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.”
From the September 2002 issue: Christopher Hitchens reviews Martin Amis’s ‘Koba the Dread’
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?”