From his new home base in Brooklyn, the British novelist and firebrand talks to David Wallace-Wells about sex, porn, rioting, the difference between London and New York, and the dwindling fortunes of postmodernist literature and American empire.
Let’s start with your new book, Lionel Asbo, and in particular with the subtitle of the new book, State of England, which I understand was originally the working title.
Is it unfair to read that subtitle literally?
My 12-year-old daughter said to me, “Enough with the subtitles, Daddy, for crying out loud.” Because they always seem to cloud the issue rather than clarify it. There used to be such a thing—almost a genre—called “state of England” novels, or “state of the nation” novels, which tend to be earnest explorations of various institutions with lots of civil servants and academics talking in indistinguishable voices about this or that. My novel is very far from being that. I don’t attach much importance to it. The subtitle is there for those who want it.
It seems to have riled up some people in England.
It doesn’t take much to do that. Several people, not just reviewers, took me to task for writing about what they called the working classes—something I’ve been doing for 40 years without it being challenged or even remarked. I thought that was contemptible—what do they want to do, ghettoize the working class as a subject? Can you only write about your own class? I’ve written about royalty and other classes. Am I not allowed to do that? As if you can’t have been to Oxford and talk in a poncey accent—that that therefore prohibits you from writing about these people I’ve always written about. It’s all so contemptible. People who go in search of self-righteousness wherever they can find it.
What do you think explains it?
Just touchiness—increased touchiness. I suppose I haven’t written about them for a while. And maybe I haven’t written a novel so completely about that class. But it’s sort of baffling and ridiculous and ill-intentioned—not just towards me, but towards the working classes. It’s not worth wondering where it comes from.
But it happens as you leave London and come to New York, which gives it an extra charge.
Yeah, bit of that.
And the book is a kind of satire of contemporary England—a member of its underclass wins the lottery and enters its tabloid class.
Satire is—I wonder how helpful it is as a category. It was once defined in apposition to irony, in that the satirist isn’t just looking at things ironically but militantly—he wants to change them, and intends to have an effect on the world. I think that category just doesn’t exist in literature. No novel has ever changed anything, as far as I can see. And the great satirists, like Swift and Dickens, tend to write about abuses and injustices that have already been partially corrected—you write about it after it’s over. I would say I’m an ironist not a satirist. All you do is you take existing tendencies and crank them up, just turn up the volume dial. Which is a technique of science fiction, apart from anything else.
You wouldn’t call the book a work of science fiction, though, would you?
Often it doesn’t occur to you what kind of novel you’re writing until quite late on, and I realized that it was more like a fairy tale than like any form I could think of. And I very much had in the back of my mind Dickens—a heightened London, a stylized London.
Dickens is a much misunderstood and mis-approached writer, in that he tends to be read, particularly in the twentieth century, as a social commentator—like the great Victorians, a realist in his way. But he isn’t at all like that. His genre is actually more like a fairy tale—weird transformations, long voyages from which people come back altered, parental mysteries, semi-magical twists. Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop actually turned into an angel in the end. Melodramatic, not realistic, cartoonish—that’s what I realized. I knew Dickens was in the back of my mind. But it was actually his form as well.
Is London Dickensian today?
Some people have said that England’s always been just as it is in this novel. It had a century or two of empire—or not even that, a century of grandeur. But that it’s actually always been a kind of bear pit. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but there’s something to it.
Were you in London for the riots?
I wasn’t. As I recall, it was, as these things usually are, set off by a bit of heavy-handed policing. It’s interesting that there’s such a contrast between the police in America and there, in how they’re viewed by the working class, or whatever you want to call them—the proletariat, the many. In America, the policeman is a working-class hero. In England, the policeman is a working-class traitor. Lionel propounds this view himself—the police undertake to protect the rich man’s shilling. As if everyone’s raring to have a redistribution of wealth. That’s why there’s such violent names for the police in criminal England—they call them not only the filth, the filth, but also the puss. They’re the lowest of the low. When policemen go to prison in England, they have as bad a time as a pedophile.
The police in America are, to my senses, quite fascistic—you know, immediate end to all humor, end of all human contact; it’s a real assertion of authority in a way that’s very rare in England. In England, police are, softly softly, “Now, sir, come on, sir.” It’s a humoring voice, not an authoritarian one. I don’t understand the sparking incident. But, then, as the phrase is, it’s all off, then. When a riot starts, it’s all off—meaning, the law suspended. It’s also interesting they used social networking to get people around to certain malls where the police presence was small.
Also that they were gravitating towards malls at all.
Yeah. It was very sort of un-left-wing, in the sense that they all flooded into these sports-equipment shops and tried on all these trainers. A rioter doesn’t usually try things on. Or a looter—it was looting, really, rather than rioting.
But, I mean, what conclusions are people trying to draw from that? It’s just the sort of thing that happens every now and then. Very hard to see any kind of social protest in it. It was opportunistic, and cynical, I think. And I was horrified to learn some of the sentences that were being handed down, for people with no record, first-time offenders, deterrent sentences, exemplary sentences. So, you know, incoherent social spasm rather than anything one could draw conclusions from.
But I guess an expression of class frustration, too.
It’s not class anymore. It’s money. And for very good reason. Money is a much more fluid medium than class, and much more measurable, too, than class. It was a protest, if it was that, to any extent, against privation. It is the sort of society where—it’s not very rational—people look at fame and feel deprived if they haven’t got it, feeling that this is a basic, almost a human right, a civil right. And also feel the same way about wealth, I suppose—why haven’t I got it? And plenty of people got it who don’t deserve it—Lionel being a good example of that. It’s as if it’s all up there for grabs, but it isn’t coming their way.
There was meant to be a summer of rage, when was it, two years ago, three years ago, they thought it was all going to heat up. My older son wrote a great piece about that demonstration—the first in what was meant to be the summer of rage. He said in his piece, there are a few anti-globalization types who think that wrecking a McDonald’s is a significant way of protesting globalization. There were certain elements of the old red left—socialist-worker types. But, he said, it was very incoherent, and he couldn’t imagine it forming into a sharp end. It was amorphous.
