A Swing and Amis, by Leo Robson

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November 2020 Issue [Reviews]

A Swing and Amis

On the perils of novelizing one’s life

Martin Amis © Gunter Gluecklich/laif/Redux


A Swing and Amis

On the perils of novelizing one’s life

Discussed in this essay:

Inside Story: A Novel, by Martin Amis. Knopf. 560 pages. $28.95.

While Martin Amis’s most gifted contemporaries—Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift—were rebellious in technique, borrowing from magical realism to consider questions about identity, Amis’s achievement might be described as primarily tonal. In his early novels, he worked toward the invention of a new literary dialect, a mix of slang and poetry, concertedly swaggering, at times a little singsong, insolent but ebullient, exacting yet loose, eager both to comment and to evoke, a cascade of ideally weighted adjectives and nouns and participles. Here is the half-English, half-American director of commercials John Self, the narrator of Money (1984), logging the sensory onslaught of Manhattan:

So I walked south down bending Broadway. What’s all this mm-hm shit? I strode through meat-eating genies of subway breath. I heard the ragged hoot of sirens, the whistles of two-wheelers and skateboarders, pogoists, gocarters, windsurfers. I saw the barrelling cars and cabs, shoved on by the power of their horns. I felt all the contention, the democracy, the italics, in the air. These are people determined to be themselves, whatever, little shame attaching. Urged out from the line of shufflers and idlers, watchers, pavement men, a big blond screamer flailed at the kerb, denouncing all traffic.

Amis’s contribution was not, as is sometimes claimed, to make English prose more “American”—an idea that originates partly in his fondness for Saul Bellow—but to modernize a native tradition. His tendency toward the demotic and democratic, his emphasis on street life and ephemera—on pigeons and darts players and tabloid newspapers—his love of gargoyles and squalor and colloquialism, followed an example descended from Henry Fielding, via Dickens, and was evident to different degrees in the writers he read before discovering The Adventures of Augie March: above all Iris Murdoch and V. S. Pritchett. And Amis’s own influence has been visible in the work of at least two generations of English novelists: from Gordon Burn and Will Self to Nicola Barker and Zadie Smith.

So it is hard to avoid noting that in Amis’s “novelized autobiography,” Inside Story, the narrator, while hardly without his mannerisms, trades in an altogether flatter prose than his variously slangy, fancy, manic, and mock-heroic predecessors, going back to Charles Highway, another strikingly Amis-like figure, in The Rachel Papers (1973). Reviewing Lionel Asbo (2012), Adam Mars-Jones claimed that Amis’s writing was getting thinner, even “under-overwritten,” but Inside Story shows something more extreme—a late-style slackening. Gone are the comic and inventive adjectival pairings of the past—the “barnacled and girlish” face of a cab driver in Money, the “tender and punctual” lovemaking of Xan Meo in Yellow Dog (2003). Instead Amis settles for something close to tautology, characterizing himself as “a lax and indulgent parent.” Elsewhere we find “generous and forgiving,” “wayward and off-target,” “put-upon and longsuffering,” even “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.” When Amis calls a Larkin epigram “ ‘eminently quotable,’ ” you are reminded of his thirty-seven-year-old claim that “a cliché or an approximation, wedged between inverted commas, is still a cliché or an approximation.”

What else characterizes Amis in his new, late mode? Well, he’s voluble, there’s no getting around that—content to unfold his anecdotes and apothegms at virtually Victorian length. He’s somewhat insistent on age: “She was forty-four, I was fifty-three, Saul was eighty-seven,” etc. He’s capable of moving sincerity, as when writing about Saul Bellow’s dementia and Christopher Hitchens’s cancer: “I went straight to him and kissed his cheek and said in his ear, ‘Hitch, it’s Mart, and I’m at your side.’ ” And he’s funny, now and again, in a blunt, broad way (he’s still Martin Amis): “Now Carlton’s a corporate raider, but you have to understand that he finds himself drawn, he finds himself increasingly drawn, Martin, to Buddha.”

