- Inside Story, by Martin Amis. Jonathan Cape, $39.99.
Like fashion, death comes in cycles. By the time I was about 10, funerals had become a semi-regular fixture on my family's calendar. Suddenly, we were bidding farewell to grandparents, great aunts and uncles, and various other people who kept their teeth in a glass of water in the bathroom.
And then, after a few years, the funerals stopped. Every now and then we'd have to contend with a tragic one-off - for a schoolmate who overdosed at home while his parents were at work, or for my dad who succumbed to a grade 4 brain tumour at 52 - but those were freak, out-of-cycle occurrences that deviated from the natural order of these things.
Fast-forward a generation and here we go again. Pete died in March, not long after the pandemic which has claimed more than 2 million lives to date landed on our shores. Apparently, his cancer decided it wasn't that keen on remission after all. Six weeks later, his wife Jan had a heart attack and died on her sister's living room floor. And then there was Raie, who narrowly missed out on one last Christmas, slipping off instead into her own silent night a few weeks ago.
What does all this death have to do with Martin Amis' latest book you ask? Well, for one thing, Inside Story features a fair bit of it. In fact, it was inspired by the death of Christopher Hitchens, Amis' best mate, and the author devotes considerable attention to two other friends, Philip Larkin and Saul Bellow, who have long since passed through what Gore Vidal referred to as "the door marked Exit".
Given the subject matter, and my exposure to it at fairly close quarters over the past 12 months, Inside Story didn't strike me as particularly soothing tonic with which to see out the year. But then I needn't have worried.
Amis being Amis, Inside Story is good fun, which is both (a) to be expected and (b) curious. "Fun" isn't something we typically associate with "literature", much to Amis' irritation.
To be fair - and Amis is - writing about wellbeing and happiness is hard work. Nevertheless, there's no denying that the culture has been hijacked by what Amis refers to as "the intellectual glamour of gloom".
"The idea that sullen pessimism is a mark of high seriousness has helped to create an organic (perhaps by now a hereditary) resistance to the affirmative and a rivalrous attraction to its opposite", he writes.
Fortunately, Inside Story, pushes back against the prevailing pessimism. Like The Pregnant Widow before it, Amis' latest autobiographical novel (which the author has said may be his last expansive work of fiction) is thrillingly entertaining and thoroughly affirming.
It's at once highbrow and Feel Good, and it works.
However, unlike The Pregnant Widow, a tautly-plotted book narrated by a distinctly Martin Amis-like Keith Nearing, Inside Story sees Amis himself take the wheel of what he describes in the opening pages as "another instalment" of his life's story.
The result is an altogether more freewheeling and digressive affair, with the author (and central character) interrupting proceedings at regular intervals to expound on everything from 9/11 to "the high-end bingo caller who occupies pole position in the GOP". It's an approach that could have very easily gone tits up.
Inside Story opens with the narrator welcoming you to his Brooklyn brownstone and offering you a drink. Amis shows you around and rattles off a couple of charming stories about his family before casually mentioning "my pal Salman". (He then promptly apologises "for all the name-dropping".)
Initially, this first-person filibustering has me reaching for adjectives like "affected" and "pretentious", but to accuse of Amis of pomposity is akin to charging Donald Trump with lunacy. They're not criticisms so much as statements of fact. Which is why I don't mind when, 30 pages in, Amis makes a confession: "As you see, I'm stalling for time". See, despite my looming (read passing) deadline, I'm enjoying this. What's more, I'm getting something out of it, which is surely the point.
Among the many bits of "book chat", we encounter John Dryden, England's first Poet Laureate. The man Sir Walter Scott called "Glorious John" said the purpose of poetry was to delight and instruct, in that order.
Amis shares the same goals, writing that one aims to "instruct in a way that you hope will stimulate the reader's mind, heart, and, yes, soul, and make the reader's world fuller and richer". It's fair to say that Inside Story succeeds on all fronts.
Amis' book may have been inspired by death, but in these pages he lays out a way to live that is at once considered, tender and unapologetically entertaining.
As it turned out, Inside Story was just the book to see out the annus horribilis that was 2020.