It was a similar critique people made of Occupy Wall Street, though that always seemed to me a little shortsighted, in that political rage is often incoherent, so to ask protest to be coherent is sometimes asking a bit much.
To ask for coherence? I liked the fact that Occupy was so sort of laid-back, in its way. They were there, but apart from that—no slogans, manifestoes. It was almost without an ideology. It was just, the one percent and the 99 percent, which I think is completely legitimate. It’s fizzled out, now, hasn’t it?
Yeah, but there’s a kind of simple meteorological explanation for that. When it got cold, they all had to leave.
Yeah, but why didn’t they come back? I went to Occupy Des Moines, and that was actually depressing. There was one old guy, who looked as though he could have been a forest ranger—decent, respectable, dependable, a moral citizen. But the rest were kind of circus freaks, and really weird. All nice, but a juggler, a kid who, you could tell by his eyes, had been for one reason or another renting his ass. Not the crème de la crème. But in New York they seemed like bohemian intelligentsia types.
I wanted to ask you about the New York that appears in Money, and how recognizable that city might feel to someone arriving today—to you arriving today, say.
It has much less edge today. It was still a dangerous place, in the seventies and eighties, before that “broken windows” policing strategy that seemed really effective. And also money has been like a douche through the whole city. Those risky bits like the Lower East Side and Alphabet Land are now chic.
It’s the same in London, isn’t it? It seems from New York that London is becoming a kind of finance banana republic, with the other classes being pushed out of the picture a bit.
Yeah. Well, Margaret Thatcher put it brutally, as she always did, If they can’t afford to live in London they must live elsewhere. Gentrification is like class cleansing, it’s flushing out the proletariat, just by pressure and money. To make a good investment in London now, you probably have to go to the most violent slum you can find, knowing that in fifteen years, ten years—there is only one way for it to go, which is up.
I’m sure there are many resemblances between London and New York. And they’re on a par in terms of inequality—a really striking thing, an evil thing. In the middle of the century and beyond, the tendency was very much egalitarian—the lessening of divides. But now, both here and in England, inequality is on the level it was just before the First World War. It’s gone back to that—it has just relapsed to those ruling-class kind of levels. That whole ameliorative energy, and tendency, has been reversed, just in the last ten or twenty years. And I think it’s tremendously demoralizing for a society when the divide gets that big.
My nagging thought about America is that it’s becoming more like a plutocracy than a democracy. The way money has been allowed, even encouraged to come more into politics. That super-PAC decision—I mean, the Supreme Court behaved themselves about the health care.
Somewhat—yeah, sort of touch-and-go. But this little story isn’t about the Supreme Court. In, I think, the thirties, the American publisher of Mein Kampf sued another publisher who printed unauthorized extracts of those books. And it didn’t go to the Supreme Court, it went to some district court, but the court found in favor of Hitler. That’s a good metaphor for what the Supreme Court is always doing—finding in favor of Hitler. Cute legalism, pedantry, anti–common sense.
But the big difference between London and New York is that it doesn’t really matter what happens in London anymore, to the world. It is still a financial center, but politically, it just doesn’t matter. And that can’t be said of New York, or of the East Coast in general. America still is the center of the world, and what happens in the American economy matters everywhere. And that is long since ceased to be true in England.
So you don’t pay much attention to British politics?
I didn’t when I was living there.
What do you think of London mayor Boris Johnson?
I met him once very briefly, in a TV studio, as his run for mayor was looking as though he might win. I’d just been on and was going, and he’d just come in and was going on and he was very nervous. And I said, Boris, just be yourself. And he said, Oh, no, that’s over. No more of that.
I think he’s personally charming and learned. But that’s the sort of thing I can’t get interested in. And never could.
There’s John Lanchester’s new novel, Capital, and Zadie Smith has a book coming out about Northwest London, and there’s your book. It does seem like there’s a bit of a wave of thinking about London in the post-crash years.
It’s really the postwar years, isn’t it? That’s how long it’s been going on. When the Big Three met in Yalta during the war—they weren’t the Big Three, they were the Big Two, plus Churchill. England was already ceasing to matter, even during the war. Having been the center of the world itself for at least a century.
America is due to decline, but it’s not declining yet. And that’s the big difference in feel between the places, London and New York. It’s a magnificent world city, London. And its history is there, and its present. But there’s a sense of unreality about it. And coming here to live has underlined what I suspected is the case—you know, how often is there a piece about England in the New York Times? Well, Murdoch, but—
What do you think of Murdoch?
They’re all mad about it, in England, like you followed Watergate. I kept on saying, What’s at stake? What’s the worst that could happen? What’s the most momentous thing that could happen? And everyone says, well, it shows some collusion between politicians and the press.
Well, there’s something delectable about one of the most powerful men in the country being taken down by spying on voice-mails.
There’s a certain piquancy about that. But there’s not much riding on it. And as my friend Deborah Orr said, how they get the information is of interest—hacking and all that. But even if the information had been delivered by the stork, the fact that this is the kind of thing we’re interested in is in itself a condemnation. That it’s all on such a vulgar and intrusive level. Why is that appetite?
I’ve thought for a long time, the people are not like that. The English people are tolerant and cheerful, and they don’t want all this filth on well-known people. It was really brought home when Princess Diana died. And they were very hurriedly knocking up front pages of her as an angel—with wings, against a partly cloudy background, you know. While on page 20 they had a piece about, this bitch is fucking a Muslim.
Do you find it different here? Do you find the press more honorable here?
Much more. There isn’t what my father called the cruising hostility of the English press—where they’re looking around for something to attack. You don’t feel that there’s a great reservoir of resentment in the press as you do in England. It’s a weird, perverse negativity. David Remnick said the English feel Schadenfreude about themselves—they delight in their own suffering, they take a sort of grim joy in that. It is itself punitive, and murky, and hard to read—I mean decipher. I think it must be to do with world-historical decline. Which, after all, has been going on for more than half a century. Takes odd forms, and self-hatred is one of them.
