Here’s Martin Amis, one of the most celebrated and controversial novelists of our time, comfortably ensconced in an elegantly restored vintage Brooklyn brownstone, having just moved with his family from London to the United States, to the neighborhood with the endearingly Dickensian name of Cobble Hill. Many in the U.K., especially those who have read Lionel Asbo, his viciously satiric new novel that is subtitled State of England, have taken his move to America as a bitter farewell to the U.K., a land that has become, if you read the new work, dominated by sinister yobs (U.K. slang for vulgar, often violent bullies) and an ignorant, toxic tabloid- and porno-obsessed culture.
Amis has said the move had more to do with his wife, the novelist Isabel Fonseca, wanting to be near her American family. Still, he’s remarked to one interviewer that Americans should spend three or four hours a day just thanking their good fortune for being here. And indeed at this beautiful springtime twilight moment in bucolic brownstone Brooklyn it would be hard to fault his choice.
And yet, today in North America, the day of my visit, was the day when the U.S. tabloids featured a terrifying fellow who came to be called “the bath salts cannibal”—bath salts being the street name for some toxic designer drug—who had bizarrely and savagely chewed off the face of a homeless man in Florida. (Later reports questioned the nature of the drug involved.) A second cannibal was reported to be on the loose in Maryland, and someone was sending body parts through the mail in Canada.
And just as there are two Americas evident today—civilized, bucolic Brooklyn and the frenzied bath salts wasteland of the tabs—so it might be said there are two Martin Amises. There is Amis the author of vicious, often outrageous comic satiric novels like Lionel Asbo and Money (one of the most exhilarating reading experiences in recent literature, the great American novel that happened to be writ by a Brit; think of it as The Great Gatsby on bath salts), as well as London Fields and The Information (a genius send-up of the literary world that contains perhaps the funniest scenes in any novel I’ve read since Catch-22).
And then there’s the Other Amis, the one who dominates our conversation this evening, the one who writes books that go beyond Bad Behavior to contemplate Evil Itself. These include the Holocaust novel, Time’s Arrow, his two books about Stalinism—the gulag novel House of Meetings and Koba the Dread, his scathing short biographical essay on Stalin and the mass murders committed under his rule—as well as Einstein’s Monsters (if you consider nuclear annihilation evil) and his controversial series of essays about 9/11, The Second Plane.
Shortly after we settle into his living room with a couple of cold Coronas, I ask Amis about an offhand remark he’d made in a U.K. Telegraph interview, saying he was thinking of returning to the subject of the Holocaust in his next novel.
“Yeah,” he replied. “I’m actually 50 pages in.” His return to the subject came from a feeling, he said, “that in the very palpable, foreseeable future the Holocaust is going to absent itself from living memory.” The survivors’ testimonies will endure in print and on video, but their physical disappearance from life will mark a symbolic divide.
I mention that some recent American commenters have called continued consideration of the historical relevance of the Holocaust a sign of being “Holocaust obsessed”—a slur that I believe represents a new form of Holocaust denial.
Amis’ reaction: “I agree with W.G. Sebald [the prominent German novelist], who said, ‘No serious person ever thinks about anything else.’”
He added, “I’m just amazed by the exceptionalism.”