Book review

A vital disorder informs the narrative strategy behind Martin Amis’ “Inside Story.”

Taking on life, death, sex, friendship, illness, loss, politics, literary fashion and much more, it’s a sprawling mess of a book. Its individual chapters can be artfully shaped, but Amis’ general method seems to be to throw something — anything — at the wall and see what sticks.

The results are alternately dazzling, sobering, poignant and insufferable. Amis’ stylistic tics — unnecessary switches between first and third person, phrase repetitions where a streamlined sentence would work better — are a problem, and the essayistic interludes on “How to Write” (with swipes at the prose quirks of Alice Munro, Henry James and John Updike) can be ridiculous. Still, there’s plenty that’s wildly alive in this hybrid memoir-novel.

book review

‘Inside Story: How to Write’

Martin Amis, Knopf, 538 pp., $28.95

Amis, for anyone unfamiliar with him, was born into “bookish bohemia.” His father Kingsley Amis (“Lucky Jim”) and stepmother Elizabeth Jane Howard (“The Cazalet Chronicles”) were novelists. Poet Philip Larkin was a family friend. Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow, whose work Amis idolized, was another key figure in his life. His social circle, as he launched his own writing career, included Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and, most importantly, Christopher Hitchens.

Indeed, “Inside Story” is almost a love letter to Hitchens, even if there was nothing physical between the two men. But it’s also a comically harrowing account of what it’s like to have a wild-card figure in your life who can make your past feel as uncertain as your future.

The wild card’s name is Phoebe Phelps, and unlike most characters in this “fairly strictly autobiographical” novel, she’s “an anthology of various women” who acquired “a life of her own” (as Amis explained in a recent interview). A 30-something businesswoman engaged in elusive enterprises, she withholds her sexual favors from her younger lover in ways that only leave Amis wanting more.

Over the decades, Phoebe has a knack for reappearing in his life at moments when he’s already knocked off balance (notably, the day after 9/11). She’s a wonderful creation — less a villain than a trickster whose “combative buoyancy” can’t help but fascinate the reader.

Everything to do with pundit-essayist Hitchens — appearing under his own name — hits home too. Hitchens was a leftist contrarian who somehow contorted himself into supporting the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, predicting it would be “a wonderful adventure.” Hardworking, continually drunk and occasionally bisexual, Hitchens was, by all accounts, a charismatic conundrum.

“Everything he said was equivocal,” Amis writes. “Flippant and heartfelt, ironic and serious, whimsical and steely. Even his self-mythologising was also part of a project of self-deflation.”

When Hitchens was stricken with stage-four esophageal cancer in 2010, he and his wife relocated to Houston so he could undergo proton therapy at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Amis’ portrait of how Hitchens handled this ordeal is wonderful. The contrarian pundit, whose brilliance could lead him to the most perverse political, literary and sexual verdicts (he once dubbed Margaret Thatcher an alluring “minx”), turns out to be perfectly suited to addressing the absurdities of cancer treatment. Of his chemotherapy sessions, he tells Amis, “[Y]ou sit in a room with a set of other finalists … and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm.”

Amis’ accounts of Bellow’s (the Nobel laureate) struggles with Alzheimer’s (“He can’t read any more,” Bellow’s distraught fifth wife tells Amis) are painfully affecting, and the sharpest observations in the book can be haunting. Surveying the Manhattan skyline where the Twin Towers used to be, Amis writes, “You wanted to avert your eyes from the helpless nudity of the air.”

But Amis, like Hitchens, loves to pontificate, and his blanket pronouncements on matters literary, political and personal are often too absolute to be convincing. “[I]n America everyone hates or fears the poor,” he writes. Maybe many Americans do, but surely not “everyone.”

On dementia, Amis insists, “All you can do is hate it.” He’s entitled to that opinion, but my own yearslong firsthand experience with dementia in a loved one has also provoked fear and a wary fascination as to how physical malfunctions of the brain affect the workings of the mind. Amis’ take just doesn’t feel nuanced enough.

On literary matters, his persnickety grammar lessons and over-obvious cautions against cliché soon grow tiresome. So do his thoughts about the state of contemporary fiction.

“Difficult novels are dead,” he declares. “The unreliable narrator is dead; the ‘deductive’ novel is dead.” I can think of a half-dozen recent novels, including fiction by Elliot Ackerman, Emily St. John Mandel, Phil Klay and Valerie Martin, in which that’s flatly untrue.

In a book where even the best parts feel chaotically flung together, you could chuck out all Amis’ lecturing and not miss a thing. The chaos would remain, but it would make a sharper point.

“[L]ife has a certain quality or property quite inimical to fiction,” Amis acknowledges early on. “It is shapeless, it does not point to or gather around anything, it does not cohere.”

True enough. Life needs an editor. So does this vigorous mongrel of a book.

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Inside Story: How to Write” by Martin Amis, Knopf, 538 pp., $28.95