But he’s also complacent, inaccurate, and behind the times, especially when it comes to literary topics. Kafka’s humor hasn’t been overlooked. The majority of people in their early twenties wouldn’t identify Kurt Vonnegut as their favorite writer. William Dean Howells was never exposed as “a bloated mediocrity.” John Updike’s “The City” is not a “long” short story. The English writers who disdained ornament were the New Puritans, not the New Simplicity. Gore Vidal wasn’t referring to spoken remarks when he coined the phrase “book chat.” And Samuel Johnson wasn’t talking about page count, but literary reputation, when he said that “nothing odd will do long.”

Amis’s misreading of the Johnson adage carries some irony given that Inside Story is at once his bulkiest book and his weirdest. Its central character—born in 1949, resident of New York, father of five—is less an alter ego than an ipse ego, as Amis once said of Philip Roth’s recurring character Nathan Zuckerman. And the main events the novel portrays are the resurfacing of an old girlfriend who resembles one of Amis’s old girlfriends and the final illnesses of two of Amis’s closest male friends, the novelist Saul Bellow, a father figure, and the journalist Christopher Hitchens. It also rehearses a great deal of the kind of arch and finicky writing advice familiar to readers of Amis’s interviews and the criticism collected in The War Against Cliché (2001) and The Rub of Time (2017). And it’s full of well-recorded incidents, teeming with footnotes and history lessons and paraphrased conversation (“I talked scornfully about the Bloomsbury Group”), and laden with sections entitled “Postludial,” “Afterthought,” and “Addendum,” as well as an index.

Again and again, you find yourself wondering (often aloud): What on earth is going on? Why does the book contain so much about D. H. Lawrence when Amis isn’t a fan? Why does the book contain so much more about Philip Larkin than Larkin’s best friend, the author’s father? What does Amis mean when he tells Hitchens’s son, “Christ, it’s so radical of him to die. . . . It’s so left wing of him to die”? And why would a writer take the time in a novel he suggests may be his last to unfurl a detailed synopsis of Pirates of the Caribbean? (“Captain Sparrow was once again on the high seas. His quest? To locate and reclaim his old ship, the Black Pearl, stolen from him by his onetime messmate Hector Barbossa.”)

Amis has always been a purveyor of the dinky reflection, but his typical riff used to be parodic—John Self, in Money, saying, “Memory’s a funny thing, isn’t it. You don’t agree? I don’t agree either.” Now his riffs are tortuous, pedantic, and irony-free. Here is how he explains why his wife’s attractiveness is a matter of “consensus”:

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So wrote the Irish novelist Margaret Hungerford (1855–97; typhoid) in her best-known novel Molly Bawn (which earns a friendly mention in Ulysses). It is a generous thought, and memorably expressed; its spirit is inclusive and egalitarian (there’s hope for us all, it murmurs); and it has the further merit of being broadly true. But “beauty,” here, is a misnomer or an example of poetic license: Mrs Hungerford means physical charm, or appeal, or the power to attract and endear. Her aphorism doesn’t really apply to the beautiful.

Right. So after almost a hundred words, after Hungerford’s dates and cause of death and the nod to Joyce, after three semicolons and three sets of parentheses, we’re told that the quoted sentiment is almost false, or at least not quite true, and certainly not applicable. (Who brought it up in the first place?) Then, following that wild-goose chase of a paragraph, Amis presents us with a footnote—and another hundred words on etymology.

The passage is not anomalous. It reflects the book’s sensibility. Almost every page of Inside Story carries an italic air, or functions at some kind of remove, starting with the first one:

Welcome! Do step on in—this is a pleasure and a privilege. Let me help you with that. I’ll just take your coat and hang it up here (oh, and incidentally that’s the way to the bathroom). Sit on the sofa, why don’t you—then you can control your distance from the fire.

