Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis (Jonathan Cape - June 2012)
About three-quarters of the way through Martin Amis’s new novel, Lionel Asbo, something changes. Up until that point there are problems, even for the reader who, in the words of Adam Mars-Jones, in his excellent LRB review, ‘constitutionally enjoys Amis.’ I am happy to represent myself as one so predisposed, but like 2010’s The Pregnant Widow, Lionel Asbo makes this a difficult position to hold unambiguously.
The novel’s storyline has been outlined extensively elsewhere, and, as with all Amis novels, it is largely incidental—it’s all about the prose, innit?—but in essence this is a literary rendering of the conjoined tabloid lives of Michael Carroll (the famed UK ‘lotto-lout’ who won £9.7m in 2002) and Katie ‘Jordan’ Price. Lionel Asbo, son of Grace, uncle of the mixed-race Des Pepperdine, is a grotesque cockney hardman in the great tradition of Amisian hardmen—Money’s John Self and London Fields’ Keith Talent et al—who lives in a high-rise in the imaginary London borough of Diston with his nephew. Des Pepperdine—son of Cilla and an unnamed father, whom he meets precisely once, alcoholically comatose on a park bench—is the counterpoint to Lionel: intelligent, sensitive and bookish. At the beginning of the novel, life proceeds as normal—that is, Lionel performs staggeringly inept blags around ‘town’, aided by two ferocious pitbulls jacked-up on Tabasco and Special Brew, and goes jail with great frequency for the trouble. But Des has a secret—he is having an affair with an older woman, ‘but ther’es one very serious complication and i’ts this; she’s my Gran!’ (sic). This entanglement, which ends quickly when Grace takes up with ‘a younger man’, forms the motor that powers the novel. Will Lionel find out? And if he does find out, what will he do to Des?
Things are further complicated when Lionel, serving yet another spell at her majesty’s pleasure, wins £140 million on the lottery (a la Carroll) and embarks on a satirically exaggerated version of z-list celebrity life thru’ a lens—posh hotels, eye-wateringly expensive bottles of ‘fizz’, pricey motors and glamour models. One in particular, Threnody (nemesis of Danube, a simulacrum for Price, who remains off-stage but whose presence reverberates throughout the novel) becomes Lionel’s girlfriend, and together they strive to manipulate the media in furthering her career and making Lionel a national treasure.
Much of the pleasure to be derived here—as is always the case with Amis—is from the writing itself. Like Lionel, Amis is something of a vigilante, shooting at the feet of the English language and making it dance with a precocious elegance rarely seen elsewhere. Thus, for Des, Threnody evokes ‘the unlooked-for prettiness of young wasps.’ Later, when annoyed, she is said to have ‘scissored [away] with her swift, fussy stride.’ Someone’s bloodshot eyes are ‘red-spoked’; a railway-station platform is lit with ‘ladders of evening light.’ And, as in his most successful novels, Amis’s London—rather like Woody Allen’s New York—plays a leading role, and the abjection of Diston, ‘with its gravid primary-schoolers and toothless hoodies, its wheezing twenty-year-olds, arthritic thirty-year-olds, crippled forty-year-olds, demented fifty-year-olds, and non-existent sixty-year-olds’, is made viscerally manifest. Skinthrift Close, where Lionel has a lock-up, is approached via ‘a snowfield of shattered glass.’ Elsewhere, the traffic seems ‘to shrug something off, [rolling] forward into the ease and freedom, the innocuous proficiency, of a London summer, beneath a flattering sky.’ But there are misfires, too. A young man’s face is described as being ‘like a pizza of acne’, a simile which would have been hackneyed had it been used by a fifteen-year-old in 1985; and a mouth is compared to ‘the zip on a lady’s purse’—of course, we know what he means, but do ‘ladies’ really carry those sorts of purses anymore? Later, a female character is described as looking ‘like a rock-hard oil-rigger recalling some murderous offshore blaze.’ OK, incongruity is at the root of much humour, but it can only be stretched so far, and oil-rigging is about as far removed from the crucible of the ABH-blighted streets of Diston as the moon. Rather like Will Self, Amis has a tendency to throw as much as possible at the wall, before ripping out the kitchen sink and lobbing that, too. Most of it sticks, but not all of it.
These are minor quibbles, though. The greater problem by far is in the detail—the specific elements of modern life the novel holds up to ridicule. Like a decent hero, satire is only as strong as its antagonist, and here, Amis’s targets are not merely laughably obvious, but worse, out of date. A running gag throughout the novel concerns Des writing to ‘Dear Daphne’, the Sun’s agony aunt about his relationship with his gran. Would anyone actually do this anymore, with the ready availability of the internet, not to mention The Jeremy Kyle Show (which would perhaps have been a more worthy target for satire)? In an interview with Self, Amis once said ‘What I feel I'm here for is to write about this city and what it's like to be alive in it now. That's the main thing.’ And yet Lionel Asbo presents us with what feels like a curiously dated vision of London. ASBOs have been around since 1998 and have been much lampooned elsewhere. The same goes for ‘chavs’, glamour models and reality TV. In one scene, Des and Dawn sit ‘with their paperbacks, in idling Saturday light.’ Paperbacks—really? Not Kindles? Not Nooks? Not posting YouTube videos to Twitter? Grotesquery is all well and good, but it has to be grounded in reality, and reality is founded in specifics. For satire to work, it has to hit home: too often, Lionel Asbo eviscerates an idea of what modern life is like in London, and an idea that is a decade out of date, at that.
But the novel offers considerable compensations, not least in the tenderness with which Amis depicts Des’s love for his new-born daughter, and his love for Lionel. At one point, Des recalls Asbo comforting him after the death of his mother thus: ‘Okay, boy. I know. I know. But you can’t just sit there and pine; and he’d give him a hug (though not enough—never enough), murmuring, There, there, son. There there . . .’ In this moment, Lionel’s ‘brutally generic’, ‘slablike’ masculinity is transformed through the prose, against all odds, and the human, the familial, is revealed.
If you are new to Amis and you haven’t read Money, London Fields or Time’s Arrow, then start with one of those. If you have, then you just might find that Lionel Asbo is the most entertaining book he has put out since the (unfairly) maligned Yellow Dog.