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Lionel Asbo: State of England, By Martin Amis

Back to the scum and dregs: return ticket with a lottery lout
  • @djtaylorwriter

Last time I enjoyed an extended conversation with Martin Amis, we ended up arguing about the late John Updike. The roots of this brisk little dispute lay in Updike's obituary notices. These, I proposed, had been far less kind to the deceased's final novels than the reviews – many written by the same people – while he lived. Hadn't this collective punch-pulling been rather odd? Amis, who had written one of these obituary notices himself, fixed me with a look of awful gravity and declared that the cardinal rule of book reviewing was that you didn't "shit on people who had given you pleasure". I experienced the fluttering sensation, common to all critics ushered into the presence of a Great Writer whose output they have ceased to esteem, that this no doubt well-intentioned remark was meant for me.

Why does the appearance of a book like Lionel Asbo inspire such abject misery in the breast of the seasoned reviewer? Alas, like many another semi-veteran British novelist – Jeanette Winterson and Graham Swift are obvious points of comparison – Martin Amis is one of those writers about whom it is increasingly difficult to find anything worth saying. The books keep on coming, at the same rate, attended by the same hectic publicity, and yet without any real "development" in vision or technique. Meanwhile the punters divide into Ur-loyalists and affronted ingrates steadily more irked by a mixture repeated as before. It is worth recalling a remark by Richard Bradford, whose recent biography of Amis received fantastically mixed reviews, to the effect that the book was merely collateral in an ongoing battle fought by fans and detractors far above his head.

The Pregnant Widow (2010), Amis's last fictional outing, returned its readers to the dawn of the 1970s sexual revolution: an Amis subject if ever there was one. Its successor, though thoroughly up to date in at least some incidental references, returns its readers to, well, a whole rack of other novels by Amis. So strong are these twitches on the ancestral thread that the effect is well-nigh ghostly, as if Money's John Self, London Fields's Keith Talent and Yellow Dog's Clint Smoker were lined up in the wings, waiting to be waved on stage by their enraptured emcee. We may not have met the "brutally generic", police-procedurally outlined protagonist before ("the slab-like body, the full lump of the face, the tight-shaved crown with its tawny stubble") but, on Planet Amis, his atavars throng the sidewalks.

Lionel, a twentysomething petty criminal, low-end debt collector and all-round pavement scourge down in a part of the East End boondocks Amis has re-christened "Diston", is the chalk to a cheese furnished by his 15-year-old mixed-race nephew, Des Pepperdine. The gulf that separates them is that of the deep romantic chasm and the austere classical cliff: the one polite, tolerant, studious and, as Lionel has effectively brought him up, beholden; the other violent, self-aware and warped.

Between them lies a secret, which is that Des has recently been seduced by his Beatle-loving 39-year-old grandmother, Grace. As Lionel scoops a £140 million jackpot on the lottery and Des embarks on a charmingly conventional love-affair with his teenage sweetheart Dawn, the two principal stanchions of the plot creak into place. What will Lionel do to himself with the money; and what will he do to Des if he finds out about his errant mum?

Money, Amis's undisputed masterpiece from 1984, had some immensely prescient things to say, or imply, about nascent celebrity-cum-tabloid culture and its effects on individual and collective intelligence. This is Lionel Asbo's theme, 28 years later. Yet the materials and the approach – necessarily, Amis would argue – are a whole lot cruder.

Ghastly but intermittently (like all Amis hero-villains) lovable, Lionel is a clever man who ought to know better but chooses not to, and is, we infer, encouraged by the world he inhabits. His drawback as a character is that his utterances are so over-loaded with satirical freight ("Why aren't you out smashing windows?" he admonishes Des at one point. "It's not healthy") that the reader simply disbelieves in him. John Self's great virtue was that the qualities Amis wanted you to detect, to deplore or merely be amused by, arrived by stealth.

The ghosts continue to gibber and fret. Just as Money exulted in its Shakespearian allusions, so the Diston topography (Blimber Road, Cuttle Court and the "Squeers Free Academy") are robbed from Dickens. The light fun poked at Lionel's tabloid of choice, the Daily Sport-inspired Morning Lark, goes back as least as far as London Fields, while the whole "High IQ moron" line about Lionel's disavowal of his intellect was first given an airing in Yellow Dog.

None of this would matter quite so much, perhaps, if the novel weren't so obviously located in an England that reveals itself to be a fair bit older than the one it affects to describe, rife with glimpses of teenagers taking their "O levels" (an exam abolished in 1988), sitting their 11-Plus (an impossibility in "Diston") and knocking up "four distinctions" in their A Levels.

Yet, however detached our man may now appear, however suspect his satirical approximations of footballers' names may have become (London Fields had "Sylvester Dragon" and "Lee Fredge"; Lionel's mate "Brent Medwin" is way off the pace), this is still a Martin Amis novel, full of tense, fugitive moments where the boy indisputably cuts it. Soft targets they may be, but the scenes in which Lionel plights his troth with a prime piece of celebrity arm-candy named Threnody – Katie Price has a walk-on as her far more cunning rival, Danube – had me roaring with laughter.

In the end, one notes an odd, and again ancestral, circularity. The enduring comic style forged by Kingsley Amis was essentially collaborative, the result of that thousand-page teasing correspondence with Philip Larkin, endlessly refined before it sprang, apparently fully-formed, onto the pages of Lucky Jim.

By chance, Richard Bradford's best chapters turned on the similar compact that Amis junior established with the late Christopher Hitchens (to whom this book is dedicated) during their mid-1970s tenure on the New Statesman. It is no disrespect to Martin Amis - on whom, to return to the injunction of the opening paragraph, I am determined not to shit - to say that this style, so effective in its 1980s heyday, is showing its age. If one of the things which rises from Lionel Asbo is the sense of a terrific disgust with the modern world, then another is a feeling of profound weariness. The satirist's tragedy is that he grows old.

DJ Taylor's new novel is 'Secondhand Daylight' (Corsair)