Book: Lionel Asbo: State of England
Author: Martin Amis
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Price: Rs 550
It will go down as one of the arch ironies of Anglo-American literature that just about the time the reputation of Martin Amis as the big daddy of English letters was sealed for a couple of generations,his career as a novelist had to be given up for lost. Till he returned with The Pregnant Widow (2010),which many,including this reviewer,had celebrated,and not without apparent cause at the time,as the intimation of Amiss late style. A couple of years later,Amis is back with a state-of-the-nation novel about the nation and the state he has recently left. Given Amis and familys departure for New York,Lionel Asbo cannot help but sound the notes of disappointment and disgust. England just did not get Amis Jr. He thought he always got England. But dont read Lionel Asbo for the state of England.
Lionel Asbo (A-S-B-O: Anti-Social Behaviour Order),the lotto lout,the East End low-life,who suddenly rises to celebrity by winning £140 million in the National Lottery while doing his chores in prison,pronounced myth miff. Full possessive pronouns your,their,my still made guest appearances in his English,and he didnt invariably defy grammatical number (they was,and so on). But his verbal prose and his accent were in steep decline. Until a couple of years ago Lionel pronounced Lionel Lionel. But these days he pronounced Lionel Loyonel,or even Loyonoo. A writer loves even her most loathsome characters and,despite the fact that the state of England is the state of its language,Lionel evokes both affection and abhorrence in his creator. Which,the reader can safely assume,is Amiss last word on England yet. For all the psychotic violence and the chilli-charged psychopathic pit-bulls he goes out debt-collecting with,Lionel is a petty criminal,and not very successful at that. He has turned stupidity into an art by steadfastly refusing to use his intelligence. For his 18th birthday,he had his last name changed from Pepperdine to Asbo in honour of the court order.
It is Lionels half-Trinidadian,dark-skinned nephew Desmond Pepperdine that Amis heaps his affection on,to the point of sentimentality. The novel begins in 2006 with fifteen-and-a-half years old Dess letter to an agony aunt in Lionels favourite tabloid,Morning Lark,with grammar and spelling only a tad better than his anti-dad,counterfather uncle. An orphan,Des is not only the moral but also the linguistic antithesis of Lionel devoted to his Concise Oxford,with a hunger for etymology and learning languages,getting distinctions in his A Levels,graduating to land a job in a paper,and dreaming of being a parent with his sweