Martin Amis pits brain against gut in Lionel Asbo
He gave his latest novel, Lionel Asbo, the subtitle State of England, but Martin Amis has been doing a lot of thinking about the state of America. The British novelist has had ample opportunity to closely observe our neighbours to the south, as he now resides in Brooklyn’s historic Cobble Hill neighbourhood. The move to the U.S. was undertaken for personal rather than professional reasons, but Amis has already picked up a bit of freelance work reporting on the American scene. Last month, he covered the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, for the Daily Beast. Not being a U.S. citizen, Amis won’t be voting in November’s general election, but in his Daily Beast piece, he made it pretty clear where his sympathies lie: “We know that Republicans refuse to compromise with Democrats. For how long will they refuse to compromise with reality?”
Reached at the Toronto headquarters of his Canadian publisher, Amis opines that the GOP is the party of choice for those who are suspicious of anyone who dares to display intellectual leanings. “I wrote earlier that if the Democrats represent the American mind and the Republicans represent not the American heart or soul but the American gut, we had two terms of a gut presidency with George W. Bush,” he says. “And everywhere else on Earth, or certainly in the free world, the argument between bowel and brain was settled centuries ago in favour of brain. It’s an ancient idea that the leader of a democracy should be not the cleverest but the most average. That’s an arguable point, but the world has decided otherwise—except in America, where it still divides the country right down the middle. I’ve never had any doubt that you should follow the brain. Of course there are huge populations that don’t feel that way, but in America they don’t really impinge on intellectual life except during elections.”
The two central figures in Amis’s 13th novel, Lionel Asbo—the career criminal of the title and his nephew and ward, Desmond Pepperdine—reside in a fictional corner of the author’s homeland (specifically, a down-at-heel London borough called Diston), but they embody this gut-versus-brain struggle. Born into poverty, the orphan Des sees education as his ticket out of squalor. His uncle, on the other hand, takes great pride in cultivating his own ignorance. Simply put, he’s one bad bastard, whose life is punctuated by spells in prison for offences that aren’t always spelled out. Amis shows us Lionel’s comings and goings from Desmond’s perspective, but we are never shown his acts of violence, only their consequences.
Des himself is hardly without his faults. He’s 15 when the novel opens, and just beginning an incestuous affair with his grandmother Grace, who is, by Diston standards, ancient at the age of 39. That aside, he is easily the most sympathetic figure in a canon populated by rogues and antiheroes, like John Self, the hedonistic protagonist of Money, and Keith Talent, the lecherous abuser in London Fields. “I am amazed that I did create Desmond, because he is by far the most saintly character I’ve ever done,” Amis says. “Admittedly, he’s in trouble when the novel opens, but that’s soon quite a way behind him.”
If Desmond’s back story reads like something out of a Charles Dickens melodrama, that’s no accident. “His example was always present in my mind, because his good characters are failures as works of art, almost without exception,” Amis says of Oliver Twist’s creator. “Well, I suppose you’d say David Copperfield is a believable, mixed sort of character. But all his out-and-out goodies—like Little Nell, Little Dorrit, Esther Summerson—it’s almost a commonplace of criticism that all his energy goes into the villains and none is left for the good characters, who remain faceless and indeed bodiless propositions, and not believable and not sympathetic and not fun to write about or to read about. It is very difficult to do goodness. Henry de Montherlant said happiness and goodness write white—you know, the letters don’t show up. Perhaps Tolstoy’s the only writer who has ever made happiness really a delight to read about. It’s always uphill work to make the goodie the sort of person you want to see on the page. I knew I could do Lionel. I didn’t know I could do Desmond, and I’m quite pleased at how he turned out. Once we’re out of the first quarter of the book, he doesn’t really put a foot wrong, and yet I think he is likable.”
After that first quarter, Lionel’s fortunes shift rather dramatically. An unfathomable £140-million lottery win thrusts him into the spotlight, where he and his newly acquired consort, a Page 3 girl turned poet called “Threnody”, become the objects of that blend of adulation and enmity peculiar to the U.K. tabloid press. The man himself refuses to change, or to learn and grow, for that matter. He would still rather be feared than loved, he still fuels his pit bulls’ rage with Tabasco sauce, and his verbal skills continue to devolve. Throughout the novel, Amis makes a point of noting Asbo’s mangled pronunciations (“pathetic” becomes “puffeh ic-cuh”; his own name becomes “Loyonoo”).
This became a point of contention with some critics, who felt that a child of privilege like Amis (the 63-year-old is the eldest child of the celebrated novelist Kingsley Amis) had no place telling a story rooted in England’s gritty underbelly in the first place. “I did hear, and in fact it became a sort of minor news story, that I shouldn’t write about the working class, or whatever you want to call that strata, and that I didn’t get the language right,” he explains. “Now, the first criticism is too pathetic to answer. It’s so wrong on about a dozen counts, and it’s just a certain kind of mind trying to be self-righteous while at the same time insulting the working class—trying to ghettoize the working class. But as to the accusation that I didn’t get the lingo right: I wasn’t trying to get anything right. I mean, the rhythms are right, I know that. But I was trying to create an idiolect—you know, a way of talking for one individual, not for a class. There probably isn’t anyone who talks like Lionel, but that’s what I wanted. Des said, ‘His verbal prose is going downhill,’ and that’s the direction that Lionel would want it to go.”
Amis doesn’t read reviews of his books. He has a notoriously acrimonious relationship with the press back home, which, as he wrote in The New Republic recently, views literary writers with “emulousness, a kind of cruising belligerence, and an instinctive proprietoriality”.
“I went back there earlier in the summer, to England, naively hoping that it was all going to be different,” he says, “and it wasn’t one bit different, and I suspect it will always be that way. I don’t know. I can’t account for it. But writers in general are resented more in Britain.”
All the more reason, then, for Amis to keep a close watch on the state of America.
Martin Amis will talk about Lionel Asbo at a special Vancouver Writers Fest event on Sunday (October 14), at the Granville Island Stage. See writers fest.bc.ca/ for details.