After several years of focusing primarily on nonfiction, British writer Martin Amis
has returned to familiar territory, the comic novel. First came 2010's droll The Pregnant Widow
and now Lionel Asbo: State of England
, a satirical tale about a thug living in a high-rise above a rough London neighborhood and the absurd and sometimes tragic things that happen when he wins 100 million pounds in the lottery. At once a ruthless takedown of celebrity culture and a hilarious character study, Lionel Asbo
marks the return of the beloved Amis of Money
and London Fields
. The author spoke with Goodreads about his renewed interest in fiction, his recent move to Brooklyn, and the role of the novelist in contemporary life.
Goodreads: Main character Lionel Asbo strikes me as a classic Martin Amis character, like a tough guy, a goon, a thug, a record-setting criminal even. What is it about that type of person that keeps drawing you back?Martin Amis
: Whenever I hang out with people in that world or on the fringes of that world, I'm always struck by how not only vivid but how expressive they are. Their kind of wit I find very funny and in its way very charming. GR: Were you at all tempted to call Lionel "Keith," a name you've given to a bunch of your goons in your past? Although Lionel, given his struggles with the "th" sound, wouldn't even be able to pronounce that name properly. He'd end up being "Keef" instead.MA
] It's true, he wouldn't be able to pronounce it. No, I think I'm going to retire the Keiths. In my last novel I had a main character who was called Keith, and he was not a typical Keith. He was a quite thoughtful and shy human being. So I've come to the end of the Keiths.GR: Lionel's nephew, Des Pepperdine, who is really sort of a surrogate son to Lionel and lives with him in his flat, is the moral compass of this book in a lot of ways. However, the novel opens with Des sleeping with his own grandmother (Lionel's mother). Which character came to you first, Des or Lionel?MA
: This novel was not like any other I've ever written for a couple reasons. I did see in a problem page [an advice column] that someone was having an affair with his grandmother. At the same time, I had the idea for "Who let the dogs in?" [a question repeated at the start of each of the book's four sections] and the idea of a terrible revenge involving dogs and a child. [Throughout the novel Lionel's trained pit bulls loom as a menacing presence.] Then I realized that the grudge was all there and waiting if the villain was the grandmother's son. So then it was just a question of making Lionel the uncle, and then it all sort of flowed from there.
What was unusual about the writing of it was that it came very quickly. I'd come to the end after just a year, and I thought it would take a couple more months with revising and polishing and that would be it. But it took me another year to revise. What happens is that if a novel is coming fast, then you tend to skimp and be perfunctory and think, "Oh, that will do. Let's get on." Then you realize you've been putting in the enjoyment but not the anxiety. Novels are made of a 50-50 mixture of those two things. I'd been shirking the anxiety and just doing the enjoyment, so then I had to suffer.GR: Speaking of the pace of your writing, this is your second novel in two or three years after writing a lot of nonfiction and spacing your novels further apart. Are you getting faster as a novelist, or is fiction suddenly more interesting to you?MA
: It may be there was a kind of midlife ripple. I had a terrible struggle with The Pregnant Widow
that did eventually resolve itself happily. I tried combining a memoir and a novel, and it was a disaster. So it was a great thrill to get back into what makes fiction fiction, which is not verisimilitude but all the patterning, the shaping, the symmetry, and the stylization of it. It was a great joy to get back to that, and then Lionel
came really reasonably quickly, and now I'm well into another novel. That particular channel in the mind seems to be quite well lubricated at the moment.GR: This book is steeped in England—not just the setting but the entire culture of it—and yet you've recently moved to Brooklyn. How does living abroad change how you're seeing the UK and writing about it?ML
: I don't expect it to have a dramatic effect on my fiction because that's so deeply embedded by now. I started the novel long before there was any rumor of moving to America. It didn't come out of that. I must say, though, that I did go back to England (after a year here) for a month in the summer, and it did look different, it looked quite weird to me, having been used to Brooklyn and liking it. It looked a little more insular, I must say. I mean, it is an island, but it used to be a sort of hub for the world, and now it feels more like a stop on the way to somewhere else.GR: Goodreads member Kate asks, "Is this book in any way a response to the recent social unrest that is happening in the UK due to austerity cuts?"MA
