For those of us who’ve understood the progressive signs of reality television, Justin Bieber and Kate Middleton’s paparazzied breasts as harbingers of the coming apocalypse, Martin Amis’ Lionel Asbo: State of England (2012) offers consolation, assurance and even — disconcertingly — celebration. Tempting as it is to read Amis’ latest novel as a chilling indictment of a society in decline — incestuous, criminal, utterly narcissistic and self-promoting — to do so is to ignore (at our own humourless peril) the comic and redemptive potential in even the most dour of human plight. Amis’ England is not the grim modernist dystopia of Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley – “an old bitch gone in the teeth” — but a ditzy broad who bears the likes of John, Paul, George, Ringo — and Lionel.
The eponymous anti-hero of Amis’ 12th novel is a petty criminal, the youngest of seven children born to a promiscuous Beatle-maniac of a mother, and fostered into thuggish manhood in the bleak London suburb of Diston Town, where the winters are always cold. Precocious in his criminality, Lionel receives his first conviction before his third birthday, and at the age of 18 legally changes his surname from Pepperdine to Asbo — an acronym for “Anti-Social Behaviour Order.” Beyond the absorbing preoccupations of business, Lionel is also responsible for rearing Desmond, the 15-year-old orphaned son of his only sister, Cilla. We encounter Lionel first through Desmond, who opens the novel with a nervously penned letter to a tabloid advice columnist. Desmond is having an incestuous affair with Grace, his 39-year-old grandmother. What, please, are the legalities of the situation? And what — shudder — to do if Lionel should find out?
EROS ’N’ AMIS
In a career spanning four decades and encompassing 12 novels, seven works of non-fiction and two short story collections, the English-born Amis has established an incontrovertible reputation as one of the premier literary figures of our age and as a consummate satirist, noted for his darkly comic, grotesque take on the absurdities of contemporary society. If this latest work bears all the traces of Amis’ hallmark satirical wit, Lionel Asbo also marks a progress for the writer, not only in the art of story-telling — “I think it’s got more plot than I’m usually used to, and the arrow’s development is sharper than I’ve often had need of,” he says — but in his attitude to writing itself.
“More and more, I feel that writing is sort of amatory — even erotic — and celebratory,” says Amis. “I don’t like the sort of grim bastard kind of novel — the one where you’re supposed to think how heroically pessimistic the writer is. I feel the reverse of that. The business of writing is to celebrate, not to depress the spirits. And in fact, writing never does depress the spirits — if it’s good. If this weren’t true, then everybody would kill themselves after going to see King Lear.”
And, indeed, grim as the prospects of the novel’s Diston Town may seem at the outset, there’s no need to commit readerly suicide, because events rapidly, and improbably, take a turn for the better. Granny Grace ditches Desmond for an even younger schoolmate, leaving the boy open to hone the intellectual gifts that eventually win him a scholarship to Queen Anne’s College at the University of London, where he meets Dawn, the soulmate destined to finally fill the gap left by the early death of Desmond’s mother, and eventually close the circle of loss by furnishing Desmond with a daughter named Cilla. Meanwhile, Lionel — imprisoned for having instigated a riot at the wedding of his best friend, Marlon Welkway (who has just married Gina, the only woman Lionel has every truly desired) — discovers he has won 140 million pounds in the lottery, buys his way out of prison, and immediately launches into a brilliant career as a celebrity rich person.
Subtitle notwithstanding, then, this is not — and Amis is emphatic on the point — an exercise in social commentary or realism. There is, he concedes, a subgenre known as “State of England” novels, which he describes as “earnest investigations into the health of the various institutions, full of bureaucrats having long discussions about this or that” — but Amis mercifully has no interest in boring us. Rather, Lionel Asbo takes its inspiration from the comic form of 19th century English novelist Charles Dickens.
“I was consciously aware of Dickens when I was writing it. I was thinking about Dickens’ London, and the names for his characters and his streets,” Amis explains. “There’s no greater master of the expressive name than Dickens — Scrooge, Voles, Tulkinghorn — and I realized towards the end of it that it was actually more like Dickens than I’d thought, or in a deeper way. Because everyone knew Dickens was a great writer at once, but it took a century before they decided he was a serious writer. And the reason is that he’s not a social realist, like his great contemporaries. He’s actually in a much more — I use this neutrally — in a degraded form than the social realist novel. He’s more like the burlesque and fairy tale, with semi-magical twists and long journeys from which people come back transformed, and miracle cures. So it’s a kind of stylized, semi-magical world, and mine is a bit like that too. Huge rewards, huge punishments, tremendous arbitrariness, as in the lottery win itself.”
If there is a modern parallel to the Dickensian universe, it exists in the tabloid culture England has historically proved so successful at disseminating (let’s keep in mind that Dickens started off as a journalist). And the world of Lionel Asbo itself — in its exaggerations, its details, its necessities — is both a product of, and a reflection on, that culture. In Diston Town, everybody’s story is a headline. Toddler Convicted of Anti-Social Behaviour! 18 Year Old Gives Birth to Seventh Child — From Sixth Father! My Gran is My Lover! London Suburb Beats Out Impoverished African Nations for Low Average Life Expectancy!
Even the most mundane of the Diston Town citizenry has a chance at realizing Warhol’s prophecy of ubiquitous fame: the Beatles-inspired Pepperdine brothers, the Marlons, Rocks and Charltons of the Welkway families may attain to — if in name only — a kind of celebrity. Desmond’s own career spans a smudgy arc from the sheets of the Morning Lark’s agony column, “Dear Jennavieve,” to the more genteel columns of the Daily Gazette, where in time he finds a place as a crime writer.
But it is to Lionel — Lionel, reader of the Lark, Lionel, the aggressively illiterate, Lionel, The Lottery Lout! — that the world of popular print proves most important. A headline in the making since he first kicked his way out of the womb, Lionel in his spontaneous good fortune suddenly recognizes the possibility of a different kind of celebrity. To woo the press — rather than, more obviously, to smash their faces — is potentially to woo the nation. The press, in Lionel’s impoverished reasoning, is love, or the promise of love. Enter Threnody, plastic fantastic drama queen par excellence, skilled media handler, and Lionel’s public mate (their private life is another matter — read the novel), who manages — if only fleetingly — to transform Lionel into the nation’s darling.
The tabloid world partakes as much of wonder as it does of horrors, and Lionel Asbo offers us both in equal measure. And this, ultimately, is where the argument of the book takes us: here, and no further. England (and so also the world beyond) is grotesque. England (and so also the world beyond) is strangely miraculous and comic.
“It is about Britishness, but it’s not an investigation that means to go anywhere,” Amis concludes. “And I think in the end it is celebratory. It’s not written in disgust; it’s written with affection.”
Please leave your indictments at the door.