Bristlecones on the Balcony, by Olive Ayhens. Courtesy the artist and Bookstein Projects, New York City

Bristlecones on the Balcony, by Olive Ayhens. Courtesy the artist and Bookstein Projects, New York City

Amis’s attempts to explain or legitimize his project offer little in the way of illumination. “The book is about a life, my own, so it won’t read like a novel—more like a collection of linked short stories, with essayistic detours,” he writes in the opening section. “Ideally I’d like Inside Story to be read in fitful bursts, with plenty of skipping and postponing and doubling back—and of course frequent breaks and breathers.” There’s an exchange about the “babble novel” (“development but no real plot”) and a passage about “baggy monsters”(“a sub-genre of long, plotless, digressive, and essayistic novels”), but Inside Story is nothing like Amis’s respective choice of examples, The Adventures of Augie March and Humboldt’s Gift.

Quite how one might reconcile Amis’s insistence on the book’s status with his suggestion about how to read it is not explained by his account of a lecture he delivered on Joseph Conrad’s piece of “auto-fiction,” The Shadow-Line; if that book invites skipping, as Amis suggests, it is simply because it contains a lot of “harbourfront politicking and clubroom one-upping,” i.e., longueurs. (The Conrad lecture scene produces possibly the most banal moment in the whole book: “ ‘Now why is your copy twice as thick as mine? May I?’ I took it on to my lap. ‘Ah. You’ve got The Shadow-Line but also Typhoon.’ ”) A more obvious comparison is to Nabokov, especially the garrulous, peccadillo-peddling Ada—also published when its author was in his early seventies, also his longest book. There are hints, too, of mid-period Milan Kundera, blurring the author-narrator role to harangue the reader with theories and historical facts.

By this stage in his development, it’s no great surprise that Amis might choose to blur the boundary between writing a novel and talking about writing a novel. If he is a postmodern writer, his postmodernism has always been of a peculiarly narrow kind. He didn’t analyze the paradoxes of late-capitalist society, or lay bare the illusory character of selfhood; he just insistently and repeatedly smashed the fourth wall. Amis’s early narrators expressed a desire, usually on the first page, for “dramatic edge and thematic symmetry” (The Rachel Papers), or shapeliness and economy (Other People, 1981), and he also had recourse to such mild distancing devices as the chapter title, the epigraph, and the literary allusion (“April is the coolest month”). Evidence of a more-than-casual taste for meta-literary flourishes emerged in his fifth, best, and last wholly effective novel, Money, in which he portrayed a writer with his own name. From there it was only a short leap to London Fields (1989), a novel in which a novelist reflects on the text we are reading (“I’m ridiculously pleased, in Chapter 4, with that bit about . . . ”).

In recent decades, Amis has continued down this road, producing novels that offer autobiographical reflections on the literary life (The Information, 1995; The Pregnant Widow, 2010), or toy with the conventions of a genre (police procedural in Night Train, 1997; state-of-the-nation portrait in Yellow Dog and Lionel Asbo). During roughly the same period, he engineered a more formal departure from artifice and indirection, publishing a memoir (Experience, 2000), an oddly self-centered meditation on Stalinism (Koba the Dread, 2002), a novel about the Holocaust that came with a bibliographical essay (The Zone of Interest, 2014), and, perhaps most tellingly, books that mingled fiction and polemical writing on the same subject—nuclear weapons in the case of Einstein’s Monsters (1987), militant Islam in The Second Plane (2008). As often with this writer, principles and practice appear to be out of sync. He has frequently expressed the belief that the unconscious does all the work, and the novelist needs to be “innocent.” All the while, Amis was himself moving ever closer to a compound of the winking and the worldly, the knowing and the erudite.

But, alongside all the chatter, Inside Story also contains a novelistic strand, or quasi-fictional novella—a rueful account of Amis’s doomed relationship, in the late 1970s, with a woman he calls Phoebe Phelps. The most that the book offers in the way of a plot, unless you count the failing health of Hitchens and Bellow, concerns a phone message he received from Phoebe on the morning of September 12, 2001, followed later the same day by a letter containing a dramatic allegation. Nothing happens—the claim is dismissed in a footnote—but it prompts Amis to remember their relationship, and to deliver an accounting, however partial and benighted, of his own emotional makeup. (Amis has told an interviewer that the incident is fabricated.)

