Lionel Asbo has almost certainly never made a proper CV, so let me try and quickly whip something up on his behalf.
ADDRESS: Diston, U.K. (one of the poorest and all-around scuzziest boroughs of London).
WORK EXPERIENCE: Receiving Stolen Property and Extortion With Menaces (several counts each).
VOLUNTEER EXPERIENCE: Amateur dog trainer (confining pit bulls to a tiny apartment balcony and feeding them ungodly amounts of Tabasco sauce).
EDUCATION: “Tried [reading]. You know—bit of history. D-Day. Omaha Beach. Seems alright. Then after a page or two I… After a page or two I keep thinking the book’s taking the piss. Oy. You taking the piss? Then you temper’s gone, and you can’t uh, regain you concentration.”
HOBBIES: Pornography, music (chanting “Get yuh tits fixed” while throwing money at strippers), obsessing about mother’s sexual activity, mentoring nephew Desmond.
Not bad. Of course, Lionel won’t need a CV in his future, either. That’s because early in Martin Amis’s thirteenth novel, the man who re-christened himself after the acronym for Anti-Social Behaviour Order wins the British lotto, and is suddenly worth $140 million pounds overnight.
Set as it is in the muck and clamour of lower-class England, Lionel Asbo marks a return to form of sorts, following 2010’s scenic-Italian detour The Pregnant Widow. (This despite Amis himself packing up and moving to Brooklyn in the interim.) The novel’s subtitle, “State of England,” also suggests a sense of urgency on Amis’s part to take the nation’s true temperature in the 21st century, perhaps as the Olympics buzz around in the background.
But it’s unclear what, exactly, he had in mind. Lionel Asbo feels cozy and familiar, a victory lap around old stomping grounds. It doesn’t feel particularly timely or provocative, though: in fact, all of the topical issues under discussion—tabloid/reality TV stars, the vulgarity of new money, the ever-weakening of sexual taboos—were predicted by Amis’s novels from more than 20 years ago. To still be talking about these ideas now, when they’re already soaking our culture to the bone, isn’t just behind the curve. It’s actually kind of boring. Amis has become a victim of his own prescience.
Stylistically, this new book marks the closest Amis has yet come in his goal of turning his novels into exoskeletons of wheezing gears and sharp corners. It’s loud and continually jarring, with every sentence delivered like the punch of a headline in Lionel’s beloved Morning Lark. Do not open this novel expecting to feel lulled at any point.
The man who guides the book is Lionel’s above-mentioned nephew Desmond, an auto-didact who winds up with a university education and a baby on the way with a woman he loves. He’s upwardly mobile in the intellectual sense, and acts as a severe counterpoint to Lionel and his suddenly bursting pockets. An early twist, wherein Desmond begins an affair with his 40-year-old grandmother, gives him all the motivation he needs to make a better future for himself.
Of course, if the prospect of inter-generational incest turns you off completely, fair enough. Amis has written about this kind of thing before, and at this point these kinds of scenes just feel like more toys in his sandbox, to be thrown around at will. If there’s a point beyond “Look at what weird shit the forgotten people of London are up to,” I’m not sure I see it.
Still, it’s commendable that despite Amis’s age and success, he’s retained a keen and genuine interest in the poor, the criminal, and the just plain desperate classes—particularly as they exist today. To better capture Lionel’s fame-starved girlfriend, “Threnody” (the quotation marks are her own), Amis read several volumes of memoir by British tabloid staple Katie Price. That’s real commitment.
And I’d be lying if I didn’t continue to take delight in the voice and the Britishisms, as well as certain passages along the way. The one about reading at the top is a good example. Here’s another, recalling Lionel’s cartoonishly violent adolescence: “A childish interest in cruelty to animals was perhaps only to be expected, but Lionel went further, and one night made a serious attempt to torch a pet shop.”
We’re also told Lionel was served his first restraining order when he was three years and two days old: “a national record (though disputed by other claimants).” Presumably, those other claimants also live in Diston.
Knopf, 272 pp., $29.95, hardcover
(review also appeared in Vue Weekly, August 23, 2012)