Martin Amis talks about Lionel Asbo and writing a novel of character

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Martin Amis's 'Lionel Asbo' is out now. (Courtesy Knopf)
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Arranging a phone interview with Martin Amis had about it the feeling of a black market deal: it felt very tenuous, on the brink of falling apart right up to the moment the call went through.

On the other end of the line, Amis was professional but not unfriendly. He also sounded as though he might be nursing a cold, but time constraints meant any attendant sympathies had to be swept aside in order to get right to it, "it" being his latest novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England.

The idea for the novel came about in the way many of Amis’s ideas do:

“Very often it’s something you read in the paper, or something you overhear,” he said. “And in this case, there were two things I read in the paper that struck me, and I wondered if I could bring them together. The first one was someone having an affair with his grandmother, and the second one was two pit bull dogs set on a child out of revenge.”

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The book is the story of young Desmond Pepperdine, a philosophically- and literarily-inclined orphan and incorrigible romantic who has the terrible, if never less-than-interesting, fortune to be the ward of his uncle Lionel. It brings together vintage Amis preoccupations with violence and criminality and a more recent inclinations toward dissecting our era’s peccadillos. One indication of Lionel’s ill-suitedness to the role of guardian is his tendency to feed his pit bulls Tabasco sauce. (It prepares them for unleashing violence and intimidation, two of Lionel’s particular hobbies, which also include "Receiving Stolen Property" and "Extortion with Menaces.") Also: his attitude towards women is maybe not the greatest. (Porn is what he calls “me love life.”) And then there is that last name, self-selected and assigned: Asbo, as in “Anti-Social Behaviour Order” (those being British sub-criminal orders handed out to trouble-makers). When Lionel wins the lottery—he gets the good news while serving a prison term, as one does—his peculiar blend of criminality and ethical imperatives enters the big time and the tabloids, and all the while Des worries about his own future, his uncle’s present, and a past indiscretion that might well earn him Lionel’s murderous ire.

(That indiscretion: Des might have had—enjoyed is not quite the word here—a bit of a fling with his grandmother, Grace, a.k.a. Lionel’s mum. Grace, you see, had all of her seven children by the age of 19, so, as the novel opens, she is a somewhat sprightly 39 to Desmond’s 15.)

When I asked Amis how he typically settles on a subject for a new book, he suggested that what might interest him as a starting point for a novel is not necessarily what interests him in other areas of his life.

“You think of an idea, and you immediately identify your next novel. And it may not really affect you in other ways, you just know that it’s your next novel," he said, referring to “what has been described by Nabokov as ‘broth.’”

If the bibliographic notes included with most of Amis’s recent books are to be believed, the step after “you just know that it’s your next novel” is copious years-long research work. But Lionel Asbo required surprisingly little.

“I read a book written by an ordinary guy who won ten million dollars, and I thought that would be a big help to me,” Amis responded when I asked what preparations were involved in bringing Lionel to life. “And, in fact, it was an enjoyable book, but it was sort useless for me, because I realized I didn’t want my guy to make the sort of obvious mistakes.” He termed his prep for the new novel “negative research.”

Where much of Amis's recent work has concerned itself with the examination of historical and social forces and how these shape and showcase the men and women caught up in the cultural centrifuge, the new book is taken with the notion that a singular and very forceful personality might be able to reveal something about his time and place. The House of Meetings (2006), for instance, took on the Stalinist gulag, while The Pregnant Widow (2010) examined the detritus left behind by the sexual revolution. In both cases, the socio-historic phenomenon had their way with the novel's characters. Lionel Asbo, on the other hand, is more insistently focused on character, driven by character and by the character’s voice. Amis described his latest work as “a little bit more taut” than some of his other books, dubbing it “a novel of character.”

“The voice is your guide. And you develop a kind of idiolect, which is an individual way of speaking." But in the writing of the new novel, the guiding voice became especially pronounced: "With Lionel, it was quite extreme, his idiolect.” (Sample, representative Lionel-ism: “I despair of you sometimes, Des …. Why aren’t you out smashing windows? It’s not healthy.” Meanwhile, Lionel’s pronunciation—he renders his own name “Loyonel, or even Loyonoo”—makes his pronouncements even more distinctly his.)

But it was not merely a matter of speech that made the experience of writing Lionel something new for Amis:

“What I found was different with him was that he’s very unpredictable,” he said. “And, now, in a way, that’s liberating. It’s nice to have an unpredictable character. When he jumps into a scene, I wasn’t really sure what he was going to do.”

But unpredictability, while exciting, can also have a decided disadvantage: “You don’t want to write novels about crazy people,” Amis said. Once “you dispense with recognizable motivation, then it can get very, very inconsequential and incoherent. Motivation is very helpful to coherence in a novel. And novels are really all about coherence, just making everything join together. So it was fun, but often anxious-making, to make him unpredictable but not just sort of weird, sort of random.”

