Lionel Asbo

By Martin Amis

The dustjacket of Lionel Asbo: State of England identifies Martin Amis as the author of Money, London Fields, and The Information. The last of these was published seventeen years ago. In the time since Amis has continued to stay in the public spotlight as a prominent man of letters, but more as a writer of non-fiction and holder of controversial political opinions than for his novels, which recently haven’t been very good.

As the subtitle indicates, Lionel Asbo is a novel of social commentary. The eponymous anti-hero is a type of figure unfondly known in England as a “chav,” a derogatory term usually applied to boorish and irregularly employed members of the lower class. In a perverse act of class consciousness Lionel has even adopted the last name of “Asbo,” which is borrowed from the acronym for “anti-social behaviour order” (a judicial restraining order that Lionel first received at the age of three for smashing in car windows).

Though sometimes appearing to be little more than a latter-day caveman, Lionel is nevertheless a robust, larger-than-life comic figure. When he enters a room it is as a god of misrule, “immense and telekinetic, like a human chariot” behind his leashed pit bulls. He even urinates “copiously” and showers “torrentially.” In the words of one character, he is simply “too bloody much!”

This oversize nature is further magnified when Lionel wins 140 million pounds in a lottery (he finds out while incarcerated for his role in a wedding brawl). His sudden elevation then allows Amis to shift the target of his satire from chav to celebrity culture, as Lionel indulges a tabloid-headline lifestyle in the role of England’s favourite Lotto Lout. Highlights include his stormy marriage to a silicon-enhanced poet called “Threnody” (the quotation marks are part of her name) and his attempts to keep his proletarian pit pulls from getting soft.

The anchor of normalcy in all of this is Lionel’s nephew Des. Des, though from the same background as Lionel, is no mere chav, and embodies the virtues of intelligence, hard work, and human decency. He’s also unconvincing and a bore. The essence of Amis’s essentially misanthropic vision is encapsulated in a throwaway parenthesis that’s part of his description of a traffic jam: “all life hating all other life.” One gets the sense that Des was thrown into the novel for balance, or to give the reader someone to identify with. But it’s clear Amis doesn’t believe in him.

The writing is typical of Amis: never relaxed but often interesting. There is the usual obsession with how characters speak, even including guides to their pronunciation. Lionel has a thing for turning “th” sounds into double-f’s, and placing double-tap plosives at the ends of words (hence “pathetic” turns into “puffeh ic-cuh”). It’s nicely observed, but becomes a repetitive gag after a while, and it’s hard to understand why Amis didn’t drop it after having made the point that by a character’s speech you shall know them.

Also typical of Amis is the disjunctive sprinkling of difficult words. A lot of this is unnecessary, as when Des wakes up after a bout of illness “defervesced, fever-free.” At other times it’s just showing-off, like describing Lionel’s rough early neighbourhood as “philoprogenitive.” The thing is, as anyone who’s read Amis’s essays and non-fiction knows, he is a smart guy. He doesn’t need to do this.

A couple of thousand years ago the Roman writer Juvenal remarked that it was difficult not to write satire. What was true in Imperial Rome is even more true today, and in sending up a figure like Asbo and the state of England in the early twenty-first century Amis has an easy time of it. A lot of Lionel Asbo is funny and clever, but from this author we should expect more.

Review first published September 8, 2012.

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