that he’s falling back on: it’s “social realism”. “I think most writers are wedded to social realism, these days,” he told the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2018. “[S]ocial realism is the only genre left.”
Well, tell that to Michel Houellebecq or Colson Whitehead or David Mitchell or Ling Ma or William Gibson, but never mind that for now. And never mind the fact that to call Amis’s recent stuff – from Yellow Dog through Lionel Asbo (2013) – “social realism” is to stretch the term to breaking point. What’s going on here is an attempt at the invocation of lineage. Inside Story contains several short reflections on the history of the novel qua form, proposing Don Quixote as the first example, and Richardson and Fielding, uncontroversially enough, as its fathers in English. Fielding, it turns out, is what Amis means by “social realism”: the bourgeois comic novel, “with its easy candour and humour and sexual straightforwardness” (this is Amis’s description of Tom Jones). Here’s his potted history of the novel:
In due course the Richardson-type novel (after a nervously extended stay in the genre mocked by Jane Austen and others, that of the Gothic) died out, while the Fielding-type novel, backed up by Don Quixote (thrillingly translated by Tobias Smollett in 1750), went on to constitute fiction in English.
As literary history, this is – let’s not be coy – rubbish. But the point, of course, is that Amis is telling you what his book is doing, or what he would like it to be doing. “Easy candour and humour and sexual straightforwardness”: this is what he’s going for, in Inside Story. By invoking, however tendentiously, the authority of the novel as such – by locating his book in the great tradition of petit bourgeois social-realist fiction – Amis is claiming for himself certain qualities, certain rights. He will be digressive. He will talk about the old subjects, sex and class, and about how they interpenetrate. He will – perhaps most importantly of all – avail himself of the “freedom” of the novelist. “Fiction,” he tells us, “is freedom.” Not for Amis the mise en abyme of postmodern self-consciousness. Instead, good old liberal freedom. It’s a novel, like the great novels of old.
“Fiction is freedom” is fine, of course, as slogans go, although it does, as they say in the English department, require a bit of unpacking. (To start with: it’s daydreamers, not novelists, who are free to imagine anything they want. Novelists, writing for a readership, have to make sure all the imaginary stuff adds up.) But it serves Amis, aesthetically speaking. It is what gets him beyond – or perhaps behind – postmodernism. A return to the source of the novel itself, in the name of an uncovenanted assault on reality. “Fiction is freedom” is not the kind of slogan typically adopted by unfree Autofictioneers (“Why was I born between mirrors?” complains Adam Gordon, the narrator of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station ). But it is the kind of slogan that sorts extremely well with Amis’s seigneurialism – the quality that has always made him such an enormously attractive, and such an enormously irritating, presence on the page.
“There is only one school,” Amis has said, “that of talent.” Only the talented would ever think this, and only the supremely talented would ever say it out loud. Inside Story is subtitled How to Write. But Amis has been telling us how to write for half a century now, and not just in his criticism. The virtuoso is always also a pedagogue. Look – this is how you do it! And the feudal lord – the seigneur – is, by definition, an aristocrat (and, not incidentally, by definition male): “rangy, well-travelled, big-cocked”, in the mocking, but also not-quite-mocking, words of Charles Highway in The Rachel Papers (1973). When Amis fails, this seigneurialism is what he’s left with: all those epigrams! All those cringey jokes! That tone of sneering condescension! (See Yellow Dog, The Pregnant Widow, Lionel Asbo. Seigneurialism – anathematised as “male privilege” – is what feminist critics have tended to find so rebarbative in Amis’s work, and they’re not wrong.) When he succeeds, the seigneurialism is merely part of the effect (see Money, London Fields, Time’s Arrow, almost all of the nonfiction).
The seigneurialism-and-nothing-else tone is back in Inside Story, but it has a valetudinarian quaver, now (Amis turned seventy-one this year). This tone is one of the things that makes this such a weird book, especially since the whole thing puts up such an elaborate show of not being delivered de haut en bas. The book’s first word is “Welcome!”, and there is a recurrent bit of shtick in which Amis pretends the reader is a visitor to his apartment in Brooklyn (“do you mind if we take a short break?” etc). The intended effect is warm, collegiate, democratic. The actual effect is condescending and rather precious, though you don’t really doubt Amis’s good faith: his best work often reads like a letter from a superlatively talented, funny and observant friend, and for long stretches – especially in the chapters about Saul Bellow or Christopher Hitchens, appearing here as themselves – Inside Story strikes this note as purely as do the best pages of Experience, House of Meetings, or The Information. (I can’t be alone in returning to Amis more often than I return to any other writer, simply because of the feeling of intimacy his best books create. It’s one of the few aspects of his work that remains underrated.)
