Martin Amis’s new novel, Lionel Asbo, aims to capture the dirty glamour of celebrity-obsessed Britain. But is it possible to sum up a country in a work of fiction?
By Sameer Rahim
There’s a big clue in the subtitle of Martin Amis’s new novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England. Not only has the 62-year-old writer created a portrait of a person – the “brutally generic” Lionel, a Wayne Rooney lookalike who has emerged from the primordial ooze of the London borough of Diston – but also of a nation gone badly wrong. Amis’s “State of England” implies England is in a bit of a state.
Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday, Amis rowed back from the claims on his front cover. Lionel Asbo is “not a where‑we‑are novel”, he insisted. “It’s more about the atmosphere of the time.”
It’s hard not to be taken in, though, by what he described as the world of “surfaces, trivialities and vulgarities” that surrounds us. Or, at least, it has been difficult for Martin Amis (now living in New York) to resist the dirty glamour of celebrity‑obsessed Britain.
But is the idea of a novel that sums us all up misconceived? Ezra Pound famously described literature as “news that stays news”. You should be able to read a novel long after the events it describes have become dated, otherwise your work will be as ephemeral as the latest cultural fad.
Possibly because they come from such a large and disparate country, many American writers have tried to create nation-defining fiction. I hesitate to draw on the cliché of the “Great American Novel”, but it is undeniable that writers as different as Saul Bellow, Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Franzen have produced panoramas of American society that intervene in larger arguments about the future of the country, rather than simply observing from a safe distance.
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