The 'State Of England' Is Grim In 'Lionel Asbo' Martin Amis' latest novel, Lionel Asbo, takes a bilious — but funny — look at the deterioration of England through the eyes of the titular lowlife Lionel, a habitual offender who doesn't mind repeated prison stints, and his crime-reporter nephew Desmond.

The 'State Of England' Is Grim In 'Lionel Asbo'

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Martin Amis has written a new novel - his 15th work of fiction, but then he started very young. His books are funny, sexy, raunchy, very flashy language, always a sense of something being done that is new. His latest book is called "Lionel Asbo: State of England," starring a character who is vicious, violent and very funny. Mr. Amis, welcome to our program.

MARTIN AMIS: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Now, let's talk about the title - "Lionel Asbo: State of England." Lionel - he of the title - changed his name to an acronym. Could you explain that, Asbo?

AMIS: Yes. Asbo means anti-social behavior order, and you're issued with them if you show strong asocial tendencies. And Lionel got his first when he was 3 years and 1 day old.

WERTHEIMER: Now, he is the oldest child in a very curious family. Perhaps you can give us a quick review of Lionel's family life.

AMIS: Lionel has five brothers - John, Paul, George, Ringo and Stewart, the forgotten Beatle - and an older sister, Cilla, who is the mother of his nephew Desmond. These children were all born before the mother was 18. So, she's a single parent with seven children who's barely old enough to vote.

WERTHEIMER: So, where does the subtitle come from - "Lionel Asbo: State of England?"

AMIS: I more and more think I should have heeded my 12-year-old daughter who said enough with the subtitles, daddy, for crying out loud. They seem to be more trouble than they're worth. But the state of England - there used to be almost a genre of novels in England called State of England novels, state of the nation novels, a very boring, monotonous. Now, my novel is very much not that kind of novel. So, it's an ironic subtitle.

WERTHEIMER: I was going to say if this is where England is headed, God help England.

AMIS: Well, yes. Well, we've had better days.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, you were raised in London and that's where this novel is set. But it does not describe the very lovely, if very damp, city that we've been watching in the Olympics. You've created a fictional borough of London called Diston, which I assume stands for dysfunctional, dystopic or something.

AMIS: Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: Which is ranked somewhere in the vicinity of Djibouti for life expectancy. What are you up to setting it in this place?

AMIS: Well, you read accounts of weird family structures to such an extent in Britain these days that I chose to imagine a really distorted community where in fact the family had more or less disintegrated. Just heighten the idea of dissolution and uncertainty and everything is very loose and light, nothing lasts, nothing's been there for longer than 60 years and no one lives longer than 60 years. So, it was that feeling of transience that I was after.

WERTHEIMER: Extreme impermanence.

AMIS: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: One of the important things about Lionel is that he spent a whole lot of time in prison. He said that Wormwood Scrubs was his first prison and probably his favorite?

AMIS: That's right. He doesn't really mind being in prison. And Desmond, his nephew, who goes on to be a crime reporter, suspects that that's what marks out the criminal class, is that they really don't mind being in prison. They don't find it an insupportable affront to their dignity every day when they wake up.

WERTHEIMER: You include some what I think are misquoted lyrics heading sections of the book - Who Let the Dogs In.

AMIS: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: What's that?

AMIS: Well, there's a famous song, "Who Let the Dogs Out," and the climax of this novel is when someone has let the dogs in, when there's a vulnerable infant nearby as an act of revenge. Now, I read about that in the newspaper, and novels often do get inspired by snippets in the newspaper. "Lolita," for instance, was inspired - Nabokov was inspired to write it when he saw the picture of the first drawing charcoaled by a monkey. And all it showed was the bars of the creature's cage. And he said the first throb of "Lolita" went through him when he read that. And I wouldn't make the same claim for hearing this terrible tale about the revenge of the dogs.

WERTHEIMER: Well now, you're a kind of celebrity - you're a literary celebrity, something we don't have as many of as we used to have. So, is that one of the things you're examining here, becoming famous?

AMIS: Well, I think that's part of a large process, that fame is actually the new religion, to speak tritely. And not being famous is seen as a kind of deprivation. It's what everyone wants to be. And for someone like me, it's more a kind of unnecessary - not evil - but complication. If I could produce books and win a readership anonymously, then I would. There is - I don't see the glory of fame, and I can't imagine why people covet it. But there it is.

WERTHEIMER: This novel is dedicated to your friend Christopher Hitchens who died in December. Perhaps this novel was written while you were anticipating that event. Did that shape the story? Did he shape the story?

AMIS: No, because it was already shaped by the time I heard about Christopher's prognosis. But it was in fact finished in his apartment in Washington while he was in hospital there. So, in the act of completing it, I was very close to Chris and his drama. But it wasn't shaped by him. He did manage to read it, but in a crude, unrevised form. The novel that's more about Christopher is "The Pregnant Widow," where mutatis mutandis, he appears as one of the characters. You know, I think when I write about Christopher, maybe about Christopher's death, that'll be in a few years' time. Because an event of that size takes several years to move through your whole system, which is what happens in fiction. You have to process it and it takes a long time, and it's all the unconscious, the work of the unconscious.

WERTHEIMER: Martin Amis's new book is called "Lionel Asbo: State of England." Mr. Amis, thank you very much.

AMIS: Thank you very much.

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