Martin Amis begins this baggy, curious book with an account of how it nearly wasn’t written. He had a go at it more than a decade ago, he confesses. He was going to call it Life: A Novel, but when he read through the 100,000 words of that manuscript, and then sat on a beach in Uruguay, near where he was living at the time, he thought he was finished, washed up. He could no longer hear himself in what he’d written, and there was a “vertiginous plunge in self-belief” that caused him to abandon that stack of pages. “Writers die twice,” he writes, with characteristic doom-freighted significance. “And on the beach I was thinking, Ah, here it comes, the first death.”
He doesn’t indicate how much of that original manuscript makes its way into this one, but that first death is here set against the detail of three actual departures – the storied endings of Philip Larkin, Saul Bellow and Christopher Hitchens, two surrogate fathers and an unholy ghost, the lost trinity of influence in Amis’s writing life. Retracing the steps of each of them into oblivion gives him a structure to work with, and the kind of purpose he enjoys, a sort of oxymoronic inferno: “because if life is death, then death is very much alive”.
To arrive in that darker place, Amis feels the need first to summon more virile spirits. We start therefore with the author, like Jagger on the opening leg of the latest farewell tour, cranking himself up to deliver the hits. We are back in the mid-1970s and “Little Keith”, as Hitchens liked to call his diminutive pal, is failing to get satisfaction with a “chick” he christens Phoebe Phelps (the changed name the only wisp of Phoebe’s modesty that eventually remains intact). His account of their relationship is a voyage around that comic voice with which Amis first made his name in The Rachel Papers, one that he resurrected for his 12th novel, The Pregnant Widow, in 2010, and employed several times before and since. “Must we?” part of you thinks, as 71-year-old Mart drums up the quixotic intimacies of 45 years ago – “and tonight, he knew, he would get closer to that part of her which he had never been able to broach or breach – what was unnearable in her…”; we must.
Much of what follows reads as the second instalment of Amis’s millennial memoir, Experience, despite the fact that he insists his “gentle reader” thinks of this book as a novel, a fiction. He uses the middle name – Elena – of his wife, Isabel Fonseca, for example, to suggest this critical distance (the kind of stunt that used to have his old man, Kingsley, launching books across the room).
Further, not content with being a novel, this book also wants to tell you how to write novels. Every so often – as the primary narrative moves from piecing together Larkin’s relationship with his Nazi-sympathising father, or dwelling on the untold losses of Bellow’s Alzheimer’s, or detailing the boozy courage of “the Hitch”, or counting the ways Phoebe Phelps denied his advances – Amis inserts two- or three-page asides on the differences between plot and story, or the superiority of the dash to the semi-colon, or the rhythm of paragraphs. (It’s a habit that has you underlining all the places he falls short of his own priggery; so pleased is he to discover that “guest” and “host” share an etymology, for example, that he tells you twice – each time comparing the kinship to that of writer and reader. Sometimes, too, his vaunted antipathy to cliche provokes unintended sniggers: “ham-handed”, he writes at one point, to avoid the obvious.)
If there is a purpose to this sporadic “how-to”, it is to insist on the special virtue of well-tuned sentences or surprising metaphors – and of those priestly authors (chiefly Amis and his friends) who have an ear for them. In this spirit, remembered table talk, in particular with Hitchens, is routinely granted Socratic weight – whether it concerns last night’s shagging or the tenets of Shia fundamentalism. There is recovered delight and poignancy in many of those exchanges – maintained even as Hitchens was awaiting yet another invasive procedure in the city-state of an American hospital – as well as a near pathological need to be seen to say the clever thing. (Amis reports news of the death of his mother to Ian McEwan on the phone, thus: “I just deliquesced.”)
There have always been two extremes in Amis’s writing, that brilliant observational gift for ironies and a sort of elevated melodrama that stands in for a fuller range of emotion. Both still compete for attention here. There are perfectly crafted scenes that capture the creeping shocks of mortality – Amis finds himself watching The Pirates of the Caribbean on a loop alongside the diminished Bellow, or realising the jest of Hitchens is not, in fact, infinite – but they are rarely left to speak for themselves. Instead, they are bookended with mannered, self-absorbed reflections on the Holocaust, or the state of Israel, or the fall of the twin towers, or hangovers, or full stops.
At one point, Amis recalls a conversation with his first wife, in which she notes how some novels (Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March is the book she has in hand) are “babble novels” in which nothing happens, except “you know, him going on”. Amis’s defence is that it’s “the calibre of the babbler that counts”. Still, he reminds his reader, too, of the last public comment he heard Bellow make about Augie March, when he was asked what it was about. “It’s about 200 pages too long,” Bellow said.
• Inside Story by Martin Amis is published by Jonathan Cape (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15