Slumming it with Martin Amis

Not even Martin Amis’ worst enemies — and the British novelist has plenty of them, judging from the polarized and occasionally splenetic reaction to his latest outing, “Lionel Asbo: State of England” — would ever accuse him of being a neo-Victorian. From his great London trilogy (“Money,” “London Fields” and “The Information,” published between 1984 and 1995) to more recent efforts such as “The Pregnant Widow” (2010), Amis has surfed the zeitgeist, satirizing contemporary British mores in a way his readers tend to experience as unfailingly fresh and up-to-the-minute.

That's why "Lionel Asbo" comes as something of a surprise. Published in June in Amis' native land, the book is due out Tuesday in his newly adopted home, the United States (he and his wife recently moved to Brooklyn to be near her elderly mother). In tone, texture and numerous details, the book is a throwback to the novels of Charles Dickens.


This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.

The title character, a hulking, casually violent thug who seems to cherish and even nurture his own loutishness, is reminiscent of the brutal Bill Sikes from Dickens' "Oliver Twist," right down to the vicious dogs — pit bulls kept cranky with regular doses of Tabasco — with which he intimidates his neighbors in the poorest neighborhoods of London. Lionel's biracial ward and nephew, the teenaged Desmond "Des" Pepperdine, recalls any number of Dickens' smart young strivers, including the heroes of "Nicholas Nickleby," "David Copperfield" and "Great Expectations." (Des even attends "Squeers Free," an academically challenged school not unlike the one in "Nickleby," owned and operated by one Wackford Squeers.) The plot of "Lionel Asbo," which finds its anti-hero's moral fiber notably unimproved when he wins a few pence less than £140 million (about $220 million) in the national lottery, turns on a dramatic financial turnabout that resembles, in its abruptness and tragicomic consequences, that of "Little Dorrit."

"The book is very modern, but I did have Dickens in mind throughout," Amis says by phone from his home in Brooklyn. "I wanted it to be Dickensian, but it was only when I came to the end of the book that I realized how Dickensian it was. People have a lot of trouble with Dickens, of course, because they compare him with the other great Victorians, like George Eliot, Trollope and so on, who were all realists. Dickens isn't really a realist. Accurate social criticism is not his great strength; his great strengths are exaggeration and melodrama and comedy. It's a melodramatic form, the Dickensian novel — a magical transformation, with a sort of fairy-tale vocabulary or furniture behind this amazingly vivid picture of London — and I realized that my book is a bit like that, too. It deals in huge rewards and huge punishments. It doesn't go against realism, exactly, but it's a very stylized kind of realism."

Of the remarkably unpleasant Lionel, Amis is oddly fond, and feels no great need to defend him. "Yes, as Des says at one point, Lionel gives being stupid a lot of thought," he says with a laugh. "When I hang out with people a bit like Lionel, I'm always struck and humbled by just how clever they are, how vivid and expressive and witty. It's been a conviction of mine for decades that there's a great deal of thwarted and untapped intelligence down there in that society, and it remains that way. If you are intelligent, and you have no ability to express it in your development, then you do become sort of perversely stupid, and you think, 'Ah, the hell with it, I'll be stupid.' It's a sort of adaptation."

But as in the case of Dickens, some critics have had trouble accepting "Lionel Asbo," which they found an inaccurate, unaffectionate and certainly unflattering portrait of the British underclass — and, by extension, of Great Britain itself, which comes off as a rather tattered land of poverty, urban decay, anti-intellectualism and celebrity obsession. The book's subtitle in particular — borrowed from an earlier short story by Amis, from which he also recycled themes and at least one character — pricked up the ears of British reviewers, where it rang as an indictment of "a nation gone badly wrong," as Sameer Rahim put it in the Telegraph. "Amis' 'State of England' implies England is in a bit of a state." The subtitle "invokes echoes of Amis's trademark satire," carped Lucy Scholes in The National, "but given that the England he conjures up here appears dreadfully outdated, the end result smacks instead of self-congratulatory egotism." In The Guardian, Nicola Barker waxed somewhat more philosophical. "Is this an offensive book? Hell, yes. Deeply. But then maybe modern England needs offending."

Was it the author's intent to offend? The answer, as always with Amis, is complicated. "There used to be almost a genre called the state-of-England novel, the state-of-the-nation novel," he says. "There's not so much of it in America, where there are anatomies, of course, but not the how-are-we-doing-the-last-10-years kind of investigations. These were novels of ideas, really, and suffered from all the usual problems of the genre, in that everyone talks sort of earnestly, in interchangeable voices, about institutions, et cetera, and so they're pretty hard going. My subtitle is a glance at that. You're not wrong in saying that it touched a nerve in some reviewers, who were feeling very, ah, touchy."


He chuckles with something suspiciously like satisfaction, after which his voice — posh Oxford accent and all — takes on a pleading note. "There's a great deal of affection for England in this book, and I don't think you have to look very hard to find it," he says. "If an alarm bell is set off by the subtitle and you tighten up, as it were, then by definition you're sort of humorless about it. Let's not forget that Dickens was writing when England was a very great power, and it's impossible to pretend that that's still the case. The word 'disappointment,' in its origins, means not that you don't get what you want; it means that you have something you've already got taken away from you. In that sense, if you like, England is a disappointed country. Its centrality, its potency has been worn away by time, and no one likes that. We see it in every human life; as you get older, your powers begin to evaporate, and it can be very embittering. I'm not saying that all you need is a sense of humor when you get old, but it helps. That and a sense of perspective."

There's commiseration in this, and no small amount of identification. (Amis, the son of British literary lion Kingsley Amis, turns 63 this month.) Certainly his sense of England's decline makes him love it no less. And although he has been associated with left-of-center political causes over the years — he admired former Prime Minister Tony Blair, with whom he traveled extensively following the events of Sept. 11, 2001 — Amis is surprisingly copacetic with many of what some regard as its hoariest traditions, including the monarchy.

"The Queen is turning out to be quite a remarkable woman," he says. "Those speeches she made recently in Northern Ireland were magnificent, I think. And she rises to the occasion. It was she who said, after Sept. 11, that 'grief is the price we pay for love.' I don't know where she got that from, but it's a resonant remark. And now that my friend and fanatical republican Christopher Hitchens" — who died last December, and to whom "Lionel Asbo" is dedicated — "is no more, I can own up more readily than before that I can't persuade myself that the monarchy is pernicious. There's a remarkable thing that happens on these days of a jubilee or a royal wedding or anniversary, at which there's a great royal presence, which is that the whole country loses its sense of rationality but not its sense of dignity. If most other countries on the planet were taken over by a feeling of irrationality for a whole day, there wouldn't be an unbroken window or an unraped woman left by midnight. But it isn't like that at all in England, which makes it unique."

Not that Amis wasn't quite happy to be safely away from London during the Olympics, which he says most locals regarded as a nuisance. "The World Cup, yes, but who can jump the highest or run the fastest — it used to fascinate me, but it doesn't anymore," he says. "What it will mainly do is give London the worst traffic jam in its history. I was there a month ago, and no one was talking about anything else. But they only talked about the traffic, which is already unspeakable."

Dickens, you feel, couldn't have put it better.

Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.

Lionel Asbo: State of England
By Martin Amis
Knopf, 255 pages, $25.95