Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

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.


Filed under Amis, Martin, Fiction

16 responses to “Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

  1. Brian Joseph

    This is great commentary Guy.

    I often find these character studies of these loutish people to be very funny. It is very disturbing how modern society and media often embrace them.

    • Have you noticed that some of the people who become famous thanks to reality TV commit some rather nasty crimes? I wonder if it would have been different if they hadn’t had a brief taste of fame.

  2. I enjoyed Lionel Asbo immensely, after I read the first chapter. It may be that Amis is too much for the Brits. He divorced, received huge book pre-sales, got his teeth fixed and moved to Brooklyn.

    • Actually I was thinking that this was your sort of book so I’m glad you read it. I saw that Amis moved here. His new wife is American, isn’t she?
      Philip Hensher seems to come in for the same sort of criticism, and he too doesn’t care whether or not people like his opinions.

  3. I can’t exactly say why butI have a feeling this wouldn’t be for me. I’ve never been drawn to any of his novels.

  4. I think prisr it may be more because Amis burnt his bridges with a series of overhyped books that weren’t by all accounts up there with his best, and because he left the UK saying that he had written it off as unsalvageable and then wrote a book about people he has no direct experience of.

    The US equivalent would be roughly as if Jonathan Franzen say were to quit the US for France saying as he did so that he didn’t regard the US as a fit place to live any more, and then chose to write a book featuring a caricatured African-American welfare recipient despite not being African-American himself or ever having been on welfare. However well written the book you’d expect some negative reaction, fair or not.

    Anyway. Amis’s bad press aside, it is fair to say that he was never a subtle writer so there’s no reason why he should be here. Money, which is generally regarded as his best, features a similarly monstrous and over-the-top character who could never truly exist but yet who captured the spirit of an age, or the dark spirit of an age.

    Had this not come shortly after the statements about leaving the UK because he thought it had gone down the tubes I think this would have got a much fairer hearing, although even then the issue of an upper-middle class man writing a satire about a working class man is culturally I think pretty equivalent to a cross-racial satire in the US. It hits cultural fault-lines right on the nose (and most commentators would not I think bother checking whether the book was in fact satirising attitudes to class, in the UK, or race, in the US, or wider societal issues generally – few fanners of flames actually read the books they condemn).

    As, again, Amis did with Money. This is the first Amis in years I’ve been tempted to read, precisely because he’s gone back to his roots as a provocative and even offensive writer. Amis before he became domesticated was great, if he’s back in that territory that’s a good thing.

    Even so, there is something disquieting which needs to be overcome in the issue of a man of his class satirising those so much worse off than he is. If he pulls it off then that’s great, but if he doesn’t it’s bullying which again fairly or unfairly makes people leery of the book.

    The US cover by the way, if that’s what the one above is, is vastly better than the UK one. Yours is a clever satire on The Sun newspaper, ours is just a leering caricature of a working class man.

  5. Forgot to say, one of the biggest criticisms I saw was that it got cultural details wrong. If so that would be a fairly serious issue, and a reason it might get better reviews abroad (where that wouldn’t stick out in the same way). He was accused of being out of touch, which is quite a serious accusation for a social satire (I saw a comment about Desmond not having a mobile for example, which would be absurd but hopefully that’s wrong).

    No idea how fair that is as obviously I haven’t read it yet.

  6. Max: I think the N. American cover is much better. I can’t tell you if Desmond had a mobile or not as it didn’t occur to me one way or another. At the same time, I don’t think that this novel is better than Money– a novel that I doubt the author can surpass. I still had a lot of fun reading it.

    I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all w/Amis writing about yobo Lionel and I didn’t take the book as a knock at Britain (although I can see why it’s seen as that). To me Lionel is a universal type, and I deal with the Lionels of this world on a daily basis. Des springs from the same genetic material (more or less) as Lionel but he is a much milder, more reasonable person who wants to improve his lot. Lionel glories in his crudeness, and makes a point of never giving an inch when it comes to society’s rules and expectations. I don’t think it’s snobbery to write about a character such as Lionel or even to despair that the lotto lout becomes an ‘enfant terrible’ of the media.

