Close Encounters of the Literary Kind, Part VIII: “State of England”

I’ve seen Martin Amis read from his work on several occasions, and each time I find him to be charming and quite generous with his time. He has one of those personalities that can engage the audience in ways that a lot of writers cannot. His latest novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England has been called a “return to form,” which is really no surprise, since the last several novels Amis has published have created the same buzz. The publication of each new Amis novel is met with considerable fanfare, but this time may be different. Lionel Asbo really is his best novel in years.

Lionel Asbo: State of England deals with tough-guy degenerate Lionel Asbo and his nephew Desmond Pepperdine. Both live in the east London section Amis calls Diston. Asbo is in his early twenties and has the great distinction of having his mug shot first taken when he was three years of age. Asbo is not a successful thug, but he tries. His nephew, Desmond, is perhaps the purest character Amis has ever created. He is a good kid who must confront all of the trials and tribulations that go along with life in the projects, and this reader genuinely likes him. But more importantly, the reader finds himself rooting for Desmond to make it out of the projects. One cannot say the same for Lionel. Ever since Desmond’s mother died Desmond has been living with his uncle Lionel. Lionel has moved into the Pepperdine apartment and taken over. Everything changes when Lionel wins about 140 million pounds in the lottery. What follows is proof that you can’t take the shit out of the newly minted millionaire. The subtitle, “State of England” reminds us of the location Amis situates his novel. This novel is very Dickensian in its portrayal of a certain section of London. Diston is not a section that one would read about in George Elliot or Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope. Diston is the projects, and as such, provides (at least for me) a much more interesting place to explore than the halls of Parliament.

Amis appeared at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge on September 7th to read from this novel and sign some books. He began by giving the audience (it was a sold out event) a thirty-minute report concerning his recent return from the Republican National Convention in Tampa. “Jesus Christ,” he muttered into the microphone before he began recounting all that he had seen and heard. “If Mitt Romney wins the election it will be a disaster for the United States and the free world.” These are strong words that received a favorable response from the crowd. But this is the kind of response one would expect from thinking human beings. My favorite moment came when Amis referred to Mormonism as “quackery.” Quite right Martin. Amis’s report on the convention will be coming out in a future issue of Newsweek, the magazine run by his long-time friend Tina Brown.

Last year Amis and his family moved to Brooklyn, New York. Much has been written as to the implications of this move (we don’t tend to care too much about the personal lives of writers in the United States as they do in every other part of the world) and if he would now write novels located in the United States. He dismissed rumors that he moved to the United States to get away from some of the bad reviews and invasion of privacy he has suffered from in England. The truth is much more boring. His family moved to be closer to his wife’s aging mother. He did say, however, that he does have an idea for a novel set in Brooklyn. Whether this novel comes to be is still too early to tell.

I had a brief discussion with Amis after the reading and he seemed excited about the positive reception Lionel Asbo: State of England has been getting. While he was signing books he kept sipping from a beer and taking his time to talk with the long line of readers waiting to get their books signed.

I’m not sure if Martin Amis is one of our greatest contemporary novelists. I’m hesitant to use words like “greatest,” “best,” “worst,” and the like since those terms are all so relative to the particular tastes of the reader. I have several students in my classes this semester who joyfully inform me that Nicholas Sparks is their favorite writer. As shocking as this is, I guess I should just be happy that my students are reading, even if it’s crap. I encourage my students to attend public readings by authors. Going to see the author read from his or her work in person is, at least for me, a lot like going to see a rock concert. No matter how many times I’ve seen Amis speak, I still get that buzz by encountering someone whose writing has had such an impact on my life. I taught his books a number of times, and now that he is living in Brooklyn, perhaps I’ll have a better chance at getting him to speak on campus.

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