The Martin Papers

Inside Story BY Martin Amis. New York: Knopf. 560 pages. $26.

The cover of Inside Story

“SENESCENCE” ISN’T QUITE THE RIGHT WORD for the stage the writers of the Baby Boom have reached. Sure, they may be collecting social security, the eldest of them in their mid-seventies, but the wonders of modern science may allow some another couple of decades of productivity. When the Reaper starts to come for the writer’s instrument, the first thing to go is flow, but that may not matter: fragments are in. In a decade or so, robbed of their transitions and reduced to accumulating prose shards, the octogenarian Boomers may find themselves newly trendy. A strange fate for a generation that entered the literary world at the height of its postmodern excesses: everyone still standing will turn into Lydia Davis.

Topical relevance is another matter. On these shores, the Dirty Realists have been the victims of their generational good fortune. The decades of affluence—and cushy teaching positions—that followed their breakout work have alienated them from the hardscrabble subject matter that made them so interesting in the first place. In Britain, the Boomers have been, since their arrival, the most celebrated literary cohort in history. Endless scandals, enormous book deals, a worldwide fatwa—one of them reviewing another without sufficient deference used to be the cause of international headlines. Arriving in a mature and thriving literary culture, many of them took up staff positions at venerable London papers—the Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman, the Sunday Times, The Observer—and published in the upstart journals: Ian Hamilton’s New Review, Bill Buford’s Granta, the fledgling London Review of Books under Mary-Kay Wilmers and Karl Miller. By the 1980s and 1990s, the culture had decided to make celebrities out of its authors. The agent Andrew Wylie expanded his operations from New York to London and began to extract astronomical advances from an increasingly corporate publishing industry. Tina Brown’s takeover of the New Yorker in 1992, with Buford installed as fiction editor, completed the transatlantic circuit of literary hype.

It was a bonanza. Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan—these were the biggest stars, all of them present in Granta 7 of 1983, its inaugural collection of “Best of Young British Novelists.” While Barnes and McEwan marched into the new century issuing novels every few years with a reliable consistency—Barnes’s genteel bourgeois dramas; McEwan’s genre-hopping books with his signature twist endings—Amis and Rushdie achieved something like literary superstardom until a critical backlash. The reevaluation of Rushdie was led by Tim Parks (a British Boomer novelist whose fictions are neglected in his home country, where he is known as a travel writer, but are routinely adapted for the screen on the Continent) and seconded by the Gen X firebrand James Wood, who, though admiring in earlier reviews, pegged Rushdie as one of the neo-Dickensian godfathers of hysterical realism in 2000. Amis had always had his detractors, but after the century turned they began to outnumber his admirers. Meanwhile, domestic critical acclaim and prizes swarmed around the historical fictions of Hilary Mantel, a sign of the abiding fealty of Britain to the Crown and the costume drama. The Nobel went to the true visionary on the Granta 7 roster: Kazuo Ishiguro. The bounty of mainstream success allowed for distinguished and ongoing careers on the periphery by the likes of Pat Barker, Adam Mars-Jones, Christopher Priest, and Rose Tremain. There were casualties along the way. Two of the most dazzling British Boomer stylists died of cancer: journalist, critic, and memoirist Christopher Hitchens in 2011; novelist, memoirist, and critic Jenny Diski in 2016.

Did Amis and Rushdie deserve their critical downgrading? In a sense it was inevitable. Enormous fame comes at the cost of eventual backlash. Yet it can’t be discounted that the price a writer pays for notoriety is divorce from anonymity and everyday life. The shaggy postmodernism each pursued in their own ways fell out of fashion. Recent Rushdie efforts like The Golden House (2017) and Quichotte (2019) are recognizably the work of the author of Midnight’s Children (1981), but the delights of his magic-realist picaresques are shellacked in a coating of tedious trivia and a preoccupation with media celebrity more distracting than enlightening because ubiquitous and obvious. In the case of Amis, he began as the “stubby Jagger” of Fleet Street and a literary prince, son of Kingsley. His early novels were distinctly young man’s books: The Rachel Papers (1973), Dead Babies (1975), and Success (1978) took in the sexual revolution and its attendant chemical hedonism with a mix of wide-eyed gusto and mordant humor, a postwar individualist liberation amid transpiring imperial contraction and an awkward transformation of manners. His London trilogy (in fact, mid-Atlantic, given its multiple forays to New York)—Money (1984), London Fields (1989), The Information (1995)—coupled cross-class metafictional satire of life in the globalized capitals of media and finance glitz with stabs in the direction of the geopolitical. As with Rushdie, fame delivered the novelist a perceived duty to treat Big Themes.