This isn’t the first time the original of Phoebe—who is still alive—has formed the basis for a Martin Amis character. There was, at the very least, Amy Hide in Other People, Selina Street in Money, Nicola Six in London Fields, and Gloria Beautyman in The Pregnant Widow. A list of attributes culled from these depictions would include: witty, original, “tremendous to be near,” Catholic, phobic, volatile, violent, “really desperately insecure,” eerily detached, dissembling (including about her age), “grimly self-sufficient,” delusional, a victim of repeated sexual abuse, by turns voracious and coquettish.

Amis, considering Vonnegut’s claim to be a “monopolar depressive,” writes that “psychological disorder, as an explanation, tends to frustrate all human curiosity,” but even he doesn’t believe that. In a conversation with Hitchens, he says of Phoebe that she is like “a character in a novel where you want to skip ahead”—evidently his favored reading approach—“and see how they turned out.” She remains an intriguing and unpredictable presence in Amis’s own novel even once her disordered state is clear. There is also Amis’s half of the equation, his own role, which he traces back to fantasies of rescuing women that had been part of his “imaginative life since the age of five or six.” But while the Phoebe strand introduces a much-needed dose of narrative, it ultimately exposes Amis’s lack of self-awareness—and shows why he is so poorly equipped to write a book that aims to present the truth directly.

Inside Story seems to have been written by the same person who stumbled through the often decades-old events it describes. After acknowledging that you mustn’t try to change your “lover,” Amis says that it’s nevertheless “a sacred obligation” to try to “impede, or at least retard your lover’s journey into monstrousness.” But this is just a rephrasing of the rescuer fantasy. As he wrote in Experience, “Envy never comes to the ball dressed as Envy,” only as Asceticism, High Standards, or Common Sense, and the same is true of his own emotions—here, all too clearly, his desire to rescue women has come to the ball in moralistic garb. Even during Amis’s final encounter with Phoebe, in 2017, he cannot resist telling her, “You’ve had a very hard road.” Of course, this is true, but it prompts the question, not for the first time: What about his road?

Confronting this forty-year-old relationship as a near-elderly novelist, Amis writes far more about Phoebe’s upbringing than his own. He doesn’t consider his father’s sexual recklessness—which, he once wrote, approached “the psychotic”—or the neglect that followed his parents’ divorce. He mentions in passing the panic attacks he had in his twenties, but at no point does he revisit the incident of sexual abuse he suffered in the late 1950s. Asked by his biographer, Richard Bradford, whether the episode had left a psychological scar, Amis said, “I don’t think so.” But Amis knows that what he thinks is of no relevance. As he put it in The Pregnant Widow, trauma is a “secret you kept from yourself,” and in the new book, he writes that Larkin’s poem “Love Again,” with its allusion to long-ago violence, shows his “unconscious mind (very tardily) beginning at least to register what he could never absorb.”

The central barrier to a deeper reckoning is Amis’s belief in the power of logic and common sense. Rationalism—and the promotion of rationalism—is a counterpart of his emotional evasiveness, a way of justifying the recoil from one’s own needs, and, beyond that, expunging any trace of the purely personal from everything we say and do. In Experience, Amis recalled that the theater director Richard Eyre, who had known him as a child, had said he was “so unhappy,” and before long Amis is concluding: “So, yes, averagely unhappy for my age, perhaps.” If he appeared miserable, this was not because of anything he had experienced but because he had reached the tricky part of youth, when “childhood (in my case happy, even idyllic) was obviously running out”—it was the commensurate, the “average,” response.

This vision of human beings persists throughout Inside Story. Amis appears to believe that extreme conduct and prejudicial thinking only arise when you reject the lessons of the Enlightenment. As long as you aren’t “mad,” all you have to do is stay alert. In one of many portentous section endings, he notes that Goya’s 1798 etching of a slumbering philosopher bears the inscription the sleep of reason brings forth monsters. It’s especially important to Amis that the novel is, as he writes here, a “rational form.” In the past, he has been keen to promote postmodernism as a respectable impulse, unavoidable for a thinking person, the only way to be a realist when the world itself “looks pretty post-modern.” A more searching assessment would consider why Amis exhibited such leanings—why he needed to be so cool and detached—before the arrival of a pat historical justification.

