Book Review – Inside Story – A Novel, by Martin Amis
© Steven Boykey SIdley
This book is a quandary.
One the one hand (and I state this up front to make things clear) it is one of the most profound reading experiences I have ever had, up there with the five or so most influential books of my life (I read very it slowly over about 6 weeks). A continuous eruption of erudition and wit and wisdom and love, somehow shoehorned in to an all-too-short 521 pages.
A big opening – hyperbolic, I realise. And the quandary is that I find it difficult to recommend this book to others.
The book starts off with a conceit. Actually, a deceit. It is billed as ‘A Novel’. It is not. There is no plot to speak of, merely a series of loosely conjoined narratives, but no single unifying ones, but rather many. There are characters, sure.
There is a guy named Martin Amis (sometimes presented in the first person and sometimes in the ‘light armour’ of the third person).
There is the great essayist Christopher Hitchens, his best friend (and the recounting of his death). There his mentor and friend, the towering American novelist Saul Bellow (and the recounting of his death). There is the storied English poet Philip Larkin (and same).
There are intrusions and commentary about (and from) Kinsley Amis and Nabakov and Wifred Owen and Shakespeare and Iris Murdoch and real wives and stepmothers and children and a gaggle of assorted others, famous and not so.
And the sex! Much of it built around one Phoebe Phelps. Who is…wait for it… a fictional character from one of the Amis’s previous novels.
If this is sounding too tricksy, I must insist this mash up real and imagined characters and real and imagined conversations is wildly innovative, a fabulous Rube Goldbergian exploration machine for the foraging and spelunking of the author’s thoughts about death, friendship, men’s friendship , literature, America, politics, poetry, the novel, lust, love, life, and finally, the meaning of meaning (in all its guises).
There are a few sour notes, mostly overwhelmed by the rest of the book. The author digresses into chapters of writing advice (for the reader). All of it profound, surprising, stern, informed, and to this writer disquieting (amplifying my own weaknesses, surely).
Never mind the story and dialogue and chapter and sentence – he even authoritatively instructs on to how to write a single word, for God’s sake. I felt that these lessons belonged in another book, and were wasted here. (By the way, he is at pains to embrace the reader as equal to the writer in creative force in all writing, which is generous, at least).
And then there is the writing and dialogue about woman and sex. I am always relieved to read a fiction who does not use its platform for moralising – I prefer to read about the world as it is, in all its ugliness, and am disinterested in reading about the world as it should be, at least in fiction. Amis and Hitchens in their younger years were utterly scabrous about what was euphemistically called ‘skirt chasing’. Viewed through today’s lens, it is shocking (although, as I remember, not that unusual for its time). Amis presents these remembrances without editorial or shame. I appreciated that. That is how he and Hitchens behaved. They make no apologies.
The core of this book is death and its reckonings. Three giants of literature, all familiars of Amis, all of whom died terrible deaths. It is their individual descents into finality where the book inhales and bracingly shouts its protest and impotence, until finally Amis retreats into a sort of exhausted gentility.
Somewhere near the beginning of the novel Amis recounts his experience on reading his first Saul Bellow novel. He says it was as though he felt the book was written for him and him alone.
For me, Inside Story felt much like that. Martin Amis wrote this book for me.
No one else.
And so any recommendation I may wish to give is coloured by that narcissistic absurdity.