Is that how you make sense of the interest of the English press in you?
I don’t understand it, and I’m tired of saying I don’t understand it, and I’m tired of saying I’m tired of saying I don’t understand it. But I don’t understand it.
For so long here, when people talked about you and your contemporaries in England, they marveled that writers were celebrities there. Then Salman Rushdie comes here, and he’s treated with similar attention. And people are very interested in your arrival. You are celebrities here, too.
But it’s a different tone, believe me. No comparison. My explanation for this is simply that America is a younger country than England, obviously, and as self-awareness is forming in America—are we a collection of immigrants, are we a load of Italians and Germans and Jews and Brits and Irish, or are we a country with a soul and an identity?—there was a subliminal sense, they knew that the writers would be the ones who would answer those questions. So a sense of respect was accorded to them for perhaps that reason.
Whereas in England you come under the heading of boffin and egghead. When the tabloids refer to scientists, it’s “boffins may have discovered a cure for this or that.” “White-haired old cunts,” “eccentrics”—that’s their view of brains. There’s a lot of anti-intellectualism in Britain. And the writer’s views on this or that are really of less importance, as they see it, than that of the man in the street. They’re thought of as indulged figures, who never had to do an honest day of work. There’s that sort of feeling that just isn’t—well, certainly not in the great cities in America. It may be true in Louisiana, but not in the intellectual centers.
And you think you’re in the U.S. for good?
We came just for family reasons, to do with my mother’s death and my wife’s stepfather’s death, and her mother is the same age as my mother when she died. And so that sort of feeling that brought us here. And that’s what I said at every opportunity to the press in England—this was not a stalk out of England. Every chance I got. And yet it was treated as that. Fuck off to America. It’s that.
They’ve been charging you with Americanism for a while.
Have you liked it so far? It seems like you’ve found it hospitable.
Very hospitable. And wonderful weather.
I can’t believe you say that.
Why, because it’s been so hot? I don’t mind that. All I care about is the color of the sky. Have you spent time in England?
Only for a week at a stretch.
There’ll be people drowning in the rain—drowning! And it was filthy when I got there a month ago. Just a sort of kick in the ass. Just being alive was unbearable in that kind of weather. I can’t believe how reliably pretty the skies are here.
What can’t be exaggerated is the importance of novelty. So that all that shit you have to do every day—go get a paper, or indeed have a shave or a shower. You’re doing it somewhere new. So it doesn’t feel as fossilized as it did in England. I felt that was a motive for moving. Just good to have a move.
And you’d sort of suspect it might be good for your work, too. Not that I expect to write about Brooklyn, or moving to America, although in a few years time it might be just what I want to do. Just for a new set of stimuli.
Literary stimulation, you mean?
Not noticed that, no. The literary stimulation I get is from my friends. They’re in and out from London, and I’ve got friends here. But we’re not very social. Although we’ve both noticed that your diary fills up in a way that it didn’t in England, because of things that are semi-pro-bono, things you feel you ought to do—events.
And what do you make of Brooklyn?
Embarrassingly idyllic, really. Like living in the fifties—so philoprogenitive. You know, pregnant women everywhere—prams, kids. I like that. And just a gentle atmosphere. I don’t think I’d like Manhattan anymore. My mother-in-law lives there, and you go there. But I like looking at it from a distance. It’s a fantastic sight—every time, it awes me. But it’s too noisy. The city that never sleeps—yeah, that’s right. The city where you never sleep, because there’s some self-righteous municipal vehicle doing something incredibly noisy at three in the morning outside your window. But I wouldn’t say the intellectual atmosphere is very different here.
What about the political atmosphere?
Well, I’ve been enjoying this election. I went to Des Moines—is that how you pronounce it?
And I saw Rick Perry and Santorum. I’ve had the great pleasure of watching the incredible convulsions of the Republican Party. They’ve been pathetic. And I do think it’s a reaction to having a black president—despite everything they say, it’s been killing them.
I think what was needed to get that black president—I don’t think he would’ve won without the crash. It was such an extreme disaster what Bush had done to America that there had to be discontinuity. But it was a very tight thing.
It’s amazing to think, if Romney had been the nominee the last time around, his CV might’ve made him a much more credible candidate than McCain.
But that CV is kind of coming apart. What struck you in the early days of the primaries was how Romney was the only conceivably electable one of that lot. Herman Cain—what explains that? I’ve been told, counterintuitive though it is, that was just Republicans trying to show they weren’t racist. But he was front-runner for a bit. They were all front-runners for a bit. Gingrich. Michele Bachmann.
None of the more credible candidates got in the race—Jeb Bush, Chris Christie.
Chris Christie is obviously a very smart Huey Long. And Jeb Bush—they’d written this one off, basically. I wish they’d gone the whole hog—Sarah Palin with Joe the Plumber as V.P. But they drew back from that. And this—the no-tax-raise pledge. That’s Grover Norquist?
That’s one of the great tools of government, to raise taxes when you have a war—or two wars. And to say that’s off the table—and 97 percent of Republican congressmen have signed the pledge—it’s not serious. Do you think it’s to do with a premonition of decline—a loss of nerve, an attack of the jitters?
I think it’s fairly easily explained by self-interest. They’re all just worried about their tax rates, especially if the money they’re paying in taxes is going to people who don’t look like them—browner, poorer.
And unhealthier, too. The idea of spending a single cent on someone who doesn’t do the same amount of push-ups as you do is hideous to them. I passionately hope Obama does win.
You’re an admirer of his.
Sympathizer, too. Did he know how little a president can actually do? It’s been compared to this huge cruiser, and if you’ve got your hand on the tiller, you can’t actually change the angle more than a couple of degrees. I think he didn’t quite realize how many compromises he’d had to make. But if you see sympathetic journalists list what he has done, it’s not bad.