This experiment in voice pays off: Lionel manages a seemingly unmanageable feat, elegantly poised at the intersection of the cartoonish, the compelling, and the unexpectedly poignant. A brute life force, all untrammeled id, he is cruel and vicious, but also strenuously loyal, religiously committed to his principles, his very own, very odd code of honor. So wondrous is this balance, Lionel inspired Amis to do something he had not done over the course of his twelve previous novels.

“I thought,” Amis said, “I’d never named a novel after a person. So it would be fun to make a change and do that.”

The emphasis on character required another, smaller, though no less significant, change. As has been much observed—particularly in the British press, which has been covering the novel, often with the kind of viciousness that is its special provenance, long before it was even officially scheduled for publication—the novel’s working title was State of England; this eventually became the subtitle. Asked about the demotion of the original book name, Amis explained that, as “the character of Lionel became larger,” the earlier title ceased making sense:

“There used to be such a thing, almost a genre of books that were called ‘State of England’ or ‘State of the Nation’ novels,” he noted. “And they were usually very earnest and sort of novels of ideas. And mine is not at all. And so I thought it would be ironic to have that as a title.” And, anyway, “years ago,” he said, he had already published a short story called “State of England” in The New Yorker. (It appeared in the June 24, 1996 issue.)

In some strange way, Lionel Asbo might actually be described as a novel of (vulgar) manners, that old-fashioned dissection of people’s behavior and the customs of the land. (It can be, in its send-up of modern mores, as seen by Lionel’s singular eyes, positively Austen-ian. That is, if Austen had ever included a sexual entanglement between grandmother and grandson as part of her exploration of the uncertainties of love and the marriage market.) Lionel’s lotto win pushes him into the world of celebrity: he meets some ill-behaved rock stars and takes up with a topless model who writes poetry and goes by the name “Threnody.” (The quotation marks are part of her name.) And Des makes his own bid for higher society, dreams of books and of romance, of family and philosophy. On the one hand, the novel dwells in a kind of seedy underbelly; on the other, it suggests that there might be no alternative in much of contemporary society, which is ultimately one big underbelly.

But where contemporary society interests Amis, young contemporary writers interest him considerably less. Two years ago, at a reading celebrating the publication of his last novel, The Pregnant Widow, his exploration of the sexual revolution, Amis responded to an audience question about the young writers he admires with a resolute denial of any concern about the latest buzz. (He did, however, praise his contemporaries and close friends, writers like Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie.) But when I asked him if he remained committed to this seeming boycott of the very young, he was less militant.

“Well, I think every writer, all writers if they are honest…” he began, before invoking another writer: “W.H. Auden said that most writers wish they were the only writers living in the present. But not many writers, he said, want to be the only writer alive at the moment.”

Ultimately, Amis conceded, the issue is one of time and of using it well and wisely.

“I don’t want to read people who have just written their first novel. Because who knows if it’s going to last, if it’s going to amount to anything,” he said. “But if you read people who’ve been dead, the generation before you, and if they are still read, then the chances are good that they have something to say. Time is the only maker of judgments in literature. It all gets sorted out when you’re dead.”

Is that comforting or terrifying for a working writer, I asked.

“It’s chastening. But it keeps you honest, I think,” Amis replied. “My father [the writer Kingsley Amis] used to say, when he was getting grouchy, I would ask, ‘Do you want to be remembered after you’re dead, be read when you’re gone?’ And he said, ‘I don’t care, it’s no fucking use to me.’ But I think he was being, that’s bluff really. I think writers secretly do value that idea. And you see it—it’s not all postmortem—because you see as you get older that you have young readers. And that’s very thrilling, to think that a twenty-five year old is reading you. Because he’ll probably go on reading you. And that means you will live after your death.”

The talk of mortality reminded me that we were running out of time allotted for the interview. It was the moment for the now obligatory question about Amis’s relatively recent move to Cobble Hill in Brooklyn. (The relocation, which Amis has repeatedly said was driven by family circumstances, has caused a minor tempest in the British press, in no small part because the move coincided with the news that Amis’s new book would have State of England in its title.) How different would Lionel Asbo have been, I wondered, had it been set in the States, if it had carried the subtitle “State of America.”

“The first thing you have to understand about America,” Amis said, “is a remark by Henry James, who says, ‘America is more like the world than a country.’ And you wouldn’t write a novel about the state of the world. And I think Americans have made very ambitious attempts to try and encompass all of America within a novel, but I don’t think I can do that. I know certain bits of America. But I don’t have the feel for it like I think I do for England. I’ve lived for half a century in London, and I think I know that city and that country quite well.”

Did that mean, I pressed, he would not be setting his next novel in Brooklyn?

“I spent three years in Uruguay, from around 2003 to 2006, and people ask me if I was going to write about Uruguay, and I said I might maybe write a couple of paragraphs about it in my life. You just don’t know what’s going to get you. It has to be that very mysterious process, where you just think, ‘This is a novel.’ And it might happen here. I have sort of half an idea about a novel set in New York. But time will tell.”