Though this book is categorized as a novel, there is little that, on the surface, appears fictional in British writer Martin Amis’ capacious “novelized memoir,” Inside Story. The book, he writes in its opening pages, “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.” These short stories might better be called “episodes” that congeal into a metanarrative that is largely about the author’s lasting friendships with three late writers whose deaths left various scars on his personal landscape: his dear friend Christopher Hitchens, his mentor Saul Bellow and his parents’ close friend, the poet Philip Larkin.
Amis’ account sprawls back and forth across decades and continents, shifting not only in time but also in tense and voice, interrupted by a sometimes overwhelming quantity of explicating footnotes. This intentional disregard for conventional storytelling further blurs the line between truth and imagination. The reader presumes that much of the content is true at heart, with specifics morphed by the passage of time and the untrustworthiness of memory. But which parts are made up?
Readers might suspect that the character of Phoebe Phelps, a quirky, often infuriating girlfriend from the 1970s who remains Amis’ obsession for his entire adult life, is based in truth, if perhaps wildly exaggerated. But was she really a former escort turned high-class madam masquerading as a financial executive? Who knows? Amis certainly isn’t saying, nor should he. The important thing is that Phoebe drops a tantalizing, if dubious, bombshell halfway through that provides the book’s most compelling plot twist.
In one of the labyrinthine footnotes late in the book, Amis says of Bellow, “All the dead were in his custody, and he couldn’t let them go.” These elegant words might be applied to the real-life Amis as well. Now 71, this once-young buck of the British literary scene cannot help but look death, mortality and the meaning of life squarely in the face. And he does so with a singular panache and much offhanded wit, forging through upheavals past and present: 9/11, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Trump presidency, totalitarianism, Islamism, the sexual revolution, Alzheimer’s and cancer, among many other dark realities.
Most readers will likely deem Inside Story more memoir than novel. It is certainly a sui generis work either way. Early on I christened it a “kitchen sink” book (as in, “everything but the”) and had to laugh, about halfway in, when the fictional Amis actually “poured the [drink] down the kitchen sink.” Yet whatever its hybrid status suggests, it regally caps Amis’ estimable literary career with cheeky candor and more than a touch of razzle-dazzle.