There was a period when American liberals were really envious of the British system—where whoever’s in charge is actually in charge. Now it seems that just lets you run things into a ditch a little more quickly.
Harold Wilson used to say, presidents have much more power than prime ministers. But it’s a fascinating time to be in America. I mean, how will it cope with decline?
You think decline is inevitable?
Well, it’s scheduled for 2043, when the Chinese economy will surpass it. But I’m not so sure about that—I think it could go on for much longer. I think that China has got some real trouble coming. Not so much economic as political. Do you know how many protests there are in China? Three hundred a day. Often violent, large-scale. But the American century will turn out to have been, perhaps, a century, almost to the year.
Decline in one form or another has been one of your several great subjects.
Well, I’m afraid the negative things are always the great subjects. Failure is much more interesting than success. And we’re sort of biologically locked in to decline. I interviewed Graham Greene for his 80th birthday, and I said—incredibly impertinently, it now seems—well, at least you’ve got religion. You’ll be needing that, soon.
And he said, oh, no. My faith is much weaker than it used to be. Faith is a talent, and it goes the way of all your talents. Getting old is the subtraction of your powers. Which very much goes for writing. And the writer in decline is a contribution of medical science—it didn’t used to come up, because they’re all dead. Dickens at 58, Shakespeare at 52, Jane Austen at 41. Didn’t used to come up. But now you have 80-year-old novelists. And it’s self-evident that the grasp and the gift erodes—you can see it in various ways. In Updike it was the ear that went. Those reliably melodious sentences just dried up—schoolboy inadvertencies crept into his later prose that just wouldn’t have been there earlier on. I don’t see many exceptions to that rule.
You loved Bellow’s last book, no?
And I respected Mailer’s last book, too. But no one would seriously compare either of those novels to Humboldt’s Gift or Harlot’s Ghost. I thought Ravelstein was a beautiful last gesture. But it had that mutedness. That incredible unstoppable energy had gone. That’s something new to worry about.
Do you want to talk some about Christopher Hitchens?
I’ve said before, it’s sort of paradoxical, the response to a death so close. Deaths that are a little further away you can process in the expected ways. You feel grief and shed tears. But this has been surprising and not at all all negative, either. That’s sort of disturbing as well.
I always used to bow to his love of life, and always thought it was superior to mine. But it seems that what happens when a friend that close—by which I mean that you grew up and grew along together, you got married about the same time, you got divorced about the same time, you had children, you had more children, all the crises were in parallel—when someone that’s as close as that goes, it’s as though they give you the job of loving life moment by moment. It’s your responsibility to inherit that love of life. I don’t know how long that’s going to last, but I certainly felt it for a good few months.
At the memorial service, it began with James Fenton reading the poem “For Andrew Wood.” What would our dead friends want of us, would they want us to go on being depressed about what we’d lost; the turning point of the poem says he thinks they would want us to grieve for what the dead have lost. You suddenly realize that death is going to be a multiple bereavement for you, not just for your friends and your family. They’ll lose you, but you’ll lose everyone, and it’s as if everything you loved, everyone loved is in a chartered airplane going down in flames and landing on your head. When I grieve for what he’s lost, that’s what I feel—deprived at a stroke from family, children, friends, and everything else that you value.
Has the grieving gotten easier?
It’s hard to make progress with grief. And I feel very stuck with him, in that every day I give a sort of groan or a shout of incredulity. I just can’t believe it. And I also think, it’s so radical of him to die, so contrarian, so left-wing, so extreme. And it was long in coming, too.
His long sickness, you mean?
His son asked me, has this put you off smoking? And I said, no, it’s put me off medical treatment. He was so determined and resolute about that—he tried all that there is to try. And in the last months, you’d be sitting with him in hospital, and every ten minutes someone came in and did something unspeakable do him—stuck something down his nose. And what killed him, in fact, was not the cancer, but the hospital. He had three or four bouts of hospital-borne pneumonia. It doesn’t work anymore, hospital. And they said, if you stay here, it’s not a question of if you’ll get another one, you will get another one. By that time you’re so weak and have such a deep sense of your own fragility that you don’t want to be anywhere else, because the minute you are, there’s an emergency that takes you back.
So I don’t think I’ve ever been particularly scared of death—but scared of dying, the process. It doesn’t seem to be a good way of doing it. There’s an Iris Murdoch novel where there’s a character who’s dying says, I do so want to die well, but how is it done? A good question. And Hitch certainly died well—without self-pity. And without loss of humor. Because it’s often been said that it’s very hard for a dying person not to be a villain. But he didn’t succumb to that. But, you know, getting pummeled by various treatments, unable to eat or drink—all tubes—for months before he died. I very much fear that I’ll be not a good advertisement for the process.
Not as good as he was.
Not a chance. He was very brave. Not just at the end. He was fearless. Often you’d be in—when we were younger, we’d be in ferocious pubs, for instance, and some altercation would begin, and you’d be saying, Hitch, let’s sort of slip away, and he wouldn’t back down an inch, ever. I never had that kind of physical courage. And it’s nice being brave. It’s a great resource. And he wasn’t daunted, as I’m sure I’d be. Maybe I’ll do it a little bit better, because of him, but I don’t like my chances of holding my head up.
The other great thing is that he never felt the least shame about it. I think people are much afflicted by shame when they’re dying. Especially in a culture like America, where there’s such pressure to be up and on top of things. I’m sure I’m going to feel ashamed—and sort of cower, cringe, and hide. He wasn’t a bit like that.
I was really struck watching the eulogy you gave, oriented around the question of what you called the “charisma of the Hitch,” down to his autocontrarianism. it made me think of your own charisma—about the ingredients that might’ve made you a similarly appealing figure to readers and audiences. As a writer, you seem to play a much more vivid role in the lives of your readers than most.