As a reader, too, Amis stresses the rationalist and realist credentials of writers he admires. Lyric poems are gutted for their arguments, fiction treated as polemic, or a treasure house of epigrams. Talking about The Shadow-Line—which he presents as an atheist tract—Amis identifies the ship being depicted as the Otago, a detail Conrad had strenuously omitted. Writing, for Conrad, was not about “externals,” as he wearily informed one fact-hunting critic. It was about the thing that Amis has so much trouble acknowledging, the thing that colors everything we see: “temperament.” In the same way, we never hear about Bellow the seeker, the analysand and anthroposophist, the Conradian interrogator of earthly maya, only Bellow the autobiographical realist, the memorialist of immigrant experience, the phrase-making pontiff with things to say about Chicago and money and sex.

Again and again, Amis exhibits a preference for the tangible. He is able to write about his rescuer fantasies only because he is cognizant of them—they occurred to him as musings, or images. They were events in his life. He’s in trickier territory with submerged patterns, with things that people repress, deny, or disavow, and with phenomena that require less rigid forms of thinking. He blithely accepts Hitchens’s contention that, after receiving a cancer diagnosis, he didn’t encounter any of the states identified in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s grief model, and suggests that the “only angst” that Nabokov “ever” suffered came from the realization that he could not assimilate “all the beauty in the world” (an idea Nabokov hinted at, once, in 1926, when he was a young man). The book even ends with an extremely literal interpretation of a dream about a dog. At times Amis seems so hapless that Inside Story, if it really were a novel, could be considered a classic piece of unreliable narration, with the moment his wife tells him “You’re as blind as a kitten sometimes” corresponding to the telltale moment near the start of Nabokov’s Despair when Hermann explains that a Latvian he knew had told him he’d end up in a madhouse.

Inside Story must be one of the most eccentric books ever written by a gifted novelist. Is there a clue to its purpose in the title? The idea of living “inside” history cropped up in London Fields and The Pregnant Widow, but in this case the word seems to have a narrower application. Of course, Amis delivers great access, taking us into train carriages and holiday homes and sick bays and bedrooms—but no further, not inside himself, at least not in the way he intended. Experience was a less regal—and more revealing—exercise. Whatever its claims to intimacy or revelation, the book is really an extended tribute to the comforts of Amis’s favorite forms of armored thinking—dichotomy, taxonomy, generalization, definition, prescription, and proscription.

Near the start of the book, Amis contends that Bellow “wrote short stories, novellas, short novels, novels, and long novels about people he knew and things that had actually happened.” But he didn’t—not really. He altered names and details; he employed a voice that wasn’t his own; and, in submitting to his unconscious, he transcended the limits of his personality. Writing Humboldt’s Gift in the early 1970s, he was able to question and lovingly ridicule Charlie Citrine’s worship of Rudolf Steiner even as he consulted Steiner’s disciple, Owen Barfield, about the state of his own soul. And in the long story “What Kind of Day Did You Have?” he portrayed, from the perspective of both partners, the sort of unequal, exploitative relationship in which he specialized. When Amis practiced a form of writing more readily identified as fiction, he was able to skewer the habits that, in the autobiographical mode, he struggles to escape. Reading Inside Story, you’re reminded of Terence Service in Success (1978), Amis’s brilliant portrait of male self-blindness, explaining that he likes to approach “neurotic” and “disadvantaged” girls in the street, or John Self’s preposterous assertion in Money that he must marry Selina Street because “probably no one else will.” Amis frequently pays lip service to fiction’s clairvoyance, its power to channel the writer’s “silent anxiety,” while keeping faith with overt eloquence, editorializing confidence, discursive stridency, polemical certitude, and the rest. Over the past thirty-five years, his reliance on orderly thinking has come at a great cost. The sleep of reason may bring forth monsters; it also brings forth literature.

 is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

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