Let’s start with your new book, Lionel Asbo, and in particular with the subtitle, State of England—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 with lots of civil servants and academics talking in indistinguishable voices. My novel is very far from being that. 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. 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, am I not allowed to do that?
The class that’s very seriously underrepresented in my stuff is the middle class. The middle class is doing fine in fiction. But it’s not what gets me going. I love the working class, and everyone from it I’ve met, and think they’re incredibly witty, inventive—there’s a lot of poetry there. A lot of rough stuff as well. 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.
So what do you think explains the response?
Just touchiness—increased touchiness.
But it happens as you leave London and come to New York, which gives it an extra charge.
Yeah, bit of that.
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. 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—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.
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.
A very rich bear pit.
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.
London and New York are 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 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.
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. 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 quite, to my senses, fascistic—you know, an 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.
Read the whole interview.