I sometimes feel I’m a sort of cult writer, rather than a mainstream writer, in that those who like my stuff like it a lot, but the appeal is not that broad. And I think it’s like I felt when I first read Bellow or Nabokov, felt after a couple of pages with the first one I’d tried, that this is one for me, I have to read everything they’ve written, this writer speaks to me more urgently and intimately than others—very much more. Those who do like my stuff probably felt, I hope, something like that, when they first read it. But it’s not for everyone.
Someone said of my stuff that I deliver truisms with enormous force. And I don’t mind that—I think it’s not bad, actually. I think the effects are achieved with some subtlety, but I’m not really interested in subtlety. And I think a lot of people who read fiction are interested in subtlety, and respond to that. But they wouldn’t like my stuff. It’s a bit too violent for many tastes.
What about violence is so transfixing to you? One of the main threads that run through all your work is the apocalypse and impending doom.
Don DeLillo’s huge novel Underworld is about this—the psychological effects of living in the age of mutual assured destruction, which is what he did and I did from birth on. Deterrence was in place four days after I was born, with the first Russian test in 1949. And it makes everything feel contingent. DeLillo reached a conclusion that I share, I think it’s in London Fields, that, put it this way, that love has two opposites. One is hatred and one is death. And death and love are opposite in our internal cosmologies. And death was sort of in the air until the fall of communism. It was sort of there. And there were times when it would come to the forefront, as in Cuba, when I was 12, during. And I remember feeling sick to my stomach for a week, absolutely sick to my stomach, at the age of 13.
Were you in America at the time?
No, I was in Cambridge, I was in school in Cambridge. Terrified and nauseous. And the conclusion reached is that love took a beating in those years. It’s different now. We’ve come out of the age of mutually assured destruction and entered the age of proliferation, which has a different set of dangers. That haunting phrase, Central Thermonuclear War—not just one here and one there, but an engagement—is no longer imaginable. Certainly not America and the Soviet Union, you can imagine something of the kind happening in the Subcontinent, Pakistan and India, conceivably Iran and Israel, something like that. But the idea of everything going off is no longer in the imagination in the way it was. So I think those who lived through it, most of their adult lives, have come away with a bit of damage to their capacity to love, I think, and trust, and all those kinds of emotions. Had to retreat during that time.
I like the paragraph in The Pregnant Widow about this, where it just says, the only time you engaged in, the only time you sort of came out with how worried you were in this war, the only time you fought it, this cold war, was when you were asleep, in you dreams, that’s where it all happened. That’s where you did your army service, in your sleep. Eric Hobsbawm called it the contest of nightmares—a very good phrase, a deep phrase, because that’s what it was. Bad dreams from the Western bloc to the Eastern bloc.
I was very thrilled for my children when Gorbachev said to Reagan, This arrangement isn’t serious. And they started—you know, Reagan, for all his weakness, had a real, Hobsbawm says, a kind of naïve idealism about this that could meet Gorbachev on the point. And they started talking about the zero option. And once he said, the whole thing isn’t serious, the whole thing fled, with a shriek. You know, it’s even called MAD—mutually assured destruction. And now we’re in a different phase, and it’s being called the age of preemption—the Iraq War was originally to preempt weapons of mass destruction.
Do you feel the psychic environment your younger children are growing up into is comparatively idyllic?
Well, certainly healthier—much—than ours. It will be considered a ridiculous episode in human affairs. That there they all were, sort of poised.
But what drama.
What drama. Yeah.
Has that interest in violence skewed your audience at all, do you think?
I used to worry that I wasn’t attracting enough women readers. I felt that often in England, but I don’t feel it here. In the signing queue, after an event, at least as many girls as boys.
One of the things that pleased Hitchens most during his last months was that event, run by Stephen Frey, by how many young people are in the audience. And it’s very heartening if you find yourself attracting the young. Heartening more than anyone knows because it means your stuff is going to live, at least one more generation. If you feel you have a strong constituency among the young, you can really die happy, because the great unanswered question, the only valid value judgment is whether you’re going to last, and that tells you that you are, for a bit at least.
Do you think about that a lot?
My father always claimed to be completely uninterested in posterity. I said, it doesn’t mean anything to you, whether you’re going to be read in 50 years’ time? And he said, it’ll be no fucking use to me, will it? I’ll be dead. But I think that was sort of bravado, I think it did matter to him. When I see a lot of young faces in the audience, it’s just sort of sinking in how important that is. Because you’re old enough now to identify them very strongly as being young—whereas before, of course they were young, because you were young. Now it’s not like that.
I remember seeing somewhere you’re saying that Hitchens came of age after 1989. I wanted to ask a bit about your second act. In some of the essays collected in The Second Plane, you wrote about feeling a kind of professional crisis of confidence—how does the novelist respond to these events? I think you expressed some similar feelings around Experience—that there was some doubt about the novel and fiction. It does seem that the things that you’ve written since are of a slightly different cast—a lot more nonfiction, much more political, and even those novels you have written have had a kind of enhanced documentary quality.
The process of writing has changed a little bit. In this piece about Nabokov I made this distinction between what derives from genius and what of talent—genius being the God-given stuff, the aptitude of perception, articulacy, and talent being the stuff that moves the novel along, that is well-made and fits and advances, everything to do with propulsion, you can’t swing with talent. I think all writers have a bit of genius in them, and a bit of talent. Genius retreats but talent improves.
I asked Saul Bellow what it was like writing Augie March, and he said, I was just bringing in buckets, he said. It was just coming down from the sky and he was just bringing it in. We’ve all had that feeling when you’re 35. Later, you can’t sort of write the novel as if you’re taking dictation from heaven, as I think Auden put it—you’re sort of compiling the novel.
When I look at my early stuff, which I don’t often do and then not for long, I’m impressed, favorably impressed by the flights, but it’s so crude, technically. Embarrassingly crude. And only my recent novels satisfy that feeling—that things are where they should be in a novel, and the modulation is good. Having had a quiet bit you then have a louder bit and then you have to have a quieter bit. It becomes more like graft, really. It certainly feels that way. The idea of doing a set piece, a big set piece, is daunting.
