A mediocre book by Martin Amis is better than most books by anyone else, but unfortunately, a bad book by Martin Amis is just as bad as any other bad book. And Lionel Asbo (Knopf, 255 pp. $25.95) is a bad book.
The mention on the cover of Mr. Amis’s previous masterworks—Money and London Fields—does Lionel Asbo no favors by calling to mind its better-realized predecessors. As in those books, the protagonist is a morally bankrupt, misogynistic menace to society—which for Mr. Amis is a promising start. Unfortunately, Asbo reads like a first draft of an Amis novel, before the linguistic pyrotechnics, trenchant wit and cosmopolitan insight have made it in.
Lionel’s surname is a play on the acronym for England’s Anti-social behavior order, a legal mechanism devised to deal with chronic disruptive behavior—things like repeated public drunkenness or playing music too loudly. The term morphed first into a verb—one could get “asbo-ed,” or more gratifyingly, “asbo” others—then became a noun once more; one could be “an asbo”—the British equivalent of “white trash.” Thus, Lionel Asbo is an asbo. You can see how clever that is.
The plot, as far as it goes, is fairly simple. A violent, ignorant man wins the lottery, becomes rich, is oddly adept at keeping and even making more money, and continues to behave badly. Meanwhile, his nephew Des is a well-meaning young man with journalistic aspirations and the desire to make for himself a livable existence with a normal girl. (There is some incest and mayhem thrown in, but it feels oddly incidental.)
Des and Lionel hail from Diston, a fictional neighborhood of council flats and housing estates 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) … In Diston, everything hated everything else, and everything else, in return, hated everything back.”
When Mr. Amis tells us that Diston is “a world of italics and exclamation marks,” it is an artful enough way to characterize working-class life and to elucidate the novel’s theme of class and language—and the particularly British nature of the relationship between the two, which Mr. Amis returns to repeatedly.
“Lionel pronounced ‘myth’ miff,” reads one passage. “Full possessive pronouns—your, their, my—still made guest appearances in his English, and he didn’t invariably defy grammatical number (they was, and so on). But his verbal prose and accent were in steep decline. Until a couple years ago Lionel pronounced ‘Lionel’ Lionel. But these days he pronounced ‘Lionel’ Loyonel, or even Loyonoo.” And later, “The first time he said brothel he pronounced it broffle, and the second time he said brothel he pronounced it brovvle.”
“I’m a wealthy man and it’s a worthy cause.’ Welfy, wervy.” We get it. You can take the chav out of the council estate, but etc. However, these linguistic signposts never seem to do anything other than remind the reader, over and over, that Lionel is lower-class. After about the 10th instance, it starts to be come unclear whether Mr. Amis is observing how language acts as a class indicator or if he’s actually using it as one. The whole thing gets a little “U and non-U,” and not in a self-aware way.
The most marked characteristic of Lionel Asbo is its joylessness. It doesn’t seem that Mr. Amis has any affection for his characters, even the despicable ones. In the past, real social monsters have been his forte. There is a palpable glee in his descriptions of Keith Talent’s infidelity and John Self’s alcoholic implosion. Lionel Asbo, in contrast, is a nasty enough creature—beating women, assaulting random passersby and drinking olympian amounts of liquor are among his pastimes—but there is none of the vivid squalor of those other louts.
As Philip Roth put it in his essay “Writing American Fiction,” “The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.” And while this is, of course, a persistent concern, Mr. Amis has in the past done reality one better on a consistent basis. It is apparent that the world has, by now, matched and surpassed his most squalid projections. While he is certainly a disturbing specimen, Lionel Asbo is less appalling than what one would see on, for example, The Only Way Is Essex, or even High Street on a given Saturday night, not to mention any one of thousands of places on the internet. To wit, at one point Lionel advises Des to check out some internet porn. “Des did, in fact have a quick look at Fucked-up Facials. And the site, he found, was accurately so-called: he had never seen anything half so fucked-up in all his life.” The thing is, Fucked-up Facials actually exists in reality, and that’s the problem. Mr. Amis has lost his ability to be predictive about the degradation of society and its actors, as he was with, say, the murderous house party of Dead Babies, the television addictions of London Fields, or any of the other depravities that made him the bard of the “new unpleasantness.” There can be no sense of foreboding when the worst has already come to pass. Here, one can almost imagine Mr. Amis bleating, “You kids get the hell on my lawn!”
The moral turpitude is rote, and the violence lacks the grinning menace of Mr. Amis at the height of his talents. Lionel Asbo is a daunted and tentative work that suffers from exactly the syndrome Mr. Roth diagnosed. The dulling of this edge may also be a function of Mr. Amis’s age, which he himself has acknowledged as a concern for a writer’s ability to corral the prevailing culture on the page. In a recent interview with New York magazine, he lamented, “Getting old is the subtraction of your powers. Which very much goes for writing … I don’t see many exceptions to that rule.” That he would so publicly point out such a thing in advance of his own highly anticipated book either indicates a man who is so confident as to believe himself immune, or one who is too anxious about his own diminution of powers that he can’t help but mention it. The latter seems more likely.
But the true problem seems to be his lack of interest in his subject. The book is subtitled “State of England,” but it’s exactly this that seems to have lost its hold on Mr. Amis.
In that same interview, he declared, “No one cares about what happens in London anymore.” This is a tough case to make, however, considering the recent deluge of Olympics coverage, and last year’s riots, as well as the 2005 bombings. And the catastrophic JP Morgan trade of last spring. The recent revelations about misreported financial statements by Barclays. And of course there is the constant battering of the public with news of the royals, their in-laws, the hats at Prince William’s wedding, Kate Middleton’s recent Vanity Fair cover, and the various comings and goings of Pippa Middleton and her world-famous backside. That no one cares about what happens in London anymore is simply a bizarre notion, and sounds like nothing so much as projection. No, it seems only Martin Amis doesn’t care what happens in London anymore. And you can tell from this bloodless book.
At one point, Lionel himself inveighs, “I love this f***ing country. It’s England, my England, for Lionel Asbo.” But perhaps no longer for Martin Amis.