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Martin Amis: Lionel Asbo: State of England

Martin Amis takes aim at the contemporary world

Photo: Maximilian Schonherr, License: N/A

Maximilian Schonherr

Martin Amis, no stranger to critical derision

Lionel Asbo: State of England

Martin Amis

Knopf, $25.95

Lionel Asbo: State of England , the latest novel from English author and tabloid target Martin Amis (and his 13th overall), has taken a critical drubbing since its July publication in England and its more recent release in North America. At first blush, Asbo looks like a satire of England in the 21st century, with its titular anti-hero—a 21-year-old career criminal and muscle-for-hire—who becomes obnoxiously wealthy after winning the lottery. This scenario, of becoming famous for being infamous, isn’t strictly a British phenomenon (see also: Octomom) or all that new (see also: Walter Winchell calling Brenda Frazier a “celebutante” in 1939), and the speed with which such fame spreads today fails to lend the novel imperative timeliness. It feels as though we are being fed leftovers.

Writing in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani observed, “It reads less like a big ‘state of England’ novel than a smallish postcard mailed from there some years ago,” while novelist/critic Adam Mars-Jones, writing in the London Review of Books, took aim at the writing in Asbo for skimping “on the details of what you hate, to be drawn mistily to what you find sympathetic—this is hardly the CV of a satirist. It’s closer to a letter of resignation.” Theo Tait, writing in The Guardian, sounds almost like he’s addressing a grandparent who can’t figure out a smart phone, lamenting that the stranger the novel gets, the “less it seems like a convincing indictment of England today—and the more it seems that Amis should have a nice lie down in a darkened room.”

Amis, now 62, is no stranger to critical derision and, to be fair, the above observations are spot-on: Asbo isn’t about the here and now, and anybody looking for a London Fields- or Money-like vivisection of an era should look elsewhere. What is somewhat surprising is how one very obvious element in the story, and how it fits into Amis’ oeuvre, is overlooked.

Novel namesake Lionel Asbo is the “lotto lout” who prefers prison to the so-called free world and pornography to time spent with real women, and he’s a familiar character-type in Amis’ world. Amis has always had a sharp eye and ear for class differences, and he’s particularly adept at creating working-/criminal-class men who become a novel’s charismatic catalyst, such as London Fields’ Keith Talent or Yellow Dog’s Xan Meo. A resident of the hellish borough Diston, Asbo (a name Lionel adopts from the Anti-social Behavior Orders issued by Tony Blair in 1998) fits into this brethren of rogues.

Lionel, who feeds his two dogs beer and hot sauce to keep them angry and unbalanced for his work in “collections,” lives in a governmental high-rise until his lotto ticket makes him fabulously wealthy and he takes his anti-social behavior on a tour through the tabloids, hitting various posh hotels that cater to the emerging uncivilized wealthy class. He marries a pneumatic cartoon of woman, named Threnody, a self-promotion in heels who measures her life in paparazzi lenses. As a type, it’s old hat for Amis and literature in general: Exploring the differences between the working and middle classes to illuminate something about the social order they cohabit is a picaresque strategy of Dickens, sure, but one that runs from Candide and Tom Jones all the up to, say, the lyrics to Pulp’s “Common People.”

The story that drives the novel, though, isn’t about Asbo but his 15-year-old nephew Desmond Pepperdine, who goes by Des. He is an awkward, sensitive, precociously intelligent teen, feeling his way through life and school with little guidance. His mother, Lionel’s sister, died young. He only ever saw his father once. Uncle Lionel is Des’ lone parental figure—save his grandmother Grace, Lionel’s 39-year-old mother, with whom Des is carrying on an affair as the novel opens. If Lionel ever finds out about this incestuous dalliance, it’s hard to predict what kind of violence he’ll unleash; but Des has a pretty good idea what his uncle does, while not knowing enough to be called to the stand as a witness.

Lionel Asbo is as much Des’ coming-of-age novel as it is social satire, and in that way it echoes Amis’ most conventional novel—his 1973 debut, The Rachel Papers, whose literature-preoccupied narrator spends the novel’s pages trying to woo the titular object of his affection while at Oxford. But Oxford—or any university for that matter—isn’t in the cards for Des, who takes a job as a driver trying to make ends meet. Des is also half-Trinidadian and the first nonwhite major character in Amis’ entire output.

Des moves the novel into the 21st century more than any amount of florid gawking at Asbo’s behavior. Amis’ style remains annoyingly precise—Asbo is imminently quotable, ripe with colorful vernacular, and frequently dotted with Amis’ annoying gift for sublime word choices: the royal family waves as if “they’re unscrewing a lightbulb.” But in acknowledging a biracial Englishness, Amis puts himself into the ring alongside Zadie Smith, Hari Kunzru, Monica Ali—British authors whose ideas of Britain aren’t all Eton and Oxford and Kray brothers, but one where Mohammed Farah wins the 10,000-meter gold medal at the 2012 Olympics.

That may seem like a minor point to make, but it’s an instance of one of the most feted contemporary British authors recognizing that the stories of England are changing. Des is closer to the teens in Attack the Block than the decadent youth of Amis’ Dead Babies, where the comforts of wealth were something to rebel against. Financial security has a permanence that Des has never known: “The rich world was heavy, rooted to the ground. It had the weight of the past securing it.”

That Lionel Asbo doesn’t succeed—it reads like mere entertainment more than the savage skewering that marks Amis at the top of his game—isn’t because it’s out of touch. It misses the mark because it’s the work of an author trying to step out of everything he knows while unintentionally falling back into the familiar. So, yes, he relies on the safety net of style, but it’s a bit refreshing to see an author of Amis’ stature even bothering to take that risk.

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