The Electroshock Novelist

Article excerpt

Byline: Sam Tanenhaus

The alluring bad boy of literary England has always been fascinated by Britain's dustbin empire. Now Martin Amis takes on American excess.

England in the 21st century may be an outpost of the United States, thanks to reverse cultural colonization, but Americans remain permanently poised for the latest British invasion. So the news in December 2010 that the novelist Martin Amis and his wife, Isabel Fonseca, herself a writer, had paid $2.5 million for an elegant brownstone in a genteel Brooklyn neighborhood sent a ripple of gossipy excitement through a city never so happy as when imported stars gobble up local real estate. A front-cover cartoon in The New York Observer, the peach-colored weekly, showed a white-clad Amis atop his front stoop, cigarette in hand, casting a baleful glance at younger Brooklyn literati, including Jonathan Safran Foer and Jennifer Egan, crowded behind an imposing fence. Amis's arrival, said Kurt Andersen, another Brooklyn writer, would be the "icing on the cake of the cool kids moving to Brooklyn"--even if in this instance the kid is a grandfather who will turn 63 in August.

Yet since last July, when he finally "pitched up onto American shores," as he puts it, Amis has been an all-but-invisible presence, save for an appearance, this past April, at the Cooper Union memorial service for his great friend Christopher Hitchens, who also happens to be the dedicatee of Amis's new novel, his 13th, Lionel Asbo: State of England. The book is an acidulous satire about a semiliterate thug who wins 140 million pounds in the lottery and soars to celebrity, becoming thoroughly at home in a luxury high-rise, where he joins "a recently imprisoned bratpack actor, an incensed fashion model, a woman-beating Premiership footballer."

Released in June in England, the novel met with mingled fanfare and abuse, the typical reception for an Amis novel, this time the complaints darkened by the perception that Amis has kissed off, and fallen out of touch with, the country he left. The dustbin empire he excoriates is at least a decade old--a place, one critic wrote, where "video games and social networks don't seem to exist, the national lottery is played by post, and a teenager composes a handwritten letter to The Sun's agony aunt instead of posting on the web."

Just after Memorial Day, I visited Amis in Cobble Hill, on a quiet side street, 20 minutes by foot from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and even closer to St. Ann's, the prestigious private school where Amis's two youngest children, Fernanda, 15, and Clio, 13, are enrolled. It was a blistering day, but the first floor of Amis's brownstone is as cool as it is pristine. It has white-stained wood floors, a fireplace, and on the walls, paintings by Fonseca's brothers, Bruno (who died in 1994 at age 36 ) and Caio. Copies of Asbo are stacked near the front door, in the hallway that leads to the large sunny kitchen. In sum, the most civilized of habitations for an author whose former reputation as man-about-town has subsided amid advancing age and the settled habits of literary industry.

Amis, trim and dressed in black, fetches two bottles of beer and seats us at a small round table. The angry response to his new book surprises him since he regards it as "celebratory," as the best serious fiction usually is. "I feel very uncrusading about England," he says. "For a long time it's been that way--affectionate amusement rather than any great frown. It's almost impossible to disapprove of the present without being reactionary, and to go on about how things have fallen off is an inherited formulation." This last assertion will startle British journalists, who in recent years have made a sport of compiling Amis's impolitic effusions--on subjects ranging from Islamists ("psychotic misogynists" and "homophobes") to England's elderly (candidates, he once jested, for euthanasia "booths").

An avowed enemy of England's gutter press, he might be expected to chortle over the Murdoch scandals. …