This review of Lionel Asbo: State of England, by Martin Amis, first appeared in Edinburgh Review 135.
Martin Amis generates a high level of friction both within and without his prose, resulting in complex heat-energy equations. Can we adjust our infrared lenses to filter out his public school accent, his father, his statements about Islam, his teaching gig at Manchester, his national relocations and low-residencies, his divorce, his large advances on royalties, his teeth? If so, his work can be illuminating, though it comes with an electrical resistance of its own, offering plenty of ohms and amperes—a high-voltage narrative measured in megawatts.
His most recent novel, Lionel Asbo, features a depraved member of the criminal underclass whose £140 million lottery jackpot allows him to exercise his impulses on a grand scale. In addition we have his nephew, Desmond Pepperdine, a teenager of mixed race suffering from a surfeit of intelligence and compassion which, in the tower blocks of Diston, is the equivalent of a death sentence: ‘In Diston, everything hated everything else, and everything else, in return, hated everything back.’ In demographic terms, it is a place where
nothing—and no one—was over sixty years old. On an international chart for life expectancy, Diston would appear between Benin and Djibouti (fifty-four for men and fifty-seven for women). And that wasn’t all. On an international chart for fertility rates, Diston would appear between Malawi and Yemen (six children per couple—or per single mother). Thus the age structure in Diston was strangely shaped.
Furthermore the resulting lifespans are accelerated and compressed: Lionel, we learn, was served his first Restraining Directive at the age of three and shortly thereafter found guilty of offenses including cruelty to animals and attempted arson, all of which makes losing his virginity at the age of nine seem rather fitting. On a similar note, Grace (his mother and Desmond’s gran) fell pregnant at the age of twelve and bore seven children, all but two by different fathers, by the time she was nineteen. Such an approach to family planning occurs naturally in a place with high environmental toxicity and noise levels slightly below that of Cairo (i.e., ‘a freight train passing by at a distance of fourteen feet’ resulting in ‘partial deafness, neuroses, heart attacks, miscarriages’). ‘Diston,’ the narrative voice declaims in summary, ‘with its burping, magmatic canal, its fizzy low-rise pylons, its buzzing waste. Diston—a world of italics and exclamation marks.’
What to make of this extended hyperbole, these comic exaggerations of character and place? This isn’t social realism but rather anti-social realism, which is frequently served with its own ASBO by critics. Their aesthetic Restraining Directives are too lengthy to describe here, but suffice it to say those of us in search of untroubling prose and characters designed to ease our class anxieties should look elsewhere. To complicate matters, Lionel Asbo carries the subtitle State of England, which invites us to read the novel as a polemic or cultural verdict even as Des, who serves as its moral centre, contradicts such a simplistic interpretation—a contradiction which itself constitutes part of this work’s complex appeal. Yet the subtitle is a high-risk manoeuvre which doesn’t quite pay off, giving the work a blunt edge for the sake of provocation (and perhaps sales?). Most readers simply won’t see beyond that edge. In fact, if you have bandwidth to spare this month, you can go to YouTube and watch Jeremy Paxman squander ten minutes of national airtime interrogating Amis about the novel as if it’s an op-ed piece. (‘Are you saying Asbo somehow represents the state of England?’)
The novel begins with a startling premise that also serves as the mainspring of the entire plot: Des is having an incestuous relationship with Grace, his thirty-nine-year-old grandmother. Readers familiar with Nabokov (one of Amis’s strongest influences) will note the taboo, as well as a more subtle fundamental aversion to cruelty that underlies this work as a whole. Although the affair is short-lived, Des has sufficient cause to believe that Lionel will do something unspeakable to him if it ever comes to light. This tension is managed extraordinarily well throughout the novel, heightened by numerous elements such as Lionel’s feral dogs, Grace’s helpless babbling after a mental breakdown, a malfunctioning rubbish bin known as ‘the tank’, and Des’s father-in-law’s bigotry—many of which serve as Chekhovian guns on the wall in retrospect only. As the story unfolds, Des manages to get an education despite his environmental hurdles, find love with a kind-hearted woman named Dawn, and eventually settle into a job at, excuse me, The Daily Mirror. This strikes me as the only major misstep in an otherwise compelling and absurdly believable world. And here, tellingly, details are virtually nonexistent. How does Des get the job? How does he keep it? How does his temperament, so obviously antithetical to such a line of work, sit within the culture that so rapaciously pursues celebrities such as his very own Uncle Lionel? It would inappropriate, to say the least, to expect the journalistic nuts-and-bolts of, say, The Shipping News, but a more convincing psychological and logistical basis would be well in order.
Lovers of Scotland are put to the test when Lionel in effect uses his wealth to exile his incapacitated mother to a facility near—brace yourself—Cape Wrath. The town, identified as ‘Souness,’ is ‘a maze of dark flint, populated by taupe genies of sopping mist’ where late in the narrative Des experiences one of many increments that make this, when all is said and done, a coming of age story: 'That morning on the open road he had felt it—the limitless talent of the world. And here, under a powerful moon (just one size short of full), the restless ocean pitched and yawed, the slow churn of its facets, each of them vying to get a share of creamy light—the motion magma, the rolling mirrorball of the sea.’ Here and elsewhere, the pleasurable resistance of Amis’s prose arises not simply from his liberal use of parentheses and dashes, nor from descriptive clauses strung together as items in a series, but also the perceptive charge of the entire endeavour—the pathetic fallacy rendered so unabashedly. Let’s turn T.S. Eliot on his head and call this a subjective correlative, in which the emotion gives rise to the external facts, so to speak, as Des’s condition renders the landscape rather than vice versa. More broadly, we can say that Amis’s prose is concerned less with representing experience than with evoking it. Those passages about Diston’s life expectancy, for example, have been the focus of much attention in the press and elsewhere not because they come across as unreal or irrelevant but precisely because they seem real. Their uncanny truth strikes a nerve.
If you like having your nerves struck, as I do, then this novel performs the task admirably—and after all, some of these nerves are funny bones. Sitting alone in a café, I had to stop reading because I was laughing so profusely, and at such length, that I feared getting tossed out for my anti-social behaviour.