Inside Story, Martin Amis’s latest autobiographical novel**, is brilliant at times.
It’s well written and a sombre ennui pervades his entries on late father-figure Saul Bellow and now-departed best friend Christopher Hitchens.
Other times, the novel** falters with frustratingly smug and self-indulgent meanderings.
Such is the nature of autofiction, I suppose.
*Disclaimer: I received a free advance reading copy from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Amis, Twilight, and Chris Martin
Sometime around 2005, a bunch of people decided that Coldplay – one of the biggest stadium bands in the world – was shit.
Chris Martin has a decent voice; he’s a very good piano player, and unlike the nation’s darlings – the obnoxious Gallagher brothers – Martin and co. have had very little negative press. Yes, some of their songs are a bit glum but if we’re being honest, Coldplay is innocuous at worst.
A few years later, Twilight hit the bookshelves and subsequently the big screen. Just the mere mention of Stephanie Meyer’s books, or the ‘Team Edward/Jacob’ phenomenon, would be enough to make most non-’Twihards’ blanch.
And then there’s Martin Amis (who I’m sure will be thrilled to be mentioned in the same article as Coldplay and the Twilight Saga).
Amis too, seems to have acquired a reputation that accompanies commercial success. Prior to Inside Story, I was aware of Amis but had little direct knowledge of his work. Most people I’d spoken to conceded grudgingly that he was a good writer, but awfully smug.
Like with most cases, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Inside Story is well written – I found Amis’s prose to be a delight to read. However, the novel** (if it can even be called a novel) is choppy, oddly structured, and at times, remarkably self-indulgent.
I can understand some of the complaints levelled against his work. Like people’s complaints about Coldplay being ‘uncool’ there is an element of truth behind these assertions.
But like with Coldplay and Twilight, reading Amis’s writing is far less tedious than hearing people complaining about it.
Autofiction and the Art of Writing
Inside Story is an autofiction book. For those not familiar with autofiction, it’s a blending of fiction with autobiography, as the name suggests. It’s a curious genre.
Some autofiction, like Gilbert Adair’s And Then There Was No-One (featured here) is clearly more fictional, lending autobiographical themes for dramatic effect.
Despite Amis’s insistence that Inside Story a novel, it definitely reads more like a memoir with details filled in. It flicks between snapshots of Amis’s life, commentary on current affairs, and the art of writing.
One moment he’ll be describing a boozy lunch with Christopher Hitchens, punctuated by a discussion on the reader/writer relationship, before deviating into the fallout from 9/11 and the so-called Blair/Bush ‘war on terror’.
At first glance, it’s somewhat dissonant and jarring for the reader – a criticism not entirely without merit (more on this later). It is, regardless, an interesting read.
Inside Story as Death Writing
Amis references life writing throughout the novel**; the Saul Bellow influence plain to see.
Inside Story, however, is fixated with death. Metaphorical and literal.
‘Writers die twice,’ writes Amis, as he struggles with ‘Life: A Novel’ an early form of the text that would, eventually, become Inside Story.
Then there are of course, the very real deaths.
Of Kingsley, Amis’s writerly father, and his mother too; Of mentor Saul Bellow, a clear inspiration for this book; And of course, the death of his best friend Christopher Hitchens.
Amis captures the voices of these people unbelievably well. The dialogue between Amis and his friends – Hitchens’ in particular – reads in a very authentic way. Hitchens’ acerbic tone remains intact, and it does read like a genuine conversation between the two of them.
As one would expect, these deaths affect Amis in a profound way. It’s as if each death is a death of Amis himself. At times it’s hard to read, but deeply moving.
This book couldn’t have been written without those deaths. It feels like an exorcism – trauma therapy in print. Death writing.
**I’m not certain that Inside Story actually is a novel. It’s more a collection of memories, fictionalised for the purpose of pacing and general interest.
Amis and the Papier-Mâché Book
The problem with Inside Story is that, expert as Amis is in masking the mundane with great prose, the book is, regardless, littered with the mundane.
From Fleet Street lunches to proudly recounting previous sexual conquests, Amis even describes the inability to get a morning coffee in Paris as ‘a humanitarian crisis’. A joke, I’m sure, but not a particularly amusing one.
It’s odd that an introspective book like Inside Story contains such menial rubbish.
Inside Story may be well-written, but the book is fragmented, both in content and tone.
It’s as if Amis wanted to write three different kinds of book, but opted to pack these ideas into a single text. It’s part memoir, part literary commentary, and partly philosophical musing.
This results in a bloated book – almost 600 pages long – that although very readable, lacks focus. It’s far too long for what it is.
The ‘How to Write’ sections are enjoyable – reminiscent of Orwell’s insights in Politics and the English Language and demonstrating Amis’s excellent command of language.
But the book is papier-mâché in print. A bunch of ideas cobbled together, threatening to be topple. It’s unwieldy.
However, this doesn’t derail what is, altogether, a pretty decent read.