The Martin Amis canon is not for the faint of heart. “I like drastic, ridiculous extremes,” says the 62-year-old British author, whose morally complex books grapple with everything from greed (Money) to Auschwitz (Time’s Arrow) to dead babies (Dead Babies). His latest novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England, set for release in August, takes a dim, satirical view of modern celebrity culture by placing its antihero, the thuggish Asbo, directly in the eye of fame’s vortex while he reaps its hollow rewards. “Fame for no reason, and punishment for some reason, are ridiculously exaggerated,” says Amis from his home in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, where he resides with his wife, writer Isabel Fonseca. The book’s title character, whose last name is an acronym for Anti-Social Behaviour Order (the controversial British civil order implemented by Tony Blair to curb delinquent behavior), is, according to Amis, an “utterly ambitionless” chav who wins a £139,999,999.50 lottery while in prison for having started a brawl at a wedding, becoming, in a perverse turn of events, a tabloid darling. The product of a turbulent culture whose core values are best reflected in reality television, Asbo offers a pointed criticism of society’s status quo.
Did this novel have any communication with Occupy Wall Street, or was it already at the presses by the time that started?
I handed it in around September, and I’d been working on it for two years, so the Occupy movement hadn’t really started at that point. I’m not as prescient about it as Don DeLillo, who did seem to see it coming in a short story he wrote for Harper’s Magazine in 2010 [Hammer and Sickle]. But it’s part of the ether, this culture of huge inequalities. I’ve always felt that drastic inequality was an evil thing. There should be lots of differences and scales, but not enormous inequality. That’s very demoralizing for a society. The Occupy movement excites me, and I think its time has come. It’s a necessary response to something that’s gotten out of hand.
Did you approach the character of Lionel Asbo knowing right away that he’d be a member of the working class?
Yes, and he was always going to win the lottery, and go from criminality to billionaire-dom. It took me quite a while to realize that the form of the book resembles a fairy tale: huge rewards and huge punishments, albeit arbitrary ones and without any real moral.
I like that power doesn’t corrupt Lionel absolutely. He’s corrupt with money, and he’s corrupt without it.
Money doesn’t change him in that way. He’s just as mean as he was, even meaner. John Updike once said, “What we like in fiction has nothing to do with what we like in life.” You wouldn’t want to go near Lionel in real life, but a novel puts the monster in a cage. You can enjoy looking at it without any risk to yourself. I think he retains a kind of charm. Updike also said, “What we like in a novel is life, not virtue.”
Why is it that we like to see moral trashiness, or monstrousness, exalted like that?
I’m not sure I understand why. We just delight in vulgarity. Don’t you think it’s about self-hatred on some level?
I think we’re justifying our own lives: No matter how bad things get, at least I’m not that guy.
Humor is always an assertion of superiority. Every joke that you tell—the full, anecdotal kind of joke—is an assertion of that. You’re saying how stupid or vulgar or venal someone is, always with the assumption that you’re on a higher plane. It’s very much the way humor works. And that’s why, in a culturally egalitarian age, you feel like you have to be tremendously careful when you make a joke. Nietzsche said, “A joke is an epigram on the death of a feeling.” That’s a very good definition of a sick joke, but it won’t do for regular everyday humor. I met with a friend of mine the day after Princess Diana died, and he was sort of choked by it. Then a week later I saw him and he said, with that look he has when he’s about to tell a joke, “Princess Di was on the radio the other night—and on the windscreen, and on the dashboard.” And then he said, “The minute I heard that joke, I knew it was all over.” That sad feeling had died in him, and the joke was an epigram on its death.
There’s less and less space between the tragic event and the snarky aftermath, especially with the Internet.
Absolutely. It’s almost light-speed now. The interval of mourning has disappeared. It’s not us at our noblest, is it? Everyone talks about dumbing down, but there’s a parallel process that you could call “numbing down.” I think that’s partly why people talk on their mobile phones all the time. It’s that they don’t want to be alone with their feelings. Introspection is under pressure from all of these technologies. It’s why poetry isn’t much read anymore. Poetry stops the clock and makes you examine the poet’s feelings and compare them with your own. It’s also why novels have become more narrative-driven and less essayistic. You can’t have digressions anymore in novels. I don’t think the great intellectual novels of the 1970s could find an audience now.
You won’t find people reading William Gaddis’ J R for fun.
But they should! Take [Saul] Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. That spent months on the best-seller list when it came out, but it’s very hard to imagine more than 1,000 people who are up to it now—temperamentally as well as intellectually. I think that our faculty of concentration has been diluted. Too much pressure, too much clamoring for our attention, and the muscle of concentration gets weak and flabby. The Internet is like the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Bible and in Paradise Lost. When Eve bites into that apple before Adam, she’s getting knowledge of both good and evil, and it’s inevitable that she gains that knowledge. But there are huge benefits available through it, probably with a huge price to pay.