Far more problematic is the extended sequence (like all of the other sequences, it is broken up by flashbacks, digressions, essays, riffs) in which Amis accompanies his wife, here called Elena, on a visit to France, where she is being given a prize for her book about the Gypsies. Here we are given a glimpse into the Amis marriage: a queasily provoking business, as it happens, and not just because we are invited to picture Isabel Fonseca (sorry, Elena) in her underwear. The year is 2003, and the United States is preparing to invade Iraq. Martin and Elena talk about this, of course: no problem there. The bad news is, they’ve evolved a cutesy trope whereby Elena “is” America and Martin “is” the UK. “I killed millions of South East Asians around 1970.” “And I killed nearly a million Indian Indians [sic] in 1947.” Because countries, you see, are like people – so France is “Jean-Jacques” and Iraq is “Fetnab”, and so on. This is not, to understate the case, an enlightening handful of pages. In fact the whole sequence is compounded of riffs that don’t quite come off and dialogue that sounds absurd. Failed riff: Amis says he’s going to write a “Smirk Novel” about how great he is, called I Fucked Them All. Unconvincing dialogue (“Pulc”, short for pulchritude, is Martin’s nickname for Elena): “Come now, Pulc. Here we are in the City of Man. Your prize. This spree. It’s a special occasion.”
Look: we all have daft nicknames for our spouses, our children, our pets. The chances of them surviving the transcription to print without incurring huge gains in ridiculousness are nil. Perhaps that’s what he’s getting at: the inside story, ridiculousness and all. It’s offputting, nonetheless, precisely because there is nothing more embarrassing than a failed attempt at intimacy. (On the other hand, there’s nothing here that’s quite as excruciating as that bit in Koba the Dread in which Amis calls his infant daughter “Butyrki” because her crying sounds like one of the victims of Soviet torture in Moscow’s Butyrki prison.)
The “Pulc” section does, I suppose, invite us to ponder the basic autofictional question, to wit: what’s real in this book and what’s made up? But as a rule this question only becomes pertinent when there isn’t enough on the page to hold your interest (Karl Ove Knausgaard sensibly dispensed with this whole crux by just going ahead and announcing that nothing was made up). Wondering if you’re getting the real scoop is an unprofitable use of your reading hours.
Luckily, while Inside Story does partake of a certain autofictional coyness – especially in the bits about Phoebe Phelps, which I’ll get to – it more often defaults to a straightforwardly memoiristic mode. These are the good bits. It’s no coincidence that these are also the bits about Amis’s friends – specifically his great friends Saul Bellow and Christopher Hitchens. Here we know that things are not made up, or not made up in any way that matters. We know these people; their lives and deaths are a matter of public record. Now Amis too is going on the record.
Amis is always supposed to be a writer in search of a Great Theme: nuclear weapons, astronomy, the Holocaust, suicide, terrorism. But these aren’t themes – they’re subjects. Amis’s great themes are, and always have been, masculinity and friendship. Masculinity has been there since the first pages of The Rachel Papers, and friendship has been there since the first pages of Success (1978). What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to have a male friend? They are related questions, and Amis has been asking them since the beginning of his career. His novels are full of male friendships. Richard and Gwyn in The Information (friendship soured). Guy Clinch and Keith Talent in London Fields (friendship across class barriers). Golo Thomsen and Boris Eltz in The Zone of Interest (“we’ve got each other, thank God”). Often the friends are brothers: Terry and Gregory in Success, the narrator and Lev in House of Meetings, Keith and Nicholas in The Pregnant Widow.
Seen from this point of view, Amis’s fictional corpus resolves into a long series of riffs on the base elements of male friendship: sexual and physical rivalry, intellectual companionship, sublimated desire. The bullshit quotient of his work is in some ways an index of the bullshit quotient of male friendships – or perhaps an index simply of the bullshit quotient of men in general (Amis is very good on male bullshit; in Money, he made a whole Robert Browning monologue in prose out of it).
The inside story in Inside Story is therefore in one sense the inside story of Amis’s actual friendships: the life-models for his fictional friendships. All of the elements are in place: sexual rivalry, intellectual companionship, sublimated desire. The protagonists are Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, and Saul Bellow (with special appearances by Philip Larkin, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie et al) The bullshit quotient is correspondingly high, particular in the sections set in the 1970s, when Amis first began palling around with the Hitch (“You’ll wear her down. A bold and tender lover like yourself, Little Keith”). Some of this is funny. Some of it is wearying. All of it generates prurient interest. Is prurient interest enough to sustain a 522-page book? An Amis sceptic, the un- or non-novelist David Shields, wrote in 2018:
Amis is writing a ‘novel’ about Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow, and Philip Larkin; in every interview Amis has ever given, he says that the novel, as a form, is the last vehicle left for something called ‘freedom,’ but the only reason anyone would read his book is for the gossip.
