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Faux Amis? Or, the art of the nonvel

Inside Story: a novel / How to Write
By Martin Amis
Jonathan Cape £20

It is traditionally ‘not done’ to review books in terms of what they’re not. And yet: this book is not a novel. It says it is on the front cover; but it isn’t. And Martin Amis makes it clear it’s not, repeatedly, within the 500+ pages – almost as often, in fact, as he claims the opposite.

Nor is it – contra subtitle – a book on ‘how to write’. Nobody wants an Amis book on how to write (cf. his critical non-fiction [sic]); and if they did, they’d not be looking for the difference between ‘I’ and ‘me’ (I kid you not). And yet the book incorporates long memos, guidelines and what feel like half-recycled lecture notes, for which the kindest thing that can be said is that they should have all been excised some drafts ago.

Lastly, it isn’t principally about his lifelong, close relationship with Christopher Hitchens – despite the UK jacket’s clear suggestion otherwise.

No. What Inside Story is, is a rather baggy assemblage (a footnote nods approvingly to Don Quixote) of loving reminiscence, tough self-examination, hero-worship, historical enquiry, quotation, a 2015 New Yorker article on the German migrant-crisis, and, yes, some scattered writing tips. With footnotes. And a 13-page index.

Aware that he himself has not exactly lived the life of, say, a Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov, or even Rushdie, Amis employs the framework of three other, personally-relevant and occasionally-connected literary lives (and deaths): Saul Bellow (d. 2005) as supplementary father figure; Philip Larkin (d. 1985) as potential actual father; and Christopher Hitchens (d. 2011) as brother in arms, in literature, and all but in the sack(?) – their stories (and all the rest of it) threaded together by the amiable conceit that Amis is chatting to some young, aspiring novelist.

Supporting roles are filled by his (de)formative, years-long para-sexual relationship with ‘Phoebe Phelps’ (a classic Amisite character name, that); his significantly more-benevolent stepmother, Elizabeth Jane Howard; his wayward, needy father; and then the long-familiar coterie of boozy-lunchmates (Conquest, Fenton, Clive James), influences (Nabokov is named on page one, and then a further 42 times after that), and all the Big Things Amis is apparently incapable of not dwelling on (the Holocaust; the Gulag; and – of course – now 9/11).

No doubt he’s changed a few names. And moved things round a bit to suit. Sometimes he’s written himself into the third person. But so what? In his own words, ‘At least Mystic Meg [went] to the trouble of making it all up.’ This ‘novel’ thing is a distraction – and a pity too, since, taken in isolation (which probably no Amis book can have been for years), Inside Story is for the most part a compelling, if rather florid, memoir.

That’s not the only distraction, either.

The book opens with a strange, present-tense discussion of the looming 2016 US election (feat. ‘the Great Pretender’), and of Brexit, which he is comfortable Remain will win. Whatever effect this is supposed to have (scrupulous honesty?), the eye is trained from the beginning on how much else has badly aged here. Lunches that involve ‘potted shrimps’ and ‘oatcake’. Someone being ‘a pill’. ‘Gaspers’. Talk of ‘rugby football’, and girlfriends called ‘Doris’. These days, mind, Amis attends pilates sessions, smokes e-cigarettes, and eats ‘a softboiled egg’ for breakfast. The man the critics once identified as ‘Amis fils‘, the enfant terrible of modern English letters, is – one suddenly realises – old.

Accordingly perhaps, this ‘novel’ is lighter on the more aggressive flourishes of Amis prose style. But (fans rest assured) for every diamond-tipped incision such as ‘childsong [being] like a ventilation of happiness’, there’s still ‘the lime, the gold, the rose’ of – can you guess? – traffic lights; a train ‘now slaked of motion’ (i.e. stationary); and AN Other finance bloke who at once starts using words like ‘bonce’ and ‘gaff’. Amis snorts that you wouldn’t put a janitor called ‘Art Hitman’ in a novel; but has, himself, a US thriller writer called ‘Jed Slot’. He laments that no-one, still, writes well on sex, and then describes ‘her musky, smiley, gauzy, rumpy, nipply presence’.

Despite all this, Inside Story somehow emerges as an engrossing and courageous (slice of) autobiography. And thankfully – if tragically, and via a lot of other deaths – it ultimately returns to him and Hitchens. Amis heartbrokenly extracts some positives from this great personal and public loss, almost a decade past. The reader, though, now sits through the whole thing again – that slow, appalling diminution – and hopes, quite pointlessly, that Hitch won’t die. The book is worth it for that bit alone.

Postscript: Needless to say, Inside Story comes pre-greeted with much industry fanfare; but only the PR teams will claim that this is Martin Amis’s best work. A more laymanly bemusement as to what, specifically, it is about, may be reflected in the fact that, at time of writing, the ‘novel’ is riding high as Amazon’s #1 Best Seller… in ‘Terrorism & Freedom Fighters Biographies’.

For – in an abbreviated form – The Oldie

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