It’s been 20 years since Martin Amis published his memoir, “Experience,” which was both a surprisingly tender, generous portrait of his famous father, Kingsley Amis, and a defensive account of his personal tribulations in the 1990s, including divorce, remarriage, and extensive dental work. Now, at 71, having attained the legal age of reminiscence, Amis delivers “Inside Story,” a big, thumping autobiographical novel, which he says is “almost certainly my last long novel.”
Amis has packed more than comfortably fits between covers in this often moving, mostly entertaining and stimulating, but sometimes exhausting manifesto on love, sex, literature, politics, parenting, writing, aging, and mortality. In the vein of his paternal portrait in “Experience,” “Inside Story” offers heartfelt tributes to three cherished, seminal influences – poet Philip Larkin, a family friend; novelist Saul Bellow, a mentor and father figure; and essayist Christopher Hitchens, his best friend. In an addendum, Amis also extends a tribute to his father’s second wife, novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, whom he says got him reading, rescued him from academic indifference as a teenager, and, along with his father, provided a template for the writing life – before she bolted from her difficult, frequently inebriated third husband.
Amis announces up front that his book “won’t read like a novel – more like a collection of linked short stories, with essayistic detours.” The difficulty of what he calls “life-writing” is that life “is shapeless, it does not point to and gather round anything, it does not cohere.” He suggests reading “Inside Story” “in fitful bursts, with plenty of skipping and postponing and doubling back.” And he adds, “My heart goes out to those poor dabs, the professionals (editors and reviewers), who’ll have to read the whole thing straight through, and against the clock.”
I’m one of those “poor dabs,” and I’m happy to report that I survived the marathon. Even when this book doesn’t entirely cohere, Amis’ prose is always coherent, and often dazzling. High points include those portraits of his literary touchstones, even through sobering descriptions of their waning days.
This is not what Amis calls a “babble novel,” with the author ranting on and on. Still, it’s a tsunami of words, and what makes it more pleasurable than one might expect is that Amis has written “Inside Story” from a position of gratitude rather than anger or self-pity. There is strikingly less of the “acid in his inkwell” that critic John Leonard flagged in his New York Times review of “Experience” in 2000.
Among the things Amis expresses gratitude for are his wife, American-Uruguayan writer Isabel Fonseca, and his five children – two sons from his first marriage, two daughters from his second, and an elder daughter from a youthful fling, whom he didn’t know about until she was 19 – all of whose names are altered in the book. Particularly lovely is his description of his youngest daughter singing to herself as “a ventilation of happiness.”
“Inside Story” is, among other things, a paean to family. The desire for a family, we learn, is what finally pushes Amis to end a torturous and at times hilarious five-year relationship with Phoebe Phelps, scenes of which are woven through the novel. A businesswoman (the nature of whose business he’s laughably slow to learn), Phoebe declares off the bat that she has no interest in marriage or children. The sordid details of their affair – often written with the protection of “the loincloth of the third person” and then discussed with his buddy “Hitch” – read as fiction. In fact, Amis says that this complicated character is a fictional amalgam of several women he’s dated.
Amis has long been lambasted by the British press, and he’s bound to raise hackles again with sexist remarks about “the birds” he made hay with in his heyday, his pronouncements on Israel, the Holocaust, Iraq, and the refugee crisis, plus his barely acknowledged and considerable privilege. He mentions vacation homes in East Hampton, New York; West Palm Beach, Florida; Uruguay; and a six-bedroom house near Regent’s Park in London – replaced in 2011 by a Brooklyn townhouse, when he and his family left England for the United States. After a chimney fire on the last night of 2016 sends him and a daughter into their Brooklyn street, he comments with appalling tone deafness, “The two Amises had very temporarily joined the 60,000 homeless of New York City.”
Like this ambitious project, the title “Inside Story” works on multiple levels. It suggests that we’re getting the author’s deeply personal lowdown. But it’s also a clever reference to Amis’ quirky and rather charming decision to address this book to a dear reader, whom he instructs on what writing entails. While some of his advice is trite (“Writers must find their own way to their own voice”), there are also good tips here. (“Shun all vogue phrases,” he cautions, because prose should be “purpose-built, and not mass-produced.”) The book is pleasurably infused with literary references, and Amis’ love of literature and appreciation and respect for readers shines through. He reminds us that “a tale, a teller, is nothing without a listener. ... Readers are your guests. ... [D]on’t be baffling and indigestible.” Or, he adds, overwhelming.
“Inside Story” is at times overwhelming. Much of the material is not new, and much could have been cut. The irritatingly distracting footnotes are decidedly not reader-friendly. Redundancies from his earlier publications heighten the sense that we’re reading an anthology or a valedictory summing up. Or, perhaps, a greatest hits.
In addition to The Christian Science Monitor, Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR, The Wall Street Journal, and The Los Angeles Times.