But gossip-hunger is an entirely legitimate reason to read a book. The appeal of the novel – the appeal of stories in general – is closely related to the appeal of gossip. Like fiction, gossip is about people behaving badly. In the same way, gossip is one of the most important things that we do with our friends, particularly our friends of the same sex. We dish the dirt, we share the frisson. No? Amis has himself described Inside Story (even the title is a tease) as a “gossip novel”. Reading about what Amis said to the Hitch, or what Amis said to Bellow, or what Larkin said to Amis: this is compelling, and instructive, at least to some of us. And it helps Amis to marshal his themes: masculinity, male friendship. Like fiction, gossip possesses both aesthetic and emotional interest. Is it art? Is it a novel? Does it matter?
The gossip question becomes more directly relevant in the sections about Phoebe Phelps, supposedly Amis’s most significant pre-first-marriage girlfriend, and the most active, least adequately realised character in Inside Story. Young Martin meets Phoebe on a London street. She’s using a callbox. He stops and asks her out. She invites him over to her place. He’s in his late twenties, she’s in her late thirties. He’s a litterateur, she’s a businesswoman. He’s sexually obsessed with her. She frequently denies him sexual satisfaction. It turns out that Phoebe was sexually abused as a child by a predatory Catholic priest. The relationship dribbles on for years.
As relationships go, it’s unpleasant. It’s certainly unpleasant to read about. Phoebe – who closely resembles the other traumatised femme fatale characters who have appeared in Amis’s fiction (Ursula in Success, Selina Street in Money, Nicola Six in London Fields, Cora Susan in Yellow Dog) – is indirectly presented as a sort of Rosebud or Rosetta Stone: the original of Nicola and her epigones. But the process of fictionalisation has been at work, meaning that we are stuck, not just with the gossip question (that’s shocking; but why am I reading about it?) but with the autofiction question (is Phoebe Phelps real?). Reading these pages, I found myself Googling “Phoebe Phelps”, and ended up reading a Daily Mail article written by a woman who claimed that Amis had been stealing details of her life for his fiction for years. It’s difficult to respond warmly to coyness on the page. Coyness violates the suspension of disbelief in fiction just as surely as it undermines our faith in a memoirist. The worst autofiction, archly mingling the true and the fake, serenely ignores this fact, driving us, ultimately, off the page and into the world, where no writer should willingly send us.
By introducing the idea that Amis, during his formative years, had a long and painful affair with a woman who turned out to have been sexually abused as a child, Inside Story aims to offer a sort of key to the Amis oeuvre: look, this is what I’ve been writing about, all this time. Alas, we already knew, from Yellow Dog, that Amis’s habitual tone of seigneurial comic burlesque is hopelessly inadequate to the subject of child sexual abuse. The Phoebe Phelps sections of Inside Story – she reappears on September 12th, 2001 with a letter in which she claims to have slept with Kingsley and in which she furthermore suggests that Martin’s real father is Philip Larkin – suffer from the same problems as the “Pulc” section. The attempt at intimacy – and I mean lecteurial intimacy, intimacy with the reader – runs aground on the rocks of mismanagement of tone. The Phoebe Phelps plotline, like most of the other plotlines, ends with a footnote and a late revelation: during the years in which she was seeing young Martin, Phoebe was secretly running an escort agency. The joke is on Martin. I think.
Nonetheless. “Each man has his own batch of poems,” says Herzog, in Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1963). What this means, of course, is that it is foolish to arraign us for returning, again and again, to the assorted chunks of memory and intuited truth that seem to us to constitute our lives (and that seem to a writer to constitute, inescapably, his or her material). Or, as Pnin puts it in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin (1957): “You too will recollect the past with interest when old.” What is Inside Story? A novel? A memoir? Perhaps it’s simply an anthology – autumnal, summative – of Martin Amis’s poems. Hence the recycling. Hence the gossip. Hence the occasional lapses into clammy oversharing. He always repays reading, even when he gets it wrong. Nearing the end of Inside Story’s 522 pages, I found that I would have been happy to find another 522 pages awaiting me. I was reminded of what the phrase “a good writer” means: not just someone who gives pleasure on a line-by-line basis (and who gives more pleasure than Amis?), but someone whose books are worth thinking about. Inside Story is worth thinking about. A book by Amis always is.
You may be wondering about my toothache. It’s bad news, I’m afraid: I need a root canal. Perhaps I’ll reread the orthodontic sections of Experience before I submit to the chair and the needle. If you have to go through an ordeal, I’ve found, it’s always good to hear from a friend who’s been through it too.
Kevin Power’s new novel, White City, will be published by Scribner UK in April 2021.