NEW YORK (Reuters) - Devotees of British novelist Martin Amis anxiously awaiting his fictional commentary on the state of America after his move to U.S. shores shouldn’t hold their breath.
It will take time for the acclaimed author, who moved to the United States six months ago, to dig into U.S. culture the way he has in his satirical new novel, “Lionel Asbo: State of England.”
Although he is certain of at least one thing in these days of fiscal austerity: He does not understand why some Americans want less taxes for the rich.
“Lionel Asbo” once again illustrates the author’s insight into modern Britain as he explores his country’s working-class citizens, a vacuous tabloid media and declining morality reflected in celebrity culture.
It was written before the author of “Money,” “London Fields” and other celebrated novels abandoned London for an idyllic writer’s haven in Brooklyn, and Amis said he has yet to distill his thoughts about America’s own class warfare and obsession with celebrity.
“It has different kinds of vulgarity — the English more sordid, the American more glitzy and cosmetic, kitsch,” the 62-year-old said under the high ceilings of his new home. “My wife insists it is not very much (different)...but I am not so sure.”
Amis, often called one of the most innovative voices of his generation, has himself long been subjected to scrutiny by the British media.
Most recently, critics have said his decision to leave London reflected spite, rather than his publicly stated reason of needing to be close to his wife’s mother and his late friend, writer Christopher Hitchens.
“It was rigged up that I was leaving in bitter hatred of Britain, and every chance I got I said the opposite,” he said.
The immediate response in the United States to his new book has been lukewarm. The New York Times said “Lionel Asbo” “reads less like a big ‘state of England’ novel than a smallish postcard mailed from there some years ago.”
The writer’s 13th novel centers around a thuggish, yet briefly endearing antihero, Lionel Asbo, whose last name results from being handed down at age 3 an Anti Social Behaviour Order, a civil order issued in Britain against conduct that includes things like begging, graffiti and excessive noise.
In contrast, Lionel’s nephew is depicted as a working-class role model in his earnest pursuit of education and love.
When Lionel wins the lottery, earning the tabloid nickname “Lotto Lout” and begins dating a publicity hound, the novel comes to reflect society moving toward rewarding the base actions of people such as those found on reality TV shows, who typically reap some fame and fortune.
“It’s that strange democratization of fame,” Amis said. “Since celebrity is ‘A’ the new religion, and ‘B’ considered a basic human right now, you feel incredibly deprived if you haven’t got it, right? It’s the spur for many of these terrorist acts, such as these massacres.”
Without recalling the exact tabloid, he said the genesis for his new book came from two newspaper clippings, including one snippet about a boy having an affair with his grandmother.
“It was probably, ‘The Sun,’ or worse, ‘The Daily Sport,’” he said, trying to recall the London tabloid before comparing their outlandish headlines to New York’s comparatively more tame reporting.
“Compared to ‘The Sun,’ ‘The New York Post’ is sort of like ‘Critical Quarterly’ or something,” Amis joked.
Reflecting upon the two countries, Amis said the United States and Britain were now pursuing a “terrific evil” of separating the rich and poor, “back to the levels after the first World War.”
Amis, a self-described political leftist, is outraged by U.S. political support for tax cuts for the rich. “I mean, everyone would say, hang on, tax cuts for the rich?” he said.
His own belief is reflected in the slogan from Britain’s Labour Party based on taxing the rich and educating the poor, and that view comes across in “Lionel Asbo.”
He scoffed at suggestions in Britain that he shouldn’t be writing about the working class by saying such criticism reflected current British “anxiety about class,” and calling it “incredibly patronizing to the class they are speaking for.”
As for suggestions his latest book, as well as some of his more recent ones, do not reflect his best writing, Amis feels the opposite. He is happiest with his most recent novel and less happy with its predecessors, “all the way down the line.”
The reason, he said, can be found in an essay about “Lolita” author Vladimir Nabokov, which contends that every writer has a bit of genius — “your God-Given stuff and that musical quality” — and talent — that “gets the thing going, knows what goes where.”
“What happens is your genius gets weaker and your talent gets stronger,” Amis said.
As for that next book from his new base in America, it may not be the work his readers expect. Against the warnings of fellow writers, he said, he is now “having a good time” writing a Holocaust novel.
Reporting By Christine Kearney, Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Cynthia Osterman