In a book he dubs "novelized biography," Martin Amis offers his Inside Story on love, loss, and mortality, while Don DeLillo confronts the perils of the modern world (and what happens without it) in The Silence.

By Leah Greenblatt
October 16, 2020 at 11:00 AM EDT
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Credit: Random House; Scribner

Inside Story by Martin Amis

Martin Amis has hardly lived an unprolific life: His catalog contains some 30 works of fiction and nonfiction, along with uncountable correctives, essays, and opinions. Or an unexamined one; his bestselling 2000 memoir Experience famously captured the towering figure of his father, the late British novelist Kingsley Amis, and the familial winds that shaped him.

But all that feels like a warm-up, in many ways, for his latest — 521 dense, zigzagging pages of what he likes to call a “novel, not loosely but fairly strictly autobiographical.” If you can parse that, you may have a running start on Inside Story: a giant octopus of a book spritzing out regular inky puffs of lit-world gossip, historical digressions, romantic confessions, and vintage score-settling, with footnotes. It is also, nominally, a guide on how to write (take on sex, dreams, and religion at your own peril, he advises; be equally suspect of alliteration).

At its heart, though, which almost always also means at its best, Story is the tale of three losses: Saul Bellow, Christopher Hitchens, and Philip Larkin. The first was a long-ago interview subject who became a beloved mentor and friend; the second, a peer and platonic soul mate; the third is a little more complicated. (Larkin’s fabled poetry, Amis largely admires; his status as a family acquaintance and a sort of anti–bon vivant, less so.)

None of them died easy deaths; Hitchens’, following esophageal cancer in 2011 at age 62, remains an open wound for Amis, and the one that inspires the book’s most intimate and illuminating chapters. His great Martin-y mind is still a thing to marvel at, all the clever wordplay and synaptic leaps, but it’s the tender, ordinary moments — watching old movies with a gently addled Bellow, eating Tex-Mex near the Houston hospital where “Hitch” spent his last days — that stay. —Leah Greenblatt

Grade: B

The Silence by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo has been writing about imagined dystopias for nearly half a century; it just took this long, apparently, for reality to catch up with him. So it’s all the more disappointing to see such a master punting the subject as perfunctorily as he does in The Silence, a cool, fragmentary slip of a novella centered around some sort of vague catastrophic event.

It’s Super Bowl Sunday 2022, and a clutch of comfortable New Yorkers — a poet, a professor, a claims adjuster — gather to watch the game when the television screen suddenly pixelates and goes blank; other machines soon follow. Even at 84, DeLillo’s shrewd, darkly comic observations about the extravagance and alienation of contemporary life can still slice like a scalpel when he wants them to; Silence, though, settles mostly for paper cuts. —LG

Grade: B-

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