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Reviewed by:
  • Inside Story: How to Write by Martin Amis
  • William H. Pritchard (bio)
Inside Story: How to Write, by Martin Amis (Penguin Random House, 2020), 560 pp.

We expect any book by Martin Amis to make trouble for readers who think they know the difference between fiction and nonfiction. The troublemaking starts with the title of his new one: Inside Story: How to Write. Really? Inside what? Is this a promise to deliver the real scoop on "story" by somehow getting inside it? And can that promise be further explained by the banal, hopelessly corny "How to Write," as if it holds invaluable information for a would-be writer? Immediately the canny reader familiar with some of Amis's previous 17 books smells something fishy in the proffered "advice." From the outset, the central voice in this narrative, this piece of "life writing" should be taken with at least a ton of salt. What exactly are we offered? At the close of "Preludial," the book's first section, Amis suggests that a book should follow "a final draft" but warns us that if this is a novel, it's one that can't be finished, can only be put behind one. The following declaration is then issued: "This 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." Ideally, Inside Story should be read "in fitful bursts, with plenty of skipping and postponing and doubling back—and of course frequent breaks and breathers." Amis then graciously welcomes us as "my guest" and "my reader"; but it would be an extremely credulous [End Page 138] reader who took this merely as an invitation to relax and enjoy things. With 500 and more pages to come, we already know better.

In "Preludial" we are told that Amis attempted to write a book 10 years ago that would be titled Life, with the subtitle A Novel. Later, in reading over its 100,000 words, he decided the result would not do—that "Life was dead." This seems disingenuous because in 2000 Amis published Experience, a memoir of a fellow named Martin Amis. This 400-page book is full of "life-writing" that is not at all dead, in fact perhaps the best thing he had written since his novelistic career (10 novels) began almost 30 years prior. Experience is most alive in the pages devoted to Martin's father, Kingsley, whose death is memorably evoked. It also contains rather too many pages exploring the fate of Martin's cousin, Lucy Partington, her life and strange disappearance. Overall the book is filled with the essayistic detours, the doublings-back that the prelude to Inside Story recommends to its readers. It keeps us on our toes in a way that is mainly invigorating, although always open to the charge of excessive self-display, footnotes that threaten to overwhelm us, and a deliberately wayward narrative quite unlike the carefully planned ones of Martin's father. In other words, by the time Martin presumably gave up on Life: A Novel, he had already written, five years previously, the equivalent of Life: A Novel. Now he will provide us with the inside story disguised as a handbook on how to write fiction. The Times Literary Supplement reviewer confessed that the book was "considerably weirder" than he'd expected—a verdict which, I suspect, would not bother Martin Amis in the least.

Inside Story, like its predecessor Experience, devotes an inordinate number of pages to a mysterious woman, this one called Phoebe Phelps, who figures as a sort of composite portrait of girlfriends from Martin's earlier days. We are invited to imagine that Phoebe is herself imaginary, "only very glancingly true to life, a made-up character in a made-up novel." But no, Amis quickly adds, the "original Phoebe" surfaces in the pages of this novel that is "not loosely but fairly strictly autobiographical. Something called "historicity" is involved: "You just need to have happened—and you're in." Early along we are promised that Phoebe will reappear, and indeed she does, though not to this reader's delight. It...


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pp. 138-142
Launched on MUSE
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