: No, because I started the novel years ago, and that hadn't really had time to boil up. That's always been a thing in English life. Everyone thinks, rightly in a way, that it's a very civilized country. People's manners usually are very good, and I mean that all the way through society. It's a very tolerant and generous place. But there always has been that feral aspect of England, the sort of "bear pit" aspect. It's still there and comes to the surface every now and then.GR: That "bear pit" aspect was certainly present in Money, a novel many people compare to Lionel Asbo. In Money, when John Self returns from Manhattan, it's to an England that's having a royal wedding but also riots in the streets and unrest.MA
: Yes, and Money
grew out of that contrast—the barricades on one hand and the bunting and the fanfare of the marriage on the other. It felt like a marvelous moment of contrast from the novelist's point of view, not so much from the citizen's. We had that again a year ago with rioting but also another great royal celebration—which I've come to think of as quite an amazing thing. It's several days of complete irrationality. And usually when you have those in a country, there is hardly an unbroken window by the end of it. But in fact, on these occasions there's irrationality plus good humor, which is very rare and very English. But I expect the social fabric to be thoroughly tested by the cuts because inequality, as in America, is back to where it was 100 years ago, more or less. I think inequality is a great evil. It's very demoralizing for a nation, and it will show. GR: Lionel Asbo is dedicated to Christopher Hitchens, and this question comes from Goodreads member Maruti who asks, "Which of your novels did Christopher Hitchens like the best, and are aspects of his character featured in any of your novels?"MA
: The character Nicholas in The Pregnant Widow
is quite unashamedly based on him. Although when you say "based," that's a complicated notion. The novel itself changes the character. The mutatis mutandis
—what needs to be changed having being changed—is dictated by the shape of the novel and the shape of the other characters. But certainly there are quotations from Christopher in the character. In terms of specific books, I'm not sure what he liked. I think he liked Exprience
very much, and I think he liked Money
. He was unstinting in praise, but he didn't single novels out.GR: Goodreads Author Steven Bauer asks, "What do you believe the place of satire is in a society and culture that always seems on the edge of satirizing itself?"MA
: I've never been sure what satire is. One of the definitions is that satire is militant irony, which sounds good. The suggestion, though, is that it's militant and therefore sets the task of bringing about change. I don't think that satire has actually ever done that. Satire attacks social ill and does it once the injustice has been cleared up, not while the injustice is going on, like imprisonment for debt in Dickens
, for instance. I just don't think that novels have that power. I think novelists are in the education business, really, but they're not teaching you times tables, they are teaching you responsiveness and morality and to make nuanced judgments. And really to just make the planet look a bit richer when you go out into the street.GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?MA
: None that I know of. I go down to my study after breakfast, and I don't really emerge except for a cup of coffee and perhaps to get my youngest daughter from school. I'm down there until 7 o'clock. Not writing all the time, by any means. Being alone in my study is working, whatever I'm doing, even if I'm just throwing darts into the wall. It's communing with your conscious mind and hoping that your unconscious mind is coming along and doing some of the work for you. A lot of the time is spent reading and scratching your ass and digging your nose, inching along with slow progress. It's on the whole a happy process with occasional crisis.
GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?MA
: You hope to not be too influenced; you have to find your own way. I think "inspired" is a better word. The ones that spring to mind are Dickens
, particularly in this book, by the way; lots of street names and character names have been taken from Dickens. I did have his London very much in mind. And then the two great Russian Americans, Nabokov
and Saul Bellow
.GR: What are you reading now?MA
: I'm writing another novel about the Holocaust, so I've absolutely been saturating myself with Third Reich stuff.