    I don’t watch television and my television set exists to play DVDs. Once in a while, I catch a minute of a programme right before the DVD starts playing. Some of the programmes are horrifying and enough to make you despair about the future of humanity: the paternity programmes, the dating programmes, Jerry Springer (and copycats), hoarders, Housewives of wherever, etc. I think it’s this sort of thing that Amis is tapping and not welfare recipients.

    I hope you try it–if only for the selfish reason that I’d like your take on it.

  7. I likely will try this one, which will make it the first new Amis I’ve been tempted by in a while (though I am one of the few who liked his Night Train). Won’t be for a while though – leaving aside any TBR pile issues it’s in full hardback or a near-£10 Kindle edition, which leaves me waiting for the paperback edition for the moment.

  8. leroyhunter

    You make this sound much better then most other reviews I’ve read Guy. I haven’t read anything of Amis since Yellow Dog (which was a gift), although I did recently buy Time’s Arrow when I spotted it for €2 in a bargain bin. I also have fond memories of Money, though I wonder how it would re-read. I thought The Information was very funny and I thought the characters in London Fields rescued the risible plot. His recent stuff has sounded fairly terrible though, and of course his apparent desire to bait mainstream opinion has clouded how he’s viewed. The pre-controversy essays in The War Against Cliche are worth a look.

    I think I would tend to agree with you on the snobbery / satire issue. There is a strain of appalled fascination with material and cultural excess in his work and it sounds like he’s loaded this book with that material. The key for me is that the stuff he’s satirising is in reality fairly appalling and reveals human society as a morally deformed and atavistic entity. Helps when he’s funny about it of course, but I did read some of the “bum notes” that UK reviewers picked out and Max mentions.

    • Max & Leroy:
      I think one of the things at play here is the nature vs nurture arguement. Obviously, Des and Lionel are polar opposites and that puts the book in the nature camp. This is underscored when Lionel wins the lottery. You’d think that the problems of a career criminal would be solved w/millions in the bank, but Lionel is lost. His criminality is revealed to be a true-statement against society and not a desire for cash.

      When I was a child, a couple down the street won some sort of huge amount of money. I can’t remember what the context was as I was too small, but they appeared on the front of the paper (her in a new fur coat) with the statement “we’re going to spend, spend, spend!” And they did. A few years later, they were broke, divorced and had a sad tale of woe. So the book had a special appeal to me for that reason.

      One review I read mentioned “Sexy Beast,” and that sort of excess is here in all its tawdry, repulsive glory. To society, Lionel is a burden and only worth locking up, and then he’s loaded and suddenly he’s a celebrity with everyone hanging on his latest word and his next outrageous misstep. I think Amis captured the essence of this cultural madness–and that’s perhaps why I think the novel crosses cultural boundaries. Excess is excess in any language.

  9. I think Amis’ publisher did him no favor with the “State of England” subtitle (which also appears on the UK edition). As your review accurately points out, most Western societies have versions of Lionel and Des — this is hardly a state of the nation novel.
    What it is, is great fun with characters who manage to achieve a level of charm in spite of themselves. And there is some excellent satire, but I don’t think that is restricted to the London of the book — similar circumstances can be found in most metropolitan centres.

  10. I didn’t have such a good experience while reading Money mostly because I struggled with the language. It’s excellent but I missed the fun because of all this British slang I had to look for.
    So I fear this one might give the same result. Does it include many British references that I wouldn’t get? I’m thinking about TV shows (I have no idea of what Till Death Do Us Part looks like), celebrities, anchormen, or stories about the Royalty.

  11. Matthew (

    Guy, really glad you’ve defended the book from some of the criticism it got. When I read it I really couldn’t see how some of the criticisms could take the book so seriously. Congratulations on having a sense of humour, and appreciating a decent bit of satire.

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