In the latest darkly comic novel by Martin Amis, career criminal Lionel Asbo wins a fortune in the lottery.
As he acquires the wardrobe, mansion and girlfriend -- a poetry-writing underwear model -- befitting his new station, the lottery lout’s exploits make him a tabloid favorite.
Amis followed his famous father, Kingsley, into the family business -- “Lionel Asbo: State of England” is his 13th novel, and he’s also published six collections of non-fiction and the memoir “Experience.”
Last year, he moved to Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.
We spoke at Bloomberg world headquarters in New York.
Lundborg: When Lionel Asbo wins the lottery you say he gains a future -- is that what money gives you?
Amis: When Lionel gets all his money, he feels anchored to the world in a way he never has. Before, he felt like a leaf in the wind.
Lundborg: He buys a mansion to move from “the floating world to the heavy.” Is this characteristic of the nouveau riche in general?
Amis: I once said to my father, “Are we nouveau riche?” and he said, “Well, very new, and not at all riche.”
Lundborg: Does having a famous dad who’s actually laboring in your own profession ultimately help or hurt?
Amis: Ultimately, it’s hard to say. It helped at first, just talking about career and that sort of thing.
But what seems to have happened in England is that for years I felt I had overstayed my welcome. It’s as if your father’s identity bleeds into yours -- we’re like one person who’s been around for nearly a century.
Lundborg: So, a new start in Brooklyn?
Amis: Not really. Too late for that. My wife’s a New Yorker and she’s got a lot of family here. I lived here as a child for a year when my father was at Princeton.
Lundborg: How did he like it?
Amis: He loved it! As he said to Philip Larkin, “I’ve never done so much drinking or screwing in all my life.”
Princeton was very different then from what it is now -- it was very louche. I remember the parties at our house. We used to be waiters for $3 each. The hedonism was something!
Lundborg: As Philip Larkin pointed out “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three.”
Amis: I’d say sexual intercourse began in 1966 -- it was just right for me.
My father’s “Lucky Jim” is an incredibly funny novel but it’s full of rage as well. When I was teaching the book I realized he’s furious because everyone’s a virgin in that novel except the married people and Bertrand who’s a scoundrel.
The second stanza of Larkin’s poem speaks of what went before -- “a wrangle for the ring,/ A shame that started at sixteen/ And spread to everything.”
Lundborg: You display great affection for Lionel -- what do you love about him?
Amis: In fiction, I love that sort of transgressive nature and no shame, no self-consciousness about any of that. I love the way he talks; I love the way he thinks.
Lundborg: As a criminal, why did he pretend to be stupid?
Amis: Lionel calls it the moron theory: people are more frightened of you if they think you’re stupid.
Lundborg: What are the best targets now for satire?
Amis: I still don’t know what satire means; I don’t think anyone does. Once defined as militant irony, it has the idea that you produce it to bring about change.
Lundborg: To ridicule something that needs to be deflated?
Amis: Irony does that. I like to think that some writers have the irony button on 1 and mine is more like 9.
Lundborg: It also gives the reader pleasure by taking something absurd down a peg or two.
Amis: That’s the only kind of change you’re ever going to effect -- change within the reader and not a mass change. I’m in the education business, too, and I write because I’m trying to enrich the lives of my readers, the imaginative life, the perceptual life.
Lundborg: In your next book, you’re revisiting the Holocaust. What draws you to the subject?
Amis: You don’t know why you do these things -- the novel came to me.
I respect people who say you shouldn’t write fiction about this but I don’t agree with them. So I’m going to use all the tools I have as a novelist to say what I feel about this and I will not deny myself bitter mockery of the hateful stupidity of the whole Nazi idea.
Lundborg: In one his novels, Sebald asks simply, “How could they do it?”
Amis: That’s an unanswered question and when people asked him, “Do you understand that level of racial hatred?” Primo Levi said, “It’s your duty not to understand it.”
To understand something is to assimilate it, to comprehend it within you and he says you shouldn’t; it’s your sacred duty not to understand.
Lundborg: You also wrote about Stalin’s horrors. Are communism and fascism on the same scale?
Amis: No. Nazism is by itself. When you read about Stalin, even the worst things, you don’t scratch yourself as if you’re infested with insects.
But when you read about the Holocaust, you feel contaminated by it.
Lundborg: At one point, Lionel’s nephew Des feels equal parts panic and rapture, which you say is “a perfectly logical response to being alive.” Is that how you feel?
Amis: Yes. I think a very important part of being a writer is you take nothing for granted in the deepest sense -- it’s close to madness really; everything strikes you as being sort of shocking.
(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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