Martin Amis on his new novel and its nasty but 'adorable' main character

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First aired on As It Happens (09/10/12)


Lionel Asbo is a terrible man. He feeds his pitbulls beer and steak covered in Tabasco sauce to keep them mean. He has spent half his life in prison for a series of larcenous and violent crimes. He deliberately ruins the wedding of his best friend. He trusts no one, and is trusted by no one. And he's the hero (or, more accurately, antihero) of Martin Amis's new novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England, a dark satire that encompasses some of Amis's feelings about his motherland. Amis spoke recently with Carol Off in a feature interview on As It Happens.

Amis has created a number of frightening characters in his career as a writer, but Lionel Asbo is his nastiest creation yet. The name "Asbo" is something of a joke; ASBO is an acronym for "Anti-Social Behaviour Order." Lionel is a debt collector, and the pit bulls are his tools, not his pets: he gets them drunk on beer and feeds them spicy food so they'll be extra angry and threatening to those unfortunates who owe money to his boss. Even so, Amis calls him "adorable."

"Things being the way they are, I think he's the one readers will love too. I've always known people a bit like Lionel all my life," said Amis. "They always astonish me by how articulate they are in their way."

The other main character in the novel is Lionel's sweet young nephew, Desmond Pepperdine, who tries to move beyond the chronic delinquency of his neighbourhood and get an education. "Lionel has a kind of suppressed intelligence while Desmond has embraced his intelligence," Amis explained. Lionel tries to appear stupid on purpose because he thinks it's good for business. Desmond, meanwhile, is a somewhat idealized portrayal of a working-class kid trying to better himself, according to Amis. He loves his monstrous uncle, who derides higher education; at one point in the book, Desmond has to "break the news" to Lionel that he got into London University.

"If your intelligence isn't nourished and brought out, you turn against intelligence," Amis said. "You become defiantly stupid because you never got any credit for being intelligent. I think that's true all over the world, and if we could develop that intelligence, society would look very different."

Of course, nobody's perfect in life or in Amis's fiction, and sweet, bright Desmond also happens to be having an affair with his own grandmother (who is only 39, but still). "When his grandmother makes a pass at him, he can't bear to hurt her feelings, and that's how it starts," Amis said.

The novel takes place primarily in the fictional London borough of Diston, a place filled with inaction and entropy. In the book, Amis describes Diston as a place where "everything hated everything else, and everything else in return hated everything back."

The locale of Diston was inspired by a glimpse through a train window, on a day when "the air looks as if it's got vaccination scars," Amis said. "It just grew in my mind from there, and then became a satirical look at a completely dysfunctional area." The setting allows Amis to explore the hopelessness of a certain class, but Amis is quick to point out that the England inhabited by Lionel and Desmond is in no way a naturalistic portrayal of any part of London. "It's a construct," he said.

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