Capitalism, environmental degradation, the Bomb—a thirst for History, of the sort that can’t be contained in a mere comedy of sexual mores, had been present in Amis’s fiction since the short story collection Einstein’s Monsters (1987) and became pronounced in his reverse-chronological Nazi undoing Time’s Arrow (1991), in which Europe’s slaughtered Jews are brought back to life, a sly forerunner in the vogue for Holocausts with happy endings. His memoir Experience (2000), published at age fifty, was a retreat into private zones, a reclamation of a life whose public profile had long since slipped from its author’s grasp:

When my parents’ marriage broke up, in the Sixties, the newspapers covered it. And when my marriage broke up, thirty years later, the newspapers covered it (with noticeable differences in the journalistic approach). When my father had his teeth fixed, in the Sixties, the newspapers didn’t cover it (his teeth weren’t in the papers but his new smile was: he had never smiled like that before). And when I had my teeth fixed, thirty years later, the newspapers covered it. My teeth made headlines. But let me tell you something about experience. It outstrips all accounts of it—all ulterior versions. A man having a fullscale epileptic fit on the street corner does not mind about the tittering of nearby children. He is involved in his own triage.

Amis took back the narrative—from the tabloids, from his father’s first biographer, from the fun-house mirrors of his own fictions—and did so by traditional means: anecdotes, essayistic digressions, and remembered set pieces are put down without resort to any devices more flashy than numerous and occasionally overflowing footnotes and passages addressed to his intimates. If his privacy had long ago been invaded, with Experience he reconquered the territory.

But from there he veered back to the terrain of History, while tugging the private along with him. It was Hitchens who recognized this tendency and its consequences in a review of Koba the Dread, Amis’s 2002 nonfiction book on Stalin. An amateur and autodidact student of history, Amis had relied on the works of Jonathan Schell and Primo Levi in Einstein’s Monsters and Time’s Arrow, respectively, but made novel use of his sources by fictionalizing them. In Koba he had the “hubris” to present the personal discoveries of his reading up on Stalin’s crimes as if they were discoveries rather than horrors that had been reckoned with, especially on the Trotskyist left where Hitchens formerly resided. Further, there are “some rather odd reflections on Amis’s family life,” among them score settling with his late father’s youthful radicalism and late-life anti-communism, and the remark that the sounds of his baby daughter crying “would not have been out of place in the deepest cellars of the Butyrki Prison in Moscow during the Great Terror.” Hitchens didn’t quite put it this way, but Amis had created a version of the world within his book where historical figures, the members of his family, his fictional creations, and his own authorial musings essentially existed on the same plane. It was a dubious innovation, and it crept into the pronouncements he made on current events in interviews, frequently generating controversies and follow-up clarifications, as when he told an interviewer of feeling the urge to tell the “Muslim community” to “get its house in order,” as if it were some unruly neighbor, and then had to insist it was just an urge.

There have been five novels and two essay collections since Koba the Dread. The fiction of this phase hasn’t thrilled me. Reviewing his last collection of essays, The Rub of Time (2018), I formed the impression that he remains as formidable as ever a critic, even as his satires have become less urgent and his forays into historical fictions the stuff of an errant buff. His public profile had meanwhile become that of an embattled pundit on the war on terror.

Inside Story, his new novel, resets the equation. Amis will again retell his life story. He will mix fact and fiction, with the balance in favor of the former. Real names will be used for many of the characters, most of them famous writers. He will digress on politics, history, and literature at will. There will be writing instructions, the book itself framed as an encounter with a young writer who’s come to his door. He will invoke the term “autofiction,” without apparent reference to its origins in France in the 1970s or the way it’s been used to discuss books published in English over the past decade.

I doubt Amis has read many of those books. He’s never in his criticism turned his eye toward younger writers, and with the exception of the stray acolyte (Will Self, Zadie Smith) doesn’t seem to know too many. But perhaps he laid hands on a volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and concluded, “I can do that.” The first half of Inside Story surpasses the Norwegian in self-indulgence. Its only thinkable rival in that category is the work of Norman Mailer, whom Amis invokes several times. A source of inspiration seems to be Mailer’s book on writing The Spooky Art, which Amis tosses into conversation in a scene set shortly after 9/11 (in fact, the book wasn’t published until two years after the attacks; it’s a minor and forgivable error—no doubt the book is full of them, but Amis is on the whole a trustworthy authority).

The opening passages of Inside Story are unpromising. We are treated for the umpteenth time to Amis’s casual theory of anti-Semitism (“the moronic inferno”). Amis does some literary tourism in Israel in the company of Saul Bellow and several other writers. He delivers a talk to students at his daughter’s Brooklyn high school in the near-present, and several of her classmates raise their hands when asked if they want to be writers. No one seems to be able to have a conversation without reference to one or another famous poem of Philip Larkin’s. We return to the offices of the New Statesman in the 1970s, where Amis and Hitchens banter about their love lives.

Christopher was very attractive to women but remained, in my view (considering that this was London, in the mid-1970s), inexplicably unpromiscuous. He was an internationalist and a universalist, but his standard girlfriend was a Marxist and preferably a Trotskyist (and these affairs were durable, dutiful, and, it seemed, grimly dialectical). At first I used to think, Yeah, that’s all fine for now—the girls will win you round. . . . But Christopher was strafed by propositions from various pampered beauties, all in vain. My lovelife he called Peyton Place, intending to evoke a series of coarsely repetitive encounters between members of the petty bourgeoisie. His lovelife I regarded as something drawn up not by Grace Metalious but by Rosa Luxemburg. There would be one famous exception (but not yet, not yet): Anna Wintour.

