The framing device that Martin Amis uses in his recent novel, Inside Story—Amis has a young man over to his Cobble Hill brownstone for tea in 2016 and is giving him writing advice—felt very familiar when I first read it. I suppose that’s because in real life Martin Amis had me, Noah Kumin, over to his Cobble Hill brownstone for tea in 2016, and there he gave me writing advice.
That spring I was a student in NYU’s graduate writing program, where Amis was teaching that semester. At the first class, his cracked voice and halting manner made it seem like he was as nervous as we were. Where was the sneering enfant terrible the media had promised us? Only to be found in the books?
The mutual wariness lasted several weeks, and when I informed Amis after one class that he had been assigned to me as my thesis adviser, he gave me the same look I would later see him give to a Boerum Hill bartender who told him that if he wished to continue enjoying his vape pen, he would have to do so outside. Both times the look said, “I am evidently dealing with annoyance, but I am willing to go along with them so long as nothing escalates.” Yet Amis turned out to be a good teacher, a thoughtful reader, and a kind person—decidedly more lad than cad.
A novelist’s life is a hybrid affair: There’s life and there’s fiction, and they often overlap. Inside Story takes this hybridism to the hilt. It’s a short novel about an affair with a woman named Phoebe Phelps, plus several longish essays about Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin, and Christopher Hitchens—intermixed with Amis’ workmanlike advice on the craft of writing. As an attempt to weave together these disparate threads, the book is not quite a success, although each swath has its attractive patterns. I suspect I was not the only person who, upon hearing that Amis was writing about Hitchens, Bellow, and Larkin, hoped that he might bring these three characters to life novelistically and have them duke it out with one another in a battle of ideas, or, at least, of personalities. What Amis has done instead is to write in a straight nonfiction mode about their lives and, particularly, their deaths. These essay sections are often touching, sometimes informative, but never quite invested with the dramatic verve one expects from Amis.
But the romance has verve to spare. Here is A-plus Amis, still suave and sweet and sour and sly at 70. In this storyline, an on-the-make writer named Martin Amis, walking through London, notices an attractive woman in a business suit and, in the grand tradition, sputters some words in her general direction. She accepts a date, although she informs him that she is a one-and-done type of gal and that he should not get his hopes up. But he does. Of course he does.
It ends, as you know it will if you know Amis, in madness and squalor. This is his true metier: finding the cracks in what he has called, borrowing from Wyndham Lewis via Saul Bellow, the “moronic inferno.” I do not believe this distinctive feature of his fiction has been sufficiently remarked on. His technique in his great books, in, say, Success, The Pregnant Widow, even in Time’s Arrow, is to ratchet up the ugliness until, like a fire that consumes every last flammable object, all that remains is parched earth and pathos.
As for the biographical essays: On Bellow, Amis is sad and reverent. He focuses on the late novelist’s descent into dementia, and what emerges from these passages, more than anything, is evidence for the fragility of the human mind. On Larkin, Amis is cool toward the man, warm toward the poet. His investigation centers on Larkin’s quip, “deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth.” Amis settles on a psychosexual explanation for Larkin’s misery, involving Larkin’s father, a violent man and an admirer of the Nazis.
On Hitchens, Amis is a paragon of loving friendship, and I suspect the book’s climax, as Amis receives a supernatural sign from his recently deceased atheist compadre, will move even those who are ill-disposed toward Hitchens. Although Hitchens’ character in Inside Story sometimes comes off as less appealing than Amis intends, the portraitis saved by what Amis calls “the love of life of the Hitch, the amour fou of the Hitch.”
“Life,” Amis writes toward the middle of the book, “is artistically lifeless, and its only unifying theme is death.” But what could have actually unified Inside Story is more of a thesis about death, instead of unconnected descriptions of dying and its aftermath. Other material feels as though it has been jammed together by brute force: Amis casually dispenses with one major plot point of the Phoebe Phelps affair—a mystery around one character’s paternity—in a footnote. Nor is it quite clear what Amis’ recent New Yorker short story about the European refugee crisis is doing sandwiched in here.
The novel’s strongest theme is his attempt to answer the question of “How to Write,” which is the book’s subtitle. Amis’ answer: with love. “This is literature’s dewy little secret. Its energy is the energy of love.” A charming idea, though it is another one of these generalizations of which Amis is fond in his essayistic mode, and a strange one coming from the late-20th century’s great bard of spite.
