Painted as if by a child’s pastel crayons, the terraces of Notting Hill glow under a fat June sun. Here, just a therapeutic gemstone’s throw from Portobello Road, sits Martin Amis in the light-soaked studio room of a friend’s house. Almost 64, and since 2011 a contented resident of Brooklyn, he’s back for a visit on his old west-London turf. Today, it feels a long, long way from “Diston”. “Very eccentric and depressed, as white as Belgravia,” this fictitious outer-London borough (a word Amis now pronounces with the long terminal “o” of his new home) is a raucous, snarling midden of short and violent lives. It lends a setting and a climate to last year’s “state of England” novel, Lionel Asbo.
“It didn’t feel like a London novel,” he says, when I suggest affinities between Lionel Asbo and his 1989 tale of inner-city dread and mayhem, London Fields, “because the borough was imaginary. For London Fields, I did an awful lot of walking the streets; with this, not.” Lionel Asbo, a lower-division Diston thug, wins £139,999,999.50 on the lottery – in Amis, the devil’s always in the detail. Clad in cash, Lionel enters a super-luxury elite where Diston’s shouty, sleazy, red-top values run like a rock-stick motto through grotesque scenes of celebrity scandal and excess. Crucially, Amis lays down Lionel’s road to ruin alongside the virtue and innocence of his mixed-race nephew, Des. For some readers, however, the novel pooped the Olympic party of summer 2012. Affronted, or tickled, critics tagged its author as the anti-Danny Boyle.
Amis has just returned from a literary festival in Lyon where – of course – he found the French literati “the opposite of touchy” about this acid etching of depraved Albion. Yet that “state of England” subtitle belongs to the novel’s genre: deliberately OTT; extravagant; “inordinate”, to borrow Amis’s own term. To go to Amis – that supreme scourge and celebrant of England’s topmost scum and lowest dregs – for sociological balance is like seeking supper recipes from Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. As before, he has crafted not so much a headline-hugging social satire as a comic dystopia with science-fiction elements: a genre affection he shares with his father, Kingsley.
“I was even going to call it Dyston, ‘Dy’ – but I thought they wouldn’t even bother with that; they’d get that wrong.” Those analphabetic Distonites appear as the stunned “survivors of a titanic calamity, random wanderers in the aftermath of an earthquake”. Entropy, one of Amis’s key metaphors at least since Money in the mid-1980s, is still grinding them down.
For Amis, the novel also felt “very Dickensian. He was much in my mind. But it was only as I was finishing the last draft that I realised that it was generically the same… Dickens was immediately recognised as a great writer, but it took decades before he was considered a serious writer. The reason Dickens wasn’t taken seriously was that he didn’t use the same conventions as the other Victorians. It’s not mimetic social realism; it’s something else. It’s more like melodrama or burlesque. Cause and effect is a bit hazier. There are certain transformations, rewards and punishments. It’s an inordinate form.” That description fits Lionel Asbo – in which Diston’s youth attend Squeers Free School – like a burglar’s gauntlet. Meanwhile, the posters for the paperback bracket Lionel Asbo as “a very Noughties boy” – decontaminating him via a historical pigeonhole.
“I let it go – I thought, it’s not a bad pun,” Lionel’s begetter says. All the same: “It’s not over, the kind of culture represented by Lionel and his friends.” Our “fantastic interest in triviality” endures. “There was a questionnaire for young girls, 12-year-olds. Ninety per cent of them wanted to be Jordan” – whose type the book transforms into Lionel’s poetry-penning squeeze, Threnody.
Although he finds it “very artificial to have a novel of a decade”, Money branded mid-period Amis as the fictive voice of the Thatcher-dominated Eighties. So has her passing prompted any reassessment of her role? “If you ask what Thatcher’s legacy was, one item was New Labour. Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Tony Blair, would all agree – would all claim – that she was the greatest prime minister since Churchill. She’s certainly the most effectual, in that she really did change society. And, to her credit, got rid of the class system – detached the Conservative Party from the aristocracy.” Now, surely, the Etonians are back with a vengeance? Yes: it’s “let’s go back to what we know.”
The Amises’ transatlantic move had more to do with the need for proximity to his wife Isabel Fonseca’s parents than any flight into exile from a rejected Britain. For the family, he reports, Brooklyn has proved “a big success. My daughters liked their school from the first day. They miss England – they miss their friends. But they’ve entered into the spirit of it. The really surprising thing is how grateful you are to the weather. Everyone had warned me about the American climate, but it’s a wonderful climate. Once the winter’s gone, the blue sky tends to be there in the morning.” In London, today’s sunshine over Portobello notwithstanding: “You realise how much of your spirits are just spent fighting the weather.
“I miss the people here more than London itself, which is ‘a great world city’ [pitched on a sliding scale of irony, that phrase recurs through Lionel Asbo]. I lived here for more than half a century and you don’t do that unless you have a great affection and feeling for it. But it’s the people…” In the US, so Amis says: “They’re as generous and tolerant as the English, on the whole, are. But they’re not witty. In England, wit goes all the way through society. It’s not heard just at middle-class dinner tables – it’s all the way down.” Even to Lionel Asbo? “Especially to him. I’ve always thought about people I’ve known who are not a million miles from Lionel: how wonderfully expressive they are. Vivid in their speech. You don’t get that in America. It’s a bit more earnest.”
