At home in the bosom of his young family on his 63rd birthday last Saturday, Martin Amis gazes out the window and sees nothing but sweetness and light. The grim, nightmarish London suburbs that featured so strongly in this famously scabrous novelist’s early fiction – and to which he returns in his latest book, Lionel Asbo: State of England – are thousands of miles away from his stately new home in the genteel Brooklyn neighbourhood of Cobble Hill.
“It’s Arcadian,” Amis exults. “It’s an unfallen world here. It’s like living in the 1950s.” Cobble Hill is “entirely gentle” and winningly “philoprogenitive,” according to the author.
(“It means being very keen on babies,” he explains.)
Being happy in Brooklyn in no way implies he was ever unhappy in Britain, Amis insists, let alone that he left “in traitorous hatred of my homeland,” as some compatriots charged when he announced his departure this summer. “It was entirely to do with family and not at all to do with any supposed disaffection for England,” he says.
And any suggestion that Lionel Asbo is the literary expression of such traitorous hatred is, “may I say, a superficial reading,” according to Amis. Yes, the novel – whose protagonist is named after England’s Anti-Social Behavior Order – is every bit as tough as the rampant satire that made Amis’s reputation 30 years ago.
It chronicles the misadventures of an especially vicious thug in a benighted East London borough called Diston, where “everything hated everything else, and everything else, in return, hated everything back.” And the first adjective used in the promotion copy on its dust jacket, in 40-point bold type, is “savage.” But in sum, the author says, LionelAsbo “is actually a very affectionate look at England, and not a diatribe.”
“I mean, novels just can’t get written in that spirit,” he adds. “A novel will always tend to be celebratory and fond, because that’s the nature of the form.”
Diatribes sunny Amis will leave to the reviews – which he never reads, “even the good ones.” And perhaps luckily, because the first notices have been sufficiently mixed that The Guardian was moved last week to run a story, “Lionel Asbo savaged, Martin Amis mauled by U.S. media,” celebrating the transatlantic transference of “Amis-bashing” – a phenomenon, it said, that “has long been a popular pastime in the British press.”
So why so buoyant? Surely this veteran basher-bashee can be induced to hurl a few choice Latinate bombs back at his accusers? But no. The furthest he will go, in defence of novels ever fond and affectionate, is to describe the work of Samuel Beckett as “totally rebarbative.”
Amis’s only doubt about the new novel is its provocative subtitle, “State of England,” which might seem to support accusations of Albionophobia. “My 12-year-old daughter said the other day, ‘Enough with the subtitles, daddy, for crying out loud.’ And I think she’s on to something.”
The reason Martin Amis is so happy, “paradoxically,” he says, is the recent death of fellow writer and iconoclast Christopher Hitchens, “my best friend for 40 years.”
Being close to Hitchens in what Amis hoped would be his friend’s final years – mere weeks, as it turned out – was one of the reasons that brought Amis and his family to New York.
“It was a great disaster when he died and I was there to register it,” Amis says. “But then – I hope this is universal, if it is, it’s a great thing – with the death of a dear contemporary, you seem to inherit their love of life, and it becomes a duty to love life the more intensely on their behalf, because they are no longer here to do it themselves.”
He worries it might be just a phase. “I’m preparing for a vengeful depression.”
In the meantime, the pleasure he takes from walking his youngest daughter to school every day “feels new,” Amis says. And a central trope of Lionel Asbo, it must be admitted, is outright philoprogenitivism: Although he threatens her with a horrible death, the author coos eloquently over the beautiful baby who represents hope for the denizens of benighted Diston.
Amis is not only the father of two young children, he is also a grandfather. Thus mellows the erstwhile enfant terrible.
“When you’re young, you’re saying hello to the world, and it all looks fresh,” he says. “When you’re in your sixties, you’re in a leave-taking posture – but it all looks fresh all over again.”
Amis is especially pleased not to be repeating the pattern established by his famous novelist father, Kingsley Amis, “who had what the writer Edward Upward described as ‘failures of tolerance,’” according to his son – being irritated, for instance, by babies crying in restaurants. “I find I don’t have that at all. I get more tolerant.”
In Lionel Asbo, Amis celebrates as much as he savages the misdeeds of the British tabloid press. “Everything adds to the gaiety of nations – the tabloids and my novel, I hope,” he says. Of last summer’s London riots, he pronounces himself “grimly amused by the fact there was a whole mall that was savaged and the only store that was left untouched was Waterstone’s book store.” Of U.S. politics, he says, “The Republicans have forgotten how to compromise – and I don’t mean compromising with the Democrats. I mean compromising with reality.”
And the “bitter mockery” that so characterized the work of his youth has ripened into something familiar and yet surprisingly new. “I more and more feel that writing comes from love of life,” Amis says.
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