‘Properly back on form’ – Lionel Asbo: State of England by Martin Amis

It is a joy – an unmitigated joy – to able to proclaim Mr Amis properly Back On Form. After the unfunny, limping parade of misogyny and boredom that was The Pregnant Widow (and look, I’m not only a fan, but a former student of the author; I begged it to be good), Lionel Asbo was relief, incarnate. It’s not the Second Coming of the Novel, fine, but it’s really, really funny (witty, scathing, slapstick – check), observant and (seriously) touching. Remember London Fields and Money? Well, as Amazon would say, if you liked those, etc. 

Lionel Asbo is a telling title, and it’s subtitled State of England, in case anyone’s missed the joke – but to spell it out: this isn’t po-faced social commentary or epic, state-of-the-nation, Line of Beauty-style analysis or sociological navel-gazing – it’s satire. It’s comedy. But nobody could be blamed for feeling a little sceptical. Because Martin Amis, of course, is Posh, and Lionel Asbo (and Katie Price and Jade Goody and the rest) is not; because Martin Amis has Held Forth publically and ill-advisedly on celebrity and so-called chav culture again and again in the last couple of years, much to the tabloids’ unending delight; because Martin’s straight-faced pronouncements on the state of his nation can’t help but seem patronising and ill-conceived. But the thing is, the novel’s not straight-faced. And what comes across as crass in the Mail, really is funny here, in its intended context. It’s an undeniably comic novel. So the glaring issue – the issue with both Lionel Asbo and Amis the Self-Publicist – is cultural tourism. Can Posh Martin legitimately write Criminal Lionel? My instinctive answer is yes, of course he can, but it’s still difficult to sanction – the level of disdain the Public Face of Amis turns upon the likes of Katie Price makes it hard to open the book without the teensiest of cringes. How can he take on this subject matter without it becoming enormously patronising? And the book’s opening, it has to be said, doesn’t bode well – an undeniably awful (if ultimately relevant) epigraph, and a first page (well, pages) that chucks in cliché after cliché of class-markers (names like Alektra and Chanel; awful grammar; an impulse to self-betterment that focuses upon punctuation) – enough to dash your fondest hopes. But when it winds itself up – when we’ve got the main players on stage and Amis has settled into the rhythms of their speech and the patterns of their lives, the clichés fall away and we’re left with characters (not ciphers) and situations that are really, honestly, funny. It’s satire – it takes a recognisable version of the real world and skews it. Nothing that he mocks in here is, or ought to be, sacrosanct, and if we were to ban him from dealing with these topics (the class war, fame, aspiration) on the basis of his own background, we’d be treading dangerous (censorship) grounds. And, you know, let’s take his tabloid appearances with a grain of salt – the man’s a writer, not a PR professional, and, face it, here we are, reading the book, so I guess his tactic worked, huh?

Okay – rant over. You get it – it’s satire; it’s funny; the boy done good. Let’s look at the book itself. Lionel Asbo (orginally Lionel Pepperdine; Asbo came by deed-poll) is a small-time career criminal, happier in jail than out of jail, specialising in Receiving Stolen Goods with a bit of Assault thrown into the mix. He’s a Debt man. And he’s the youngest of seven siblings (Cilla, John, Paul George, Ringo and Stuart; Lionel, odd man out, is after Lionel Ritchie), whose mum, Grace, was a mere kid of twelve when she got started. Now, Lionel’s nephew, Cilla’s son, Des, is the book’s hero – Lionel himself skating the anti-hero/villain line – and Des, as is revealed in those awkward opening pages, is having an affair with his own Gran. She’s only in her thirties, mind, but that, in an area of London where life expectancy maxes out in your fifties, does nothing to assuage Des’s guilt. And that’s the basis of the book: Des is afraid of his Uncle Lionel and what Lionel would do to him if he found out. Meanwhile Lionel wins big in the Lottery and starts to blow his funds, red-top style. Hookers, hotels, cars and a mansion – Lionel’s got them all, but he’s not happy. And then there’s Grace, Des’s one-time paramour and Gran, packed away in her forties to a crooked Scottish old-age home; Lionel’s five remaining siblings, all angling for an inheritance; Dawn, Des’s girlfriend, who wants Lionel out of her flat once and for all; and Lionel’s succession of put-upon, Tabasco-weaned dogs. It’s busy and overblown and cartoon-like. Amis’s dialogue is on top form – Lionel and his glamour-model girlfriend, ‘Threnody’ (her quotation marks, not mine) make the phrase ‘yeah yeah yeah’ just about as brilliantly memorable as London Fields’ genius refrain, ‘Darts, Keith. Darts’.

So, it might sound wall-to-wall cliché, but it’s what you do with it that counts, and Amis is a veteran – he really does know what he’s doing. Lionel Asbo is an awful, awful human being, but his creator still manages to imbue him with some poignancy – there’s a scene where he’s moved into a fancy hotel and he’s alone, before he gets properly trigger-happy with his new financial clout, and his bewilderment and uncertainty is properly sad. The Des/Dawn pairing – that’s a genuine and (dare I say it?) heart-warming love-story. The writing is precise and beautiful. Here’s one I loved: ‘The Pepperdines were en route to Cape Wrath. Activated for travel, England thrummed past them with its rainbow of greens.’ Nice, eh?

Any Cop?: God, yes. His best in years. Where Amis’ media-bating lately has been crude and self-promoting (shades of Lionel?!), his fictional treatment is, I think, unproblematically funny. It savagely assaults English celebrity culture, but manages to temper the satire with a touch of warm optimism (step up, Des and Dawn!). For the fans, it’s a long-awaited treat, and for the newbies, a great introduction to one of the UK’s funniest novelists.

Valerie O’Riordan

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