“My smirk novel,” Amis says to his wife as they’re enjoying a lovely time at a conference in Saint-Malo, “it’s taking shape. I’ll need your help with the title, El. I fancy a Rousseauesque intonation. How about Confessions of a Sexually Irresistable Genius? ... I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking it’ll make everyone hate me.”
“They hate you already,” his wife replies.
As a teacher, the best advice Amis gave us was this: Always assume the reader is as busy, as put upon, as you are. He has written in Inside Story and elsewhere about the fact that, as he sees it, the world is speeding up: and the reader has no time for complicated opening pages or literary puzzles. Much of what Amis has to say consists of sound advice for any writer competing in the attention economy: Hook the reader, no overly complex syntax, use line breaks liberally, no secondhand phrases, be original, see things with a poet’s eye.
Yet for all his modernist enthusiasm (“The world you see out there is ulterior: it is other than what is obvious or admitted. ... Never use a form of words which is in any sense ready made”) Amis uses ready-made phrases fairly often, as any prose writer inevitably must, especially whenever Amis describes the American landscape. In one sentence on Texas, for instance, we get “big oil” (as opposed to small oil?), “packed churches” (churches always seem to be packed there—never half-full or merely crowded), and “weekly death sentences” (at least we are spared the cowboys shouting yee-haw). Elsewhere he refers to the writing process as “the result of much blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”
Amis’ true verbal originality comes when he is describing things that are ugly or selfish or rancid. Cancer survivors are “roadhogs and me-firsters who squandered the good luck that so rightfully belonged to my friend.” (He’s thinking of Hitchens, who died of cancer.) The authorial ego “is—and has to be—vulgarly and queasily vast.” Procreation is a positive thing, he writes, not because the world is an inherently good place but because it is evil: “I need to see a fresh face. One unmarked by the world. I need to see an innocent.”
What allows Amis to soar to his greatest heights is the depth of muck into which he is prepared to immerse himself. The point is made rather neatly in an old televised interview between Amis and the feminist critic Germaine Greer. In the conversation, Amis expounds on the character of John Self, the boorish, sodden, priapic anti-hero of his big novel Money, contrasting him with the character of Martin Amis, who also appears in the book. “You’re talking to me like Martin Amis in the book,” a slightly disappointed sounding Greer says, “who’s rather prissy really. And I would have said that in the Martin Amis that I know slightly, there’s a good slice of John Self.”
The stories I handed in to Amis were, he remarked, “not onerous to read”—as Amisian a response as one could hope for. He complimented my prose rhythm, which pleased me for the simple reason that I have never encountered another reader who even brought up my prose rhythm. Yet he had little to say about what the work was about. When I first told Amis I was giving him short stories to look at, he sneered. “Slices of life types, are they?” So I chose stories that were as salacious as possible: a tale about a Russian troll farm in Saint Petersburg that dabbles in Miss Lonelyhearts scams, an SF story with a good dollop of torture and suicide, a story of a young nymphomaniac at an idyllic New England boarding school. (“She’s rather good,” Amis remarked.)
Sexual abjectness, gluttony, treachery, to say nothing of suicide, genocide, and plain old-fashioned murder—these have been Amis’ most fruitful themes over the last almost 50 years. And there’s the reason that Inside Story does not pack the wallop of Amis’ best: The reader does not want a story of Martin Amis as he is, what is wanted is a story of Amis at his worst; to put it another way, a story of the devils who occupy his imagination. And although there has been a good amount of legitimate revolt of late against the romanticization of writers, there is still one sense in which such romanticization is fair. An imaginative writer is someone who is willing and able to investigate himself as a whole, and not only the persona that his era finds acceptable. That is the real-life writing, that is literary truth. And maybe that is what Amis had in mind when he uttered in class one day a remark I still can’t forget. He was on a tangent about the writing life, when he landed clearly and emphatically on the statement, “Writers must be like saints.”
I must have made a face when he said it, because he looked me in the eye, with unexpected gravity and a hint of sorrow, and said: “It’s true. And don’t ever forget it.”
Noah Kumin is a writer who lives in New York.