Norman Mailer put this very well, in his book The Spooky Art, where he said that when things are fine or flowing that you come to a scene that you know you’re going to have to write, and you find that the subconscious has done the spade work, and it’s sort of there to be written. And, he said, but sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes the subconscious hasn’t done the work, and what you’re writing seems dead to you. And he said one of the few demerits of the writer’s life—because it is a great life, I think, never happier than when settling down to work every day, except when it’s a rough bit. But writers spend too much time among dead things. I thought that was profound and actually true, that you’re trying to pump life into something that is inanimate. You see what a sort of audacious thing it is to move these sort of imaginary people around in a very stylized and patterned world.
But you’ve also written quite a lot about nonimaginary people, and did want to talk about the essays that went into The Second Plane, and the way they were received—you were said to be taking a rightward turn, even becoming a reactionary. That always seemed a bit strange to me—they seemed much more like, kind of a diary of the liberal imagination in an age of terror. I wanted to have you talk about that period, and those subjects—that is, why you felt that radical Islamism was so important to write about, and whether you still feel like it’s the kind of imminent threat you felt it was eight years or so ago.
I don’t think I do think that. My younger son has just done a second degree on the Muslim Brotherhood, and he speaks Arabic and he’s been to travel quite a lot around there. And I was saying to him the other day, Don’t you feel it’s all in retreat? And he said, No. You know, their time has come. They’re close to power in Egypt, etc.
In the last essay in The Second Plane, I say there are certain figures, like Nasrallah in Hezbollah, who you feel are too clever to not see that the next stage is to become a politician, and not a radical and a fringe figure. To join the debate of the mainstream. Bernard Lewis, he said democracy and Islam can’t reconcile themselves to each other—he said, the prognosis is, One man one vote, and no votes for women, once, and then you’ll have a sort of theocracy. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. The Islamic parties—Turkey is the model—become quite a viable alternative, in very religious societies. Let’s not forget, the people are very religious. But the parties, in half a generation, seem to have made the journey to the argument of the mainstream. That virulence, which is all one was hearing about for several years after September 11, seems to be—that literalism and virulence and commitment to slaughter, and all the rest of it, that it was going to be, as Osama said, it was going to involve a great deal of smiting of necks—that just seems to have been a convulsion, and it’s steadied.
In The Pregnant Widow, you wrote about the sexual revolution as a similarly major kind of convulsion. What does it mean to you to have come of age at the center of that?
It’s manifestly the great convulsion of my generation, there’s no two ways about that. And I’m very grateful that I was just old enough to know what it was like before. The prerevolutionary time seems to me now so weird and distorted, but I did live through it, in my teens. They really weren’t having it, girls, you know—out of the question. Those ideas and beliefs that, it’s hard to imagine were being entertained by the end of the sixties, that you save yourself for your husband, no sex without love, no sex without marriage, really, and the residual fear of religious comeuppance—that was all there.
Soon after I wrote that novel, I was teaching in Manchester. It was a great job, because all I did was teach my favorite novels. And we were looking at Lucky Jim, my father’s first novel. Do you know that?
Which had lost none of its comic power. And it’s full of rage, that novel. And you suddenly realize that every character in that novel, except the filthy painter Betrand, is a virgin. They’re all in a rage because they’re sexually frustrated. It was written in the early fifties. You were very lucky if you’d had an affair before you got married. And usually it was—as the hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning says, he says, you’ve got to get a girl who’s married already, that was the only way. They got married and then their sex lives began—not just with each other, but with other married people. And whatever its distortions and excesses, the sexual revolution and the postrevolutionary era was much healthier than that. It does seem just healthier.
What’s beclouding it all now is pornography. No one really knows how that’ll go—what the long-term effects of that are going to be.
It’s been a subject of yours for a while, and it’s remarkable just how much the culture of pornography has changed even since you’ve been writing about it.
Yeah. In my early novels there are references to magazines, which seems quaint now. It didn’t really exist, except pictures of young girls showing their breasts, and that was all, really. And then there was the breakthrough with pubic hair, which was mentioned in The Pregnant Widow, 1970 I think. But considered amazingly sort of basic and decisive and illegal—it just felt illegal. And now it’s—
It’s sex education.
That’s how they get their sex education now. Watching Desiree Fairweather and some tattooed ex-convict in high-definition close-up. That’s how they get their sex education. I shudder to think what my girls have certainly already seen. It’s not my job as a novelist—I touch on it in The Pregnant Widow, but I’m too old to consider this, but the effect of pornography on sexual praxis—how does it bleed into that, I’m sure it does, I know it does. My oldest daughter—I had many candid conversations with her when she was in her twenties, about how certain things were expected, just taken from pornography, which, lest we forget, is a very misogynistic form. Why does every sexual act end with something that girls hate? You know, the facial. When I wrote a long piece about pornography, I hung out with this porn actress, who was incredibly bright and really interesting, and I said, how many girls, even here in San Fernando Valley, how many of them like that? She said, Well I like it. I like being spanked and spat on, I like that kind of thing. But she said, about 5 percent like it. Five percent don’t mind it. And 95 percent hate it. And yet it’s the sine qua non of the sex scene.
Amateur porn is now a much bigger part of the diet, and yet it’s still the same way—it’s not any less misogynistic and not any less directed by male desire, even if it’s couples.
The basic conventions of the master form are there.
I guess people find it exciting to enact those scenes themselves.
And people seeing themselves from the outside, during sex. A desire that used to be dealt with by having a mirror.
That no longer suffices.
No longer. But they talk about pornography becoming mainstream and accepted. And I thought, no it never will, until masturbation is mainstream and accepted and cool. Because that’s what it is—it’s a masturbatory form.
