It's life, innit? But not as we know it
FICTION:Martin Amis is under attack again for his latest book, about a yobbish lottery winner. Maybe he should have spent more time on the streets before writing it
Lionel Asbo: State of England By Martin Amis Cape, 276pp. £18.99
SO BIG LIONEL ASBO’S only gone and won the national lottery, just 50p short of £140 million. Mind you, he’s in the nick, again, but now he can buy his way out and set off on a deranged spending spree, all excess and instant celebrity. It could have happened to a nicer bloke, but that’s life, innit?
Martin Amis revisits the darker regions of the yob culture that so intrigues him in his 13th novel, one that appears to be attracting reviews that read more like obituaries to his talent. At his best, Amis is a vibrantly funny literary stylist, and, thin plot aside, the major weakness of this novel – which is nowhere near as bad as Yellow Dog (2003) and is better than his autobiographical 1970s sex romp The Pregnant Widow (2010) – is that it simply is not funny, certainly not Amis funny.
Lionel Asbo – in Britain, Asbo stands for antisocial behaviour order – never quite joins the ranks of the great Amis lowlifes, such as Little Keith from Dead Babies (1975), John Self from Money (1984) – which remains, along with The Information (1995), Amis’s finest work to date – or Keith Talent from London Fields (1989). They are memorable social misbegottens as only Amis could draw them. Keith Talent “had no time for the gym, the fancy restaurant, the buxom bestseller, the foreign holiday. He had never taken any exercise (unless you counted burgling, running away, and getting beaten up.) . . . and he had never been out of London. Except once. When he went to America . . .” Those telling ellipses are Amis’s. Lionel Asbo is described as “a great white shape, leaning on the open door with his brow pressed to his raised wrist, panting huskily, and giving off a faint grey steam in his purple singlet (the lift was misbehaving, and the flat was on the 33rd floor – but then again Lionel could give off steam while dozing in bed on a quiet afternoon). Under his arm he was carrying a consignment of lager. Two dozen, covered in polythene. Brand: Cobra.”
Lionel, we are also informed, resembles the footballer Wayne Rooney. Here’s hoping Rooney has a sense of humour – he will need it if he reads this.
At 21, and already battered-looking because of his aggressive approach to everything that moves, Lionel is an uncle to Desmond Pepperdine, whose mother was the now deceased Cilla and whose father is absent. Lionel and Cilla are the children of Grace, single mother extraordinaire (in that she had given birth to seven children, fathered by a variety of men, by the age of 19). As the action opens, Grace is 39 and sufficiently game, desperate or both to have initiated a sexual relationship with 15-year-old Des. He, though not quite complaining, is seeking advice from a newspaper agony aunt. The boy also lives in fear of Uncle Lionel finding out that he is involved with his gran, Lionel’s mother.
It is worth noting that Amis, who has a highly developed literary intelligence, in some ways resembles Dickens. Both share a social awareness and are fascinated with a social class to which neither of them belongs. But Amis shapes his grotesques with a Hogarthian exaggeration that all too often becomes so extreme that the excess falters into authorial indulgence. In trying to replicate the linguistic register he gets it almost but not quite right, as in his use of “we were” when Lionel should be saying “we was”. This may seem pedantic, but impersonation must be exact or it doesn’t work.
Even more baffling is to see that this novel is subtitled State of England. There is a bit more to a nation than cartoon characters such as Lionel, who “was served his first Restraining Directive when he was three. Three years and two days: a national record (though disputed by other claimants). This was for smashing car windscreens with paving stones.” Some toddler. Could a three-year-old lift, let alone throw, a paving stone?
Amis once wrote a wonderful story, also called State of England, that appeared in his Heavy Water collection, published in 1998. In that story, Big Mal, a career bouncer nursing his bruises from the previous night, is at his son’s sports day. Mal is estranged from his wife, and the two are shouting at each other on mobile phones. The boy, Little Jet, has a designer hairstyle and no hope of competing with distinction. It is paralysingly funny. Big Mal is a comic masterpiece in a way that Lionel and his story are not.
Once he is rich and living in the regulation giant rural retreat, Lionel gives an interview in which he presents himself as a boy made good through his sheer graft, apparently oblivious that all he did was pay for a winning ticket.
His delusions increase and multiply. He forgets, although Des doesn’t, that a boy has been murdered. Lionel acquires a consort, a creature who aspires to be a poet. She calls herself Threnody, which is a literary genre of lamentation usually written for a son (is Amis intending to honour the boy killed by Lionel?), a name that does not convince. She is far more of a battling football Wag. Long before her failure to win the TS Eliot prize drives her into frenzy, she has become a plot weakness.
Even more problematic is Des, the good boy intent on education. He sets off to college and meets a “nice” girl with family issues of her own in the form of a bigoted “emeritus traffic warden” father who can’t accept Des because he is mixed race. Des and his beloved rejoice in her pregnancy. But it is difficult to see the humour in, never mind the point of, their referring to the unborn child as Toilet, even allowing for the challenge of selecting a name. Also strange is the reasoning behind having Grace, at 40, slide into madness and old age. She is dispatched to a home in far-off Scotland.
Lionel has flashes of human response, and it seems that Amis is preparing to render him more interesting. But the novel is effectively killed by Des, whose tissue-thin characterisation makes the appalling Lionel seem riveting by contrast. The dialogue between Des and Dawn is so flat it seems that Amis is really only concerned with shaping the squalor that is Lionel.
Had any other English writer written this novel the reviews would have been far milder. Worse books than this have been praised, but even Amis’s best novels, which also include the metaphysical thriller Other People: A Mystery Story (1981) and House of Meetings (2006), have received only grudging plaudits. Lionel Asbo is provocative; most leading British novelists are university educated, many have attended Oxford, as did Amis, yet he is the one who will be accused of patronising the working class. His middle-class bohemian upbringing as the son of a novelist sharpened his appetite for street culture. Yet all too often in this narrative there is the feeling that he may have been reading the tabloids when he should have been out on the street, listening to the London urban argot as spoken.
This is not a great book, to be sure, a reality made worse by the fact that Amis, a natural satirist, is capable, as he has already shown, of so much more. Bit of a car crash then. Know wot I mean?
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent