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Sun August 19, 2012
Author Interviews

The 'State Of England' Is Grim In 'Lionel Asbo'

Originally published on Sun August 19, 2012 12:41 pm

Martin Amis' latest novel is his 15th work of fiction. His books are comical, raunchy, full of flashy language and a sense of something new being done. And in Lionel Asbo: State of England, the titular Lionel is vicious, violent and very funny.

The title of this new novel might not make much sense to Americans unfamiliar with the British criminal justice system. ASBO is an acronym, Amis explains to NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "ASBO means 'anti-social behavior order,' and you're issued with them if you show strong asocial tendencies, and Lionel got his first when he was 3 years and 1 day old."

Lionel's family life is distinctly odd. He has five brothers — John, Paul, George, Ringo and Stuart (named after the late, largely forgotten original drummer for the Beatles, Stuart Sutcliffe) — and an older sister Cilla, all born before their mother turned 18. "So she's a single parent with seven children who is barely old enough to vote," he says.

As for the subtitle, State of England, Amis says his 12-year-old daughter begged him to leave it out. "Enough with the subtitles, Daddy, for crying out loud," she told him. But Amis says there used to be a sort of literary genre called "state of England" novels, which were "very boring, monotonous. Now, my novel is very much not that kind of novel, so it's an ironic subtitle."

Amis, now 62 years old, was raised in London, where he sets his current novel — but Lionel Asbo takes place not in the Olympic London we've been admiring, but in the dystopian fictional borough of Diston, where life is both grim and short. "I chose to imagine a really distorted community where, in fact, the family had more or less disintegrated," he says, "just to heighten the idea of dissolution and uncertainty. ... Nothing lasts, nothing's been there longer than 60 years, and no one lives longer than 60 years."

Lionel himself has spent an awful lot of time in prison, something he doesn't particularly mind. "Desmond, his nephew, who goes on to become a crime reporter, suspects that that's what marks out the criminal class," Amis says. "They don't really mind being in prison. They don't find it an insupportable affront to their dignity every day when they wake up."

Eventually, Lionel wins the lottery and achieves tabloid fame. "Fame is actually the new religion, to speak tritely," Amis says. "And not being famous is seen as a kind of deprivation. ... For someone like me, it's more a kind of necessary not evil but complication. ... I don't see the glory of fame, and I can't imagine why people covet it, but there it is."

Amis dedicated Lionel Asbo to his friend Christopher Hitchens, who died in December. But he says Hitchens had very little to do with the writing, other than reading an early draft before his death. "When I write about Christopher, maybe about Christopher's death, that'll be in a few years' time," he says. "An event like that takes several years to move through your whole system, which is what happens in fiction. You have to process it, and it takes a long time."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Martin Amis has written a new novel - his 15th work of fiction, but then he started very young. His books are funny, sexy, raunchy, very flashy language, always a sense of something being done that is new. His latest book is called "Lionel Asbo: State of England," starring a character who is vicious, violent and very funny. Mr. Amis, welcome to our program.

MARTIN AMIS: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Now, let's talk about the title - "Lionel Asbo: State of England." Lionel - he of the title - changed his name to an acronym. Could you explain that, Asbo?

AMIS: Yes. Asbo means anti-social behavior order, and you're issued with them if you show strong asocial tendencies. And Lionel got his first when he was 3 years and 1 day old.

WERTHEIMER: Now, he is the oldest child in a very curious family. Perhaps you can give us a quick review of Lionel's family life.

AMIS: Lionel has five brothers - John, Paul, George, Ringo and Stewart, the forgotten Beatle - and an older sister, Cilla, who is the mother of his nephew Desmond. These children were all born before the mother was 18. So, she's a single parent with seven children who's barely old enough to vote.

WERTHEIMER: So, where does the subtitle come from - "Lionel Asbo: State of England?"

AMIS: I more and more think I should have heeded my 12-year-old daughter who said enough with the subtitles, daddy, for crying out loud. They seem to be more trouble than they're worth. But the state of England - there used to be almost a genre of novels in England called State of England novels, state of the nation novels, a very boring, monotonous. Now, my novel is very much not that kind of novel. So, it's an ironic subtitle.

WERTHEIMER: I was going to say if this is where England is headed, God help England.

AMIS: Well, yes. Well, we've had better days.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, you were raised in London and that's where this novel is set. But it does not describe the very lovely, if very damp, city that we've been watching in the Olympics. You've created a fictional borough of London called Diston, which I assume stands for dysfunctional, dystopic or something.

AMIS: Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: Which is ranked somewhere in the vicinity of Djibouti for life expectancy. What are you up to setting it in this place?

AMIS: Well, you read accounts of weird family structures to such an extent in Britain these days that I chose to imagine a really distorted community where in fact the family had more or less disintegrated. Just heighten the idea of dissolution and uncertainty and everything is very loose and light, nothing lasts, nothing's been there for longer than 60 years and no one lives longer than 60 years. So, it was that feeling of transience that I was after.

WERTHEIMER: Extreme impermanence.

AMIS: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: One of the important things about Lionel is that he spent a whole lot of time in prison. He said that Wormwood Scrubs was his first prison and probably his favorite?

AMIS: That's right. He doesn't really mind being in prison. And Desmond, his nephew, who goes on to be a crime reporter, suspects that that's what marks out the criminal class, is that they really don't mind being in prison. They don't find it an insupportable affront to their dignity every day when they wake up.

WERTHEIMER: You include some what I think are misquoted lyrics heading sections of the book - Who Let the Dogs In.

AMIS: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: What's that?

AMIS: Well, there's a famous song, "Who Let the Dogs Out," and the climax of this novel is when someone has let the dogs in, when there's a vulnerable infant nearby as an act of revenge. Now, I read about that in the newspaper, and novels often do get inspired by snippets in the newspaper. "Lolita," for instance, was inspired - Nabokov was inspired to write it when he saw the picture of the first drawing charcoaled by a monkey. And all it showed was the bars of the creature's cage. And he said the first throb of "Lolita" went through him when he read that. And I wouldn't make the same claim for hearing this terrible tale about the revenge of the dogs.

WERTHEIMER: Well now, you're a kind of celebrity - you're a literary celebrity, something we don't have as many of as we used to have. So, is that one of the things you're examining here, becoming famous?

AMIS: Well, I think that's part of a large process, that fame is actually the new religion, to speak tritely. And not being famous is seen as a kind of deprivation. It's what everyone wants to be. And for someone like me, it's more a kind of unnecessary - not evil - but complication. If I could produce books and win a readership anonymously, then I would. There is - I don't see the glory of fame, and I can't imagine why people covet it. But there it is.

WERTHEIMER: This novel is dedicated to your friend Christopher Hitchens who died in December. Perhaps this novel was written while you were anticipating that event. Did that shape the story? Did he shape the story?

AMIS: No, because it was already shaped by the time I heard about Christopher's prognosis. But it was in fact finished in his apartment in Washington while he was in hospital there. So, in the act of completing it, I was very close to Chris and his drama. But it wasn't shaped by him. He did manage to read it, but in a crude, unrevised form. The novel that's more about Christopher is "The Pregnant Widow," where mutatis mutandis, he appears as one of the characters. You know, I think when I write about Christopher, maybe about Christopher's death, that'll be in a few years' time. Because an event of that size takes several years to move through your whole system, which is what happens in fiction. You have to process it and it takes a long time, and it's all the unconscious, the work of the unconscious.

WERTHEIMER: Martin Amis's new book is called "Lionel Asbo: State of England." Mr. Amis, thank you very much.

AMIS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.