‘The press, and therefore the public, have only one or two ideas about every writer,’ says Martin Amis. ‘It’s what they call the narrative. And the narrative on me is that I used to be good, but now I’ve declined.’ The pause is exquisite. ‘But that has no relation to anything, as far as I can see. I mean, my last couple of novels got better reviews than I’ve ever had. Once the narrative is in place, though, that’s it, basically.’ We’re in Brooklyn, in the living room of the house Amis bought last summer with his second wife, writer Isabel Fonseca. There are paintings, the family cat and stacks of his new novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England. England seems a long way away today, but it is Amis’s relocation to New York – or rather the British press’s reaction to it – that has prompted his outburst.
What the move was not, he insists, was a flight from failure. ‘The press flatters itself by thinking your life choices are made in response to them,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t a huffy departure.’ He lashes out at ‘fake interviews’: ‘They had one in The Guardian – the paper I write for – saying, “England can go stuff itself, I’m going…” I have nothing but affection for England.’
Over the years, this ‘affection’ has taken a variety of forms, many of them not obviously that affectionate, and the new book is an enthusiastic return to some recognisable themes: Amis’s satirical stomping ground of vicious, half-smart London criminals and vacant women, rendered with an impressive economy of craft. Its title character is a cosmically undeserving pitbull-towed thug who happens to win Dhs803 million on the lottery.
One suggestive component to Lionel Asbo that does reach for a wider cultural comment is the intersection of fame and silicon-enhanced desperation. A Katie Price-like character, Danube (‘I had fun with my sons thinking up a name for this Jordan figure. I thought: It’s got to be a river’), struts on the periphery of the action, while Asbo’s top-heavy girlfriend, Threnody, covets the attention for herself. For Amis, in recent years, this subject has become a pet obsession. ‘It’s hard to see how that kind of celebrity, plus the ageing process, is going to work,’ he muses darkly. ‘It can’t turn out well.’
Amis’s own ageing process has seen him reassess both his back catalogue and his approach to writing. ‘When I look at my early stuff, it seems technically very crude to me,’ he says. ‘I’m much happier with my last few novels. As you get older , your musicality decreases. Something seismic happens to you in your forties, where you accept for the first time that you’re going to die,’ he says. ‘This is what [1996 novel] The Information is about. Until then – and I would define youth as being this – you look in the mirror and think: While I accept intellectually that everyone gets old and dies, I don’t know how you’ve done it, but you’re an exception to the rule.’
Dhs88. Available at Virgin Megastore, various locations including Mercato Mall, Jumeirah (04 344 6971).