I suggest that America’s long practice in multi-cultural accommodation might tend to flatten out the daily dialogue. Amis points out that “de Tocqueville [the French author of Democracy in America] said that, in the middle of the 19th century: it’s an amazing thing, democracy. But don’t they see how it’s going to go? Soon no one will dare to open their mouths. Incredibly prescient. Giving or taking offence would be the currency of all conversations. It is a kind of unconscious strategy for the multi-ethnic society – a society of immigrants. You have to watch your tongue a bit.”
Another American import who built a career out of not watching his tongue was Christopher Hitchens, Amis’s close friend, partner in provocation, and intellectual lodestar over four decades. Hitchens’s admirers and enemies alike lost him to oesophageal cancer at Christmas 2011. Yet his early exit led, for Amis, to “a very surprising and heartening outcome. I always used to say that his love of life was superior to mine. And since he’s died, I feel an increase in love of life. It’s as if it’s your duty to love it on his behalf. He was so bright and juicy about the world. The world has a better colour than it used to. I don’t know how long it will last. And it didn’t emerge for a while from the disaster of his death.”
Embraced quickly and warmly, Amis enjoys and adorns the literary life of New York. “I’ve been made very welcome in that regard; inducted [class of 2013] into the Academy of Arts and Sciences. They’re not slow to adopt you if you go there.” As for the politics, he reported with avidity on the 2012 presidential campaign. “No matter how bold we were in speech, we were all terrified that [Republican] Romney might just do it. And in fact, he didn’t have much of a chance at all. Because he tried to do it with the white vote.” Mightily relieved, and still impressed by Barack Obama, “the wittiest president they’ve had for a very long time”, Amis ponders the vanquished Mormon. “What a curious man Romney is. It occurred to me later that he looks like a veteran porn star – that sort of sheen-y face.” Stained, like a coffin, I venture. “Caramelised”, he corrects. “One of those Americans who looks as though he’s had his head capped.”
Will he write an American novel – or rather a second, after the ventriloquised policewoman of Night Train (1997)? “It’s sort of brewing”, but still very far from the boil. However, he has nearly finished a novel that dives deeper through dystopia, and through the gates of Hell. It will be a love story, with three narrators, set in an unnamed Auschwitz. In 1991, Time’s Arrow ran the Holocaust narrative backwards (a typical SF touch). It incurred charges of frivolity as well as awe for his craft.
“I thought at the time that I couldn’t have done it any other way because I’m not that sort of writer.” However, re-reading Primo Levi – the Auschwitz survivor who wrote the indelible memoirs If This Is a Man and The Truce – gave him “a kind of breakthrough”. He ceased to try to rationalise the Nazi genocide. “Levi was asked: ‘Do you understand that kind of racial hatred?’ He said: ‘No, I don’t, and moreover it’s my duty not to understand it.’ It was so counter-human… The soul rejects it utterly. But once the pressure was off to understand it – I felt that I did understand it, a little bit more.”
Where will his jokes go in Auschwitz? “I don’t deny myself bitter mockery as one of the weapons of excoriation. It was a ridiculous ideology, with huge irrationalities within it. It was almost comedic, how far from logic as well as from every possible value it was. The comprehensiveness of the descent into the embrace of evil – you might even say it was Germanic rigour. Once there, let’s do it in the German way.” I mention Macbeth, mid-stream. Amis finishes the quotation: “‘I am in blood/ Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,/ Returning were as tedious as go o’er.’ ‘Tedious’ is awfully good. In for a penny, in for a pound.”
Amis once interviewed Anthony Burgess. “I said, ‘you do believe in evil, don’t you, as a force?’ And he said there [was] no AJP Taylor-ish explanation for what happened in Poland in 1941-45.” But does that sleep of reason take us into the realm of metaphysics? “I don’t think it was a supernatural event, because I don’t believe in the supernatural. But it resembles one – it must have felt like one at the time. More like a sort of 10-year Walpurgisnacht, when the devils come out. A lot of very good German writers have said that the Germans can’t keep their devils in the basement; they have to let them out.”
As he has done for a while now, Amis moves cautiously, with the wary tread of the veteran sports-injured athlete (tennis, in his case). Yet the sheer voracious appetite for work and ideas feels quite undiminished. Does he still – an old bugbear of his – worry about the fading of creative powers, that private entropy?
“The fear of it’s still there. It hasn’t happened yet. Except that there’s a trade-off. Inspiration gets less, and technique gets better.” Shorter, tighter, forms of fiction now appeal. “I suppose that I am getting more in interested in coherence as the main desideratum of a novel – heightened imaginative coherence.” The Pregnant Widow, his exuberant but heart-rending 2010 novel of the sexual revolution and its (female) casualties, “astonished me by being as long as it was”. Future works will not emulate that bulk. “Saul Bellow quoted Chekhov: the older I get, everything I read strikes me as not short enough. And Saul said, ‘I profoundly agree’. That’s how I see it too.”
‘Lionel Asbo: State of England’ is published in paperback by Vintage (£8.99)