This article was published online on December 8, 2020.
Posterity, you bitch. What are you going to say about Martin Amis? When the winnowing’s done, and the windbags and the mediocrities have all been blown out the side of the thresher, what will your verdict be? Will you hail him as a Bellovian/DeLillovian seer-novelist, bestriding the millennium with his mega-thoughts? Will you shake your head and say that he was a great comic talent misused, a prancing master wit who tripped himself up on the winding stair, the stony spiral, to seriousness and significance? Or will you be a bit confused about him, as we are, here in the clumsy, unfiltered present?
Inside Story is the most confusing of the 14 novels, two short-story collections, one memoir, and seven works of journalism and history that Amis, 71, has written. It’s a summit of confusion—appropriately enough because, he shares with us rather airily, it’s his last big book. Or his last “full-length fiction.” Listen to this: “There are a good few short stories I mean to get done (most of them about race in America), and I have in mind a third fiction about the Third Reich—a modest novella.” Is he teasing us? Taking the piss, as we say in England? Or is that a genuine flash of his still-opulent literary ambition? I’ve read all his books, I’ve loved most of them—I know him, tonally, pretty well—and I have no idea. This is sometimes the way with the older Amis.
Inside Story advertises itself as a novel, but it can’t be just a novel—can it?—because it has an index, featuring real people. (“Amis, Kingsley … likes nude magazines 118n.”) It comprises, briefly: magnificent and affecting accounts of the decline of Saul Bellow and the death of Christopher Hitchens, both of whom Amis knew and loved; further puzzling over the phenomenon of Philip Larkin (he already did a lot of this in his memoir, Experience); a pointless subnovel featuring another (Jesus Christ) of Amis’s Eros-Thanatos women, his crippled-inside sex witches, this one called Phoebe Phelps; a slightly half-assed but nonetheless very interesting how-to-write manual; lashings of his bamboozlingly brilliant critical commentary; digressions and footnotes galore. Really it’s a 500-page miscellany of Amis-ness, a bristling compendium that puts me in mind of nothing so much as the slightly bananas 19-minute medley on the 1970 live album The Everly Brothers Show, in which the late-period brothers career wildly but with exquisite emotional command from Chuck Berry to the Beatles to B. B. King to the soundtrack from Hair. Except that in this case Amis is Chuck Berry and the Beatles and B. B. King and the cast of Hair. And also the late-period Everly Brothers.
The great lines come flying at you, as always, volleyed out of the cleft of the book and into the magic space beneath your raised eyebrows. “The train was now slaked of motion.” Think about that: the strange satiety of a train as it pulls into the station, the luxurious settling-back into stasis. (And listen also to the slowing-down sound of the words—the long a, the long o.) And there are good jokes, too. On the acceleration of time as one ages: “After I turned sixty my birthdays became biannual, then triannual. The Atlantic Monthly gradually became a fortnightly; and now it’s the Atlantic Weekly.” Plenty here, in other words, to give you that Amis feeling: scurrying exhilarations faithfully dogged by—if you’re a writer—tiny depressions, little bouncing bladders of despair, because he’s just so much bleeding better than you are. (It’s not a competition, I hear you kindly protest. Reader, it’s all a competition.)
Plenty here also to give you that other Amis feeling, which is the sneaking awareness of a supreme and impersonal literary intelligence bumping up against—or perhaps we should say exploring—the edges, the limits, of the personality in which it is provisionally housed. This Phoebe Phelps business, for example. She’s excitingly mean; she’s skinny but she has large breasts; she enthralls him; she carries deep trauma; her attitude to lovemaking is transactional. As Nabokov with his nymphets, so Amis with his sociopathically sexy women, his avenging victims, his id-torturers. He can’t stop writing about them—about her. Selina Street from Money was the prototype, but she looks fresh as a daisy next to the dark Nicola Six, the “murderee” from London Fields; the pornographic destroyer Cora Susan from Yellow Dog; and now Phoebe Phelps. It’s an obsession, an unprocessed lump, not to be got around, not to be explained away: There it is, part of his psyche. “I’ve got to get this stuff out of my system,” as John Self said in Money. “No, more than that, much more. I’ve got to get my system out of my system. That’s what I’ve got to do.”
The death of Hitchens; the obscuration, by dementia, of the great searchlight that was Bellow; Amis’s own dalliance with “suicidal ideation”—Inside Story is a heavy, mortal book. It’s full of ellipses: Dangling, tantalizing, confiding, pregnant beyond utterance … polyvalent, let’s say. “The end of a sentence is a weighty occasion,” Amis tells us on page 394. So what does it mean to trail off, as he so frequently does, into three little dots? The effect accumulates and begins to feel—in a book so full of death and dying—very human. A reluctance to say goodbye. Out they go, his thoughts, his words; out they travel, part of his extra-temporal communion with us, his readers, to whom Amis has always been extravagantly generous. We are the ones, after all, who will be commending him to posterity. “You’ll be reading me every now and then at least until about 2080, weather permitting. And when you go maybe my afterlife, too, will come to an end, my afterlife of words.”
Ah, the afterlife. We come to the stony spiral, the quest for global seriousness. Since roughly the middle of his career—1991, Time’s Arrow—Amis has been having running engagements with the Holocaust, the Great Terror, a godless universe, and lately Islamism. He wrote a whole book—The Second Plane—about 9/11, but that didn’t do it, apparently, because he’s at it again in Inside Story. Does he write about it well? Of course he does. But he also sucks it into his fiction with a weird slurping sound. As the day, the disaster, progresses, so does his preoccupation with a large and fragile scab on his right hand: “Whereas the carapace, the protective crust, gave no pain when I prodded it, the ambient area, I found, was still stringently tender to the touch.” It’s a theory of suffering, like in Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”: in the background, the gored and billowing towers, the broken world-scene; in the foreground, Martin Amis frowning over his scab.
A high-risk contrivance? Certainly. Amis is Amis: Beneath an autumnal maturity of mind beats the still-atavistic writerly ego. He wants to lance the moment with language, and he wants his language to live forever. But there are reckonings in Inside Story, real moral and spiritual reckonings. On the death of his younger sister, an alcoholic, at the age of 46: “Surely, surely, I could’ve done something about that. Couldn’t I?” There are sweating pockets of male shame and grease spots on the conscience. “You can’t possibly get away with all this,” the young Amis thinks to himself after some rather seedy ’70s behavior, “nor should you.” I put the book down in a mood of deep and disquieted self-consideration. How do I measure up to all this? Not the writing, but the level of perception, the level of interrogation, the level of work, the level of living. And then the mood passed, and as a reader I felt—like an absolution—the gaze of the author, and his understanding. That’s greatness. That lasts.
This article appears in the January/February 2021 print edition with the headline “How Great Is Martin Amis?”