But I thought it never will because women will never assent to it. Obviously some will, some like it. And the reason women never will is because their great power, gift, procreation, is not just ignored in pornography—there’s no talk about getting pregnant, “Don’t make me pregnant,” there’s none of that. It’s as if procreation were caused by something else entirely, like sneezing. But I think that women are coming around to it, and once that happens then it’s—then it will be mainstream.
There’s a review by a woman I read the other day of that 50 Shades of Grey book. She said, she begins by saying, she likes pornography. Her last sentence is, I wouldn’t wank to it, but it’s not bad. You know what wank means?
Many Americans don’t. And I thought, Christ, that’s sort of lad’s-mag talk—sort of more male than male. That seemed like another tiny rung on the ladder of acceptability.
I also wanted to ask about this other book you wrote long ago, about video games.
Yeah, everyone keeps asking about that. Because video games are so huge.
But you’ve never been tempted to write a book about them, or work them into the thread of another novel.
My interest in them ended. I got to the end of it. I was already at the end of it when I wrote that. It was out of guilt, really. I thought, I’d wasted so much time playing these things I might as well make something of it. And then the games got too high-tech for me. They kept improving them beyond what I enjoyed—that tendency, when you look at the remote for your TV, you might as well throw it out the window for all the good it is to you, it’s so complicated. It’s features creep, is what you get, feature creep. It just got too techie for me.
And what do you make of those people who suggest it’s an essentially novelistic, or anyway narrative, art form?
I don’t know what they’re talking about, really. What is very narrative-like, and I remember the fascination of this, is that you do one level and then you go up to another level. I watch my daughters playing, and that’s what drives them on, and it’s what drove me on. That kind of progressive testing of your resources is very addictive. And I think when I got to, what was it, the ninth level of Space Invaders—and at that point it goes back to the first level. I was incredibly thrilled when I did that, in a café in Paris. But I think, once I’d done that, the game was over for me.
It’s one of many instances, though, of you kind of slumming it, in terms of subjects—writing about snooker, darts. But there was never any question of it being crusading writing, muckraking writing.
What was always interesting to me was contrast. And extremes. And there’s less of that, since the poor aren’t there, in cities, in quite the numbers there used to be. My father was a communist as young man, until the age of about 30—Hungary in 1956 made him change. He wrote a piece where he said how difficult it is to give up that vision of the city on a hill—a Utopia. And Hitch, too.
You’re not that way?
I like the idea of coming up with a society that is a little better than this—a gradualist, ameliorist spirit getting something a little fairer and a little more compassionate than most governments we’ve seen. But the idea of a Utopia has always been completely repulsive to me. I never had this conversation with my father. I sort of had it with Hitch. But, what would one do in a Utopia? And, certainly, what would one write about? It’s rebarbarative, the idea of everyone being happy and equal. Because it takes no account of human nature. When communism failed, it wasn’t a good idea that had gone wrong, it was a bad idea that had been sustained with incredible determination in the face of all the commonsense arguments, and at the cost of 20 million lives at least, in Russia, to build the socialist Utopia. But who would want the socialist Utopia? Especially if you were at all artistic—you want all those inequalities, because that’s what makes life interesting.
But gradualism is the way I feel about it. I don’t like the idea of creative destructive, I know that’s been bandied about—recently by Romney, that was his slogan, still is, isn’t it? About what capitalism at its most vigorous can achieve. I don’t want that. I want incremental improvements. There’s the record of all the revolutionary and violent change and extremism in general—it’s dreadful.
It seems like you’ve never really been an avant-gardist as a reader or a writer, either—always more interested in extending or editing the tradition, rather than overthrowing it.
Well, Money is postmodernist, really, isn’t it? In that, there’s the author in there, as a minor character.
But that’s something of an outlier for you.
What I felt I was doing there was seeing whether there were comic possibilities in postmodernism. But it’s important to understand that these movements are not bandwagons, even when it’s the Dadaists and the Surrealists who meet with funny handshakes, ambitious young drunks forming their literary credos and justifications. What something like postmodernism was—it’s just in the air, and many novelists find themselves interested in it. In a sort of approach, like magical realism. It was something that was spontaneously emerging, from writers of all kinds of backgrounds and countries. And you see where it goes. Postmodernism had, I think, tremendous predictive power. You know that building in Paris, the Pompidou Center, where all the workings of the building are on the outside. To show how a novel is made while you’re writing a novel isn’t an uninteresting idea. And there are one or two masterpieces of postmodern fiction, like Philip Roth’s The Counterlife—a really very impressively intricate book.
But, like you, he kind of moved past metafiction.
Well, it didn’t lead anywhere. It had predictive power—it predicted how the world was going to be. Now even a politician will talk about, how am I going to spin this. It’s all knowing, and wised up, and confessedly wised up, in a way that it didn’t used to be, before. But as a genre it was naturally kind of disappearing up its own ass—that’s what it was, a self-inspection that couldn’t really get to where it was pointing because it is complete in itself after not very long.
And now we’re back. We’re not post-postmodern, we’re just later modern, I think. And all that experimentation in fiction is dead, for another set of reasons. Like the ideology p.c. or levelism, experimentation is a sort of luxury item. When times get hard, you won’t hear anything about that kind of supersensitivity to people taking offense. And what’s—I think has happened in fiction is that fiction has responded to the fact that the rate of history has accelerated in this last generation, and will continue to accelerate, and with more sort of light-speed kind of communications, will accelerate and accelerate.
Where do you see it speeding up?
Things like climate change, man-made climate change, which has completely dropped off the agenda here in America, while the rest of the world gets on with the hard and nauseous work of doing something about it. It's not even discussed here, not by the Democrats, because it's come to equal job destruction and regulation, all those things that everyone hates. But think of someone in the sixteenth century. As, I think Saul Bellow put it, it would no more occur to the farmer than it would to the dog sleeping at his feet, that the planet was vulnerable to overuse and abuse and depletion—that it wasn't infinite and infinitely renewing. And that's just one example of how history has speeded up. The way fiction has responded to this is that it's speeded up, too. Those huge, leisurely, digressive, essayistic, meditative novels of the postwar era—some of which were on the best-seller lists for months—don't have an audience anymore. There isn’t an audience to support a novel like Humboldt’s Gift.