Yet there is, especially for the longtime reader of Amis, an irresistible charm at work. To think of a young Hitchens having “grimly dialectical” love affairs is silly, but it sets the imagination going. This novel is very funny, often because the humorous sits in close proximity to the self-consciously ponderous. The reader who submits to this charm will be rewarded. After hundreds of pages of offhand party going, name-dropping, Larkin quoting, Russian-author citing, and Holocaust contemplating, a design emerges. Improbably, Amis makes brilliant use of the September 11 attacks not merely as a black sucking hole of historical tragedy with which he developed an unfruitful obsession (indulged by all too many editors and producers happy to have him around to pontificate) but as a structural device. After 9/11 transpires and Amis’s friends start to die—Bellow of Alzhiemer’s-afflicted old age in 2005, Hitchens of esophageal cancer in 2011—the novel enters an elegiac mode of tender comedy and considerable beauty.

Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, 1975. From Christopher Hitchens's Hitch-22: A Memoir (Twelve Books, 2011)
Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, 1975. From Christopher Hitchens's Hitch-22: A Memoir (Twelve Books, 2011)

It’s at the hinge of 9/11 that Amis deploys the novel’s most overtly fictional elements. We have been told of an ex-girlfriend of Amis’s named Phoebe Phelps, who he assures us is a composite of old flames and has not a little in common with Selina from Money and Nicola Six from London Fields. In the ’70s she entered his life as a femme fatale, a capitalist shark from the world of finance, sexy in a business suit, and with a past that entailed a spell as an escort and a spread in a nudie mag called Oui. She treats him as a boy toy but also withholds sex and won’t broach marriage when he proposes it. The affair fizzles and he becomes a family man. After years of silence, she sends him a letter, delivered by a young female courier, on September 12, 2001. Phoebe discloses that on a night decades in the past his father had tried to seduce her. When she balked that it wouldn’t be right to sleep with her boyfriend’s father, he agreed but insisted that this was no obstacle: he was not Martin’s biological father. When the boy was conceived, he and his wife Hilly hadn’t been sleeping together for months. The child was the result of a night she spent with his best friend, Larkin.

So on 9/11, western civilization was thrown into crisis by the reignition of a conflict with a world-historical foe (yet also “a new kind of enemy: preternaturally innovative, daring, and disciplined, and not at all afraid to die”), and on the next day Martin Amis’s very identity was thrown into question. Quite a one-two punch. Presented with the first of these catastrophes, Amis does what any self-respecting famous author would: he attends his scheduled afternoon pilates class. He repairs to a pub to drink pints with his mates and they play a video trivia game that exposes their lack of knowledge about Islam. It takes them three out of three guesses at a multiple-choice quiz to determine that the Shia-Sunni split occurred in the seventh century. The next day’s revelation shows that Martin may be similarly uninformed about his own origins.

In the novel’s second half, long considerations of Larkin’s poetry and his relationship to his own father Sydney, a Nazi sympathizer, are thus weighted with the subtext of what it would mean for Amis to be somebody other than he always thought he was and what it would mean for Larkin to be something other than famously childless. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” no less so when you spend half your life not knowing who they were. Ultimately this reconsideration is cathartic: “Goodbye to the patriarchs, the little overlords, the goosers and gropers, the disseminators of disquiet, the wife crushers and daughter torturers, the fathers that everyone fears, the enemies of ease, the domestic totalitarians of the mid-twentieth century.” The work is done, no matter that when Phoebe returns to the narrative as an ailing septuagenarian she tells Martin that her little revelation was just a prank.

Inside Story’s heartbreaking passages transpire at Hitchens’s hospital bedside in Houston: “He slept. After a while I smoothed him and kissed him and, as instructed, left behind me on the bedside table a skeleton staff of cigarettes.” (It’s also the occasion for Amis’s sharpest political commentary: on the woeful differences between Britain’s National Health Service and the American system and their consequences for patients’ finances. He made me want to move back to England to die unbankrupt.) Hitchens apparently died as he lived, on tobacco and Scotch till a very late stage, writing a thousand words a day. (Amis claims that he cut his own “carcinogenic intake” by 80 percent at age sixty and now sucks on a vape pen.) The burial of fathers and friends completes the arc of Amis’s Grand Boomer Epic. All the stages are here: penurious licentiousness and innocent transgression, narcissism and material prosperity, acquiescence to the conventions of family life, and, with the events of 9/11, a sense of a place in history. All along a life spent devoted to the practice and contemplation of literature. This novel is not without its cringe-inducing longueurs. But as Amis asserts in one of his many didactic digressions on the art of fiction—some basic, most sharp and insightful—the ultimate artistic aim of the novel is unity. Inside Story is unified by the force of Amis’s personality, which lives in his prose style. That was always where his redemption would be found.

Christian Lorentzen is a writer living in Brooklyn.