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The Sunday Conversation: Martin Amis talks 'Lionel Asbo,' money

The story is about a criminal who wins the lottery, and the author has moved to America, land of the super PACs, so money is on his mind.

By Irene Lacher

August 12, 2012

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Martin Amis, once dubbed "fiction's angriest writer," continues dissecting the absurdity and excesses of postmodern society in his latest novel, "Lionel Asbo: State of England," which reaches bookstores Aug. 21. The British novelist, 62, recently moved from London to Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife, American writer Isabel Fonseca, and their teenage daughters, Clio and Fernanda.

The subtitle of your new novel, "Lionel Asbo," is "State of England." But I think your story of a sociopathic criminal who wins the lottery and becomes a tabloid celebrity could easily have happened here.

Yeah, it could. But it's not just for that reason the subtitle is there. It's the whole imagined world of Diston [Asbo's home borough in London]. It's just so English. Put it this way: It's true that anything can happen in America, but it's almost impossible to imagine a microcosm of America. Henry James said America was more like a world than a country, and you couldn't imagine a novel with a subtitle "State of America," could you? There has been John Dos Passos' "U.S.A.," and many ambitious American novelists have tried to contain a huge amount of America in this or that novel, but I don't think they for a minute think they've got anything close to the essence of it — it's too various. England is small enough, homogenous enough so that you can have a shot at writing a novel with that subtitle, whereas in America it would be a vast undertaking.

So Lionel and his girlfriend, "Threnody," have real-life inspirations?

In Lionel's case, I did read a charming book written by a dustbin man, a young man who won the lottery, and it wasn't nearly as much as Lionel — 10 million or something. And I read his book, thinking this will be full of good stuff, but when I closed it, I realized I couldn't use a single idea or notion, because that is the usual cliched story. Whatever else you say about Lionel, he isn't a type. He isn't a cliche. So you abandon the real-life model very early on. The same with [celebrity and former topless model] Katie Price; my character "Threnody" is a Katie Price wannabe, but she can't pull it off in the way Katie Price has done. All you get out of that kind of research is the setting, not the motivation or emotional direction of the characters.

I haven't seen many characters named after a poem for the dead. And why is her name always in quotes?

Because she insists. It's just another bit of ridiculous affectation tacked onto the name itself, which is bad enough.

You've said you wrote "Lionel Asbo" out of admiration when you were accused of writing it out of disgust. Admiration of what, exactly?

"Admiration" isn't quite right. Affection. I realized as I was coming close to the end that this is a big theme in the book, and it corresponds to something I actually believe. All my life I've hung out with people who are not that far from Lionel Asbo, and when I do I'm always astounded by how vivid, intelligent, original and expressive they are. I do think there is a huge reservoir of untapped intelligence in what used to be called the residuum and is now called the underclass. I feel that is a tragedy, because if that intelligence is not encouraged, then people do become perversely stupid and they think, "To hell with it. It doesn't matter whether I'm clever or I'm not; I don't have a chance anyway."

You've said the book wasn't about class but money, but I think the situation you're describing is probably more the case now than ever. Even this country has become more class bound; mobility is harder now than it was when you were younger.

I agree. Inequality has now reached the level it was after the First World War. Maybe a little bit worse, both in the U.K. and the U.S. Certainly in the second half of the century, there was a steady effort against that trend and a slight evening out of these huge gulf differences, but now suddenly it seems to have gone back to a plutocracy. And what's going on in America is, I think, really alarming, the idea that there's Mitt Romney having a fundraiser in Jerusalem with, sitting on his right, a casino billionaire [Sheldon Adelson] who has famously hawkish views about Israel, because he's going to give him $100 million toward his campaign.

The "super PAC" ruling is an obvious disaster, as if there wasn't enough money in politics in this country before that. Now it's completely unrestrained, and there was very little outrage expressed about it. I'm really mesmerized about this question. I'm going to go to Tampa for the [Republican] convention. I'm writing about it for Newsweek. It seems like there's a sort of shamelessness that's quite new and also, can you explain why the very rich suddenly keep demanding respect and reverence and they feel almost hurt that they're not getting the social éclat as well as the financial reward?

I was struck by the wealthy jokes in "Lionel Asbo," similar to our dumb blond jokes, only about the rich. You'd never hear that here. Do you think this country is more reverential toward wealth?

I think it is, what Saul Bellow returned to again and again — that mentality that said, if you're so smart, how come you ain't rich? It used to be said that money stinks. Then there was a Latin tag about a tax on sewers, with the tag, Pecunia non olet — money doesn't stink. Nowadays in America, money is the only thing that doesn't stink. It's extraordinary.

Do you ever feel grateful for being born into your generation?

Yeah. A little bit guilty too. Because we're going to be such a problem. They call it "silver tsunami," the graying of the globe, and it's the most dramatic demographic phenomenon in history. And that's me and my lot. I'm personally quite grateful for it, but I look at my children and feel that they're going to be very much burdened by me and my contemporaries.

You recently moved to New York for family reasons, and you're working on another novel about the Holocaust. But are you taking notes for a new novel set here, perhaps with echoes of Citizens United?

What happens to you in your life doesn't become available as fiction until after a three-year lag, because it has to travel up and down your spine. I've written novels partly or wholly set in America already, so it would be perfectly natural for me to write another one. This is a slight boast, but it occurred to me not long ago that I spent a year here as a child. And I think I can speak American.

You mean in writing dialogue?

Yeah, the rhythm of speech is not strange to me, and it must be because of that. When I read Americans doing English voices and English people doing American voices, it never seems to me right. But I feel that year has given me fluency in America, so it wouldn't be at all surprising if I did, in a couple of years time, write another novel.

And now you're in the belly of the beast.

Yeah, and I think it is a very interesting time to be in America at the moment. Alarming, but interesting. I think what we are perhaps living through are the tremors of the awareness that America is entering decline, and that is a very nerve-racking phase in any civilization.

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