Those are some of the novels that you’ve always cited as the most important to you.
But you don’t think there’s a future for them.
No. I like them, but I think they’re extinct. No one is writing that kind of novel now. Well, your near-namesake David Foster Wallace—that posthumous one looks sort of Joycean and huge and very left-field. But most novelists I think are much more aware than they used to be of the need for forward motion, for propulsion in a novel. The arrow of development is much sharper than it used to be. And this, again, like the postmodern movement, it’s not a bandwagon movement. Novelists are people too, and they’re responding to this just as the reader is.
It’s why poetry is in retreat, very generally. What a poem does, what a lyric poem does, is stop the clock. It goes, right—we’re going to look at this moment, this epiphany, this little revelatory meditation on mood and setting. And the clock is going to stop while we do this together—that’s what is said to the reader. And the modern reader goes, Nah, I don’t want to do that, I’m busy. And when you’re reading some enormous piece in The New Yorker or the New York Review of Books about Iraq or Afghanistan, and there’s a poem on the page—you go, what’s that doing on the page? It looks bathetic.
It’s amazing that at one point, the poem could be expected to do the same work as a cartoon—that people reading The New Yorker would have the same appetite for stopping and reading a poem as they would for reading a cartoon.
Yeah. And the appetite is gone. People talk about dumbing-down, but there’s a parallel process which is a numbing-down. When a poet is asking you to commune with him or her for this period of time—it gives people the creeps, now. That’s why people are always talking on their phones, or looking at their phones, it’s because they don’t want to be alone with their thoughts.
Novels don’t work like that. The element of escapism is a real one, and you become absorbed in others’ lives. There’s a very good poem by Auden called “The Novelist,” a sonnet in fact. It begins by talking about the poet—”encased in talent like a uniform, they can dash forward like hussars.” And it comes to the novelist. Your talent is very different. You must submit yourself to all human boredom. With the just, be just, with the filthy, filthy, too. It’s a much more promiscuous and Everyman-ish form than the poem. And those novels we talked about, the long-headed essayistic, wise, sort of Babel novels, where you’re just sort of sounding off about this and that — I like those novels, but that is too much like the voice of a poem, not the novelist.
I’m not interested in making a diagnostic novel or a concern. I’m 100 percent committed in fiction to the pleasure principle—that’s what fiction is, and should be.
And what about the working classes have been so pleasurable to you?
The class that’s very seriously underrepresented in my stuff is the middle class. The middle class is doing fine in fiction—they’ve got an awful lot of people doing nothing else.
It’s the whole tradition of the novel.
But it’s not what gets me going. And I love the working class, and everyone from it that I’ve met, and think they’re incredible witty, inventive—there’s a lot of poetry there. A lot of rough stuff as well. What there is, too, is an awful lot of expressiveness and intelligence and originality down there. And a lot of thwarted intelligence. When I talk to these lowlife friends of mine and acquaintances, I’m amazed how brilliant they are—I think, Christ, I hope they don’t write a novel. It could be really good. They have more drama and incident than the middle classes. And they have wonderful ways of expressing their dramas.
English interviewers have said, about Lionel Asbo, it’s written with great disgust. Absolutely not—affection and admiration. You couldn’t write a novel out of disgust.
So what do you admire about a character like Lionel?
Because he does all the stuff that I would never do—same with John Self in Money. He’s very unpredictable. That’s sort of a mixed blessing in a novel. It’s good fun to create an unpredictable character. When he comes into the room, I don’t know what he’s going to do—I have to find my way. But it can get out of hand, an unpredictable character, because it’s hard to make it coherent, to make their motivation linear.
I wrote this piece about Don DeLillo recently where I said that, he said he showed sometimes impatience with the novelistic overemphasis on motivation. It’s something the novel has always exaggerated. I think all of us feel that motive is much hazier than it used to be, perhaps, that it’s more determined by neuroses and external things. But the novel can’t do without it, fiction can’t do without it. And when DeLillo—who’s a genius, but—when he says good-bye to motivation, as he does in some short stories, you feel like a motiveless world is an insane world in the pages of fiction. It doesn’t hang together. I had the feeling I was sort of treading that line in Lionel Asbo. But there was never any question about disliking him. You couldn’t write a novel about someone you find rebarbarative. He is rebarbarative, but we like that in him. As Updike says, it’s mysterious what we like in fiction. A character who, when he or she comes in, you think, Good. He says what we like is life—if the character is alive. All the things we value in society don’t mean much in fiction.
Although the same principle is at work in society, too.
That we can’t quite explain what turns us on about people.
No, except you wouldn’t want to be friends with Lionel Asbo.
Well, you might.
I’ve known a Lionel or two. But from a distance. It sounds schmaltzy to say, but fiction is much more to do with love than people admit or acknowledge. The novelist has to not only love his characters—which you do, without even thinking about it, just as you love your children. But also to love the reader, and that’s what I mean by the pleasure principle. The difference between a Nabokov, who in almost all his novels, nineteen novels, gives you his best chair and his best wine and his best conversation. Compare that to Joyce, who, when you arrive at his house, is nowhere to be found, and then you stumble upon him, making some disgusting drink of peat and dandelion in the kitchen. He doesn’t really care about you. Henry James ended up that way. They fall out of love with the reader. And the writing becomes a little distant.
You’re still interested in giving the reader pleasure.
You can’t be up the reader’s ass, as many a writer I think is—cute as hell, ingratiating as hell. But that’s not loving the reader in the right way. That’s toadying to the reader. When I talk about the pleasure principle, I don’t say there is only one kind of pleasure, there are many kinds of pleasure. Some pleasure is difficult. It should be for the reader as well as the writer. But it has to be pleasure.
* This conversation has been condensed and edited from two interviews conducted at Amis’s home on July 10 and 11.