I’m not interested in giving specifics, but British author Martin Amis seems to have a sour relationship with the press, and while I have no idea (and couldn’t care less) how this started, if there’s a horn-effect (the opposite of a halo effect), I’ve seen it in the many articles written about, or featuring Martin Amis–he can’t even go to the dentist without being criticised. Frankly, I don’t care how much he spends on his teeth; I just want to read his books. I’m glad to see that Amis is unapologetic in interviews–giving back as good as he gets.
I loved several titles by Martin Amis–Money is one of my all-time favourite books (any writer who makes me laugh deserves special note), but I disliked Yellow Dog, and this is a way of explaining that I am not a rabid fan of anything Amis writes. His memoir Experience included a section about the murder of his cousin Lucy Partington by serial killer Fred West which somehow drew criticism, but I found it to be one of the most moving pieces I’ve ever read.
All this preamble to say that anything Amis writes will stir controversy, and this brings me to the author’s latest book, Lionel Asbo: State of England, a comic novel which targets celebrity culture and a book that has received its share of nasty reviews. We’ve all seen the sort of thing Amis is writing about, and reality TV plays no small role in the current obsession with the bad behaviour of a few people who are jettisoned to instant stardom for no other reason than they make startling and frequent headlines with their out-of-control behaviour.
Young Desmond Pepperdine, 15 when the novel begins in 2006, lives with his wily, uncouth uncle Lionel, a career criminal in Diston Town. Des questions why his uncle changed his last name to ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order) as it’s certainly a red flag to any judge or police officers, and he wonders if his uncle is stupid. As we see as the novel plays out, Lionel, who is cunning and crafty, simply doesn’t care what people think of him, and his new surname is not only a signifier of defiance, but a full-on declaration of war.
While the novel explores the sometimes difficult relationship between Des and his delinquent uncle, this raucous tale (and I laughed out loud many times) also examines Lionel’s relationship with society–a relationship which threatens to undergo significant change as the novel develops, but more of that later.
The novel opens with Desmond’s confession that he’s having an affair with his grandmother, the libidinous Grace, a lively 39-year-old, mother of 7 by age 19, and still a goer who’s so obsessed with the Beatles that she named 5 children after them (including the “forgotten Beatle“). Lionel, who seems to have a problem with women’s sexuality in general (he nurses a strange and unhealthy passion for the “promiscuous beauty” Gina Drago), can’t stand the idea of his mother having a sex life, and he’s long since declared she’s “past it.” With a dearth of males bold enough to visit Grace and test the wrath of Lionel, perhaps it was only a matter of time before Grace, sporting a babydoll nightie, seduced Des–one of the few males Lionel allows to visit his mum. Whether or not Lionel is going to discover the short-lived affair between Grace and Des is one of the main story lines–or at least it’s a major pre-occupation for Des.
The other main thread concerns Lionel’s lifestyle changes when he wins the lotto and is dubbed the “lotto lout” by the papers, but when the novel opens Des and his uncle share a humble flat which is the centre of Lionel’s petty criminal operations and is guarded by two gigantic pitbulls, Jeff and Joe–kept vicious and temperamental through a diet laced with Tabasco sauce. The flat is badly furnished but includes a wall-sized TV which dominates the kitchen–not that there’s much else going in this room as pasty Lionel and Des don’t exactly believe in good nutrition, and daily breakfast consists of Lionel’s nod to fruit: the poptart.
The two main characters, Des and Lionel, are an interesting study in contrasts. Orphaned Des, who attends Squeers Free School wants to get ahead in life–the non criminal way, and yet he’s under the thumb of his thuggish Uncle Lionel–a man who despises education, flaunts every societal code of politeness, and boomerangs back to prison every few years. Lionel, who’s an expert on the subject on crime and incarceration is “almost up to PhD level on questions of criminal law.” Des could be pressured into becoming a Lionel-clone, but instead while he obeys his uncle, he doesn’t agree with how he behaves:
Lionel’s trade was still something of a mystery to Des. He knew that part of it had to do with the hairiest end of debt collection; and he knew that part of it involved ‘selling on’ (Lionel’s word for selling on was reset). Des knew this by simple logic, because Extortion with Menaces and Receiving Stolen Property were what Lionel most often went to prison for … He stood there, Lionel, doing something he was very good at: disseminating tension. Des loved him deeply and more or less unquestioningly ( I wouldn’t be here today without Uncle Li, he often said to himself). But he always felt slightly ill in his presence. Not ill at ease. Ill.
Throughout this extremely funny novel, Lionel, as his nephew’s theoretical role model, provides Des with ‘fatherly’ advice, and coming from Lionel, the results are extremely funny and potentially corrupting:
Porn. You see, Des, this is it. You don’t actually need girls. Girls? They more trouble than they worth if you ask me. With the Mac, you can have three new bunk-ups every day–just by using your imagination! And it doesn’t cost you fuck all. Okay. Lecture over. So endeth the first lesson. Just promise you’ll ponder me words. And here’s an extra fiver for yuh.
The novel’s comic aspects really takes off when Lionel wins the lotto–just imagine a thug “who work[s] at being stupid” winning millions. Guaranteed to always make a spectacle of himself in public, he’s the darling of the paparazzi. Just what Lionel does with his money is hilarious, and of course the biggest question is: will Lionel end his criminal ways now he is filthy rich?
Some of the criticism I’ve read about the novel is that there is an uncomfortable innate snobbery at the heart of this depiction of lowlife Lionel. After finishing the book, I’d argue against that. Yes there are times when Lionel’s dreadful family life is over-the-top–exaggerated for comic effect, but are we now so PC that we can’t enjoy a good laugh? And some of the novel isn’t exaggerated at all–perhaps it all depends on how we live and who we mingle with.
Chewing over the criticisms I read about Lionel Asbo, I thought about Till Death Do Us Part–an extremely popular British television programme which ran for many years. The series featured Alf Garnett as a middle-aged East End working-class man, a racist, a sexist, an admirer of Enoch Powell and Mary Whitehouse, and an inveterate lover of the Royals. A great deal of the programme’s humour came from Alf Garnett’s ridiculous fascistic attitudes which he frothed about and spouted at every opportunity even as he choked on inchoate rage. While the programme had its share of controversy, the fact that it lampooned the ignorant attitudes of an East-Ender was not labelled ‘snobbery,’ and instead the criticism centered on swearing, so-called offensive language and “moral laxity.” One ground-breaking episode sent Alf Garnett dreaming that he was at Buckingham Palace talking and grovelling to the Queen, and there were headlines about the episode’s appropriateness. Attitudes change, and these days, Till Death Do Us Part would not make it to a pilot episode without considerable editing.
Martin Amis seems to have a great deal of fun with the character of Lionel, and the result is a refreshingly honest read–no touchie-feelie crap, no holier-than-thou resolution, no miracle of self-revelation, and no redemption. Lionel is exactly who he is–unapologetic, unrepentant, disinhibited, comfortable in his own skin, and giving the world the finger. I grew rather fond of Lionel–he’s easy to underestimate, and I suspect that Amis enjoyed creating this larger-than-life character. Is Amis making a larger social statement about England? Who knows. I don’t think Britain has the corner on the market when it comes to the Lionel Asbos of this world. Lionel reminds me of an American man I met who demonstrated how his pitbull, on command, could knock down his missus, and hold her by the throat while she lay frozen. He sniggered and said “just in case she gets ideas.” The happy couple both seemed rather proud of their dog’s ability to pin a human being at the drop of a word.
Special thanks to Kevin who read, reviewed and enjoyed the novel too.