Inside Story is described by the author and his publicists as a novel. In its pages Amis often resorts to the dread term ‘auto-fiction’. In practice this means some, but not all, the names of real people are altered; and the narration often switches, sometimes none too smoothly, from the first person to the third and back. It’s an account of a consuming and at times deranging love affair in the 1970s and its aftershocks, which is intercut with scenes from the latter days of Amis’s surrogate father, Saul Bellow, and his surrogate cool older brother, Christopher Hitchens (though his actual older brother, Philip, always sounds pretty cool too).
The cocktail is spiked with a couple of vivid sketches of life on the road and a series of acute observations about Philip Larkin, who is variously considered as a writer, a personification of the life unspent and an unexpectedly significant presence in Amis’s own emotional hurt locker. It’s diluted (the culinary term would be ‘let down’) with some genial observations on family life past and present; and all of this is framed by means of a not unendearing device whereby we’re invited to come and share a single malt with ‘empty-nester’ Mart in Thugz Mansion, his former Brooklyn fastness. Occasionally, though, our tête-à-tête flips over into a tutorial, as Amis mounts the cathedra Petri to hand down a few rules and regulations on the writer’s craft – lecture notes from his stint in the creative writing department of the University of Manchester, perhaps.
Amis has, over a 47-year career, been remarkably consistent in his likes (male American authors of a certain age, smoking, some aspects of girls) and dislikes (dictators, yobs, clichés, the weather, some other aspects of girls). It’s pretty plain that Eros and Thanatos are the twin stars around which the present book, along with many of its predecessors, describes an orbit. As ever, he is much stronger on structure than plot: when big tabloid revelations come, there’s invariably a little harmonic note of recognition thanks to some prefiguring phrase or image encountered a few pages back. The book’s most solemn task is perhaps that of honouring the dead – Phoebe, the ‘novelistic’ femme fatale, a few years older than Amis, is putting her affairs in order when we last see her – and this it accomplishes beautifully. As the careless blade of Alzheimer’s jabs away at Bellow, there’s a judicious balance between sorrow at the loss of a tremendous mind and a more intimate disquiet at the sight of a loved one who is clearly not at peace, as Amis believes or hopes Iris Murdoch sometimes was, with their unravelling.
As for Hitchens, neither oesophageal cancer nor pneumonia (nor the increasingly evident failure of America’s Iraq adventure) can quite dim his lamp. The dialogue between The Hitch and Little Keith (coincidentally, my nickname for a small lipoma on my left forearm) is not only bulging with what younger readers will instantly identify as banter – there’s a very funny exchange where the duo conclude that Margaret Thatcher wasn’t in the end fanciable because she was ‘insufficiently left wing’ – but also rich in love. Amis identifies Hitchens’s gift to those who mourn him: a mixture of stoicism, gallows humour and sheer force of personality towards the end that functions as a commandment to live fully and expansively.
But it’s the Phoebe imbroglio that gives the book heart and powers its circulatory system (she’s a much more dynamic figure, in literary as well as personal terms, than Amis’s most notorious fictional femme fatale, the murderee Nicola Six in London Fields). She behaves fairly monstrously a couple of times and is chronically, pathologically reluctant to tell Amis – not to mention the reader – important truths about herself. Amis goes in hard on her sexual phenomenology, as he has been criticised for doing with the women in his novels; and if Phoebe really were a fictional character, you’d be forced to remark that she was a shade overdetermined (London Fields again: ‘This is a true story but I can’t believe it’s really happening’). But she seems like a real person, even if not a particularly good one, though there are abundant reasons why that should be so. You can see why Amis kept coming back for more, at any rate.
On the subject of the many intensely eligible bachelorettes Little Keith and The Hitch squired round town in their younger days, the nation’s gossip columnists may be disappointed. There’s a warm reference to Germaine Greer’s kindness, as well as what might be a glancing reference to her sexual technique; Tina Brown wafts past a couple of times, and Anna Wintour is held up, remarkably, as a paragon of pulchritude and gaiety. I guess it was a different age. But centre stage, rightly, is held by bad-girl Phoebe, with two good girls, Mart’s wives, Julia and Elena, sharing the gong for best supporting actress.
As for the literary advice – well now. Amis clearly belongs to the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do school of pedagogy. More or less everything he says is demonstrably contradicted by elements of his own work, be they here or elsewhere. A nuanced stance on Israel is just a cracked bell if it appears in the same pages as a line like the ‘illuminati of boudoir and garter belt’. Two instances of the word ‘cafard’ in one book is at least one too many. Amis here restates his hawkish attitude to cliché but then, cheerfully and without any ironising devices that this non-English graduate could discern, deploys the phrase ‘to the manner born’.
A long riff about what novels can’t do (sex, religion and so on) wouldn’t stand up in court if a stack of Amis’s fiction were admitted as evidence. Another highly performative (and in itself highly enjoyable) sequence about types of novels that are ‘dead’ – the experimental novel, the ‘baggy monster’ – might have the counsel for the defence rising on a point of order once or twice too. The sole survivor in this smackdown of literary modes, somewhat bathetically, is social realism, though the closest Amis ever got to that was the social surrealism of Keith ‘Shut it!’ Talent in London Fields and the bullet-headed title character of Lionel Asbo.
Amis’s characters are not so much marked with the tragic hero’s flaw as merely unevolved, thrashing about in their Petri dishes as the author gets busy with the eyedropper above their heads. Real people – even novelistic ones – aren’t so obliging. Inside Story, as stylish as it is in parts, isn’t driven or defined by style in the way Amis’s real, fictional fiction is. Some people may find that preferable; I’m not sure I do, though I greatly prefer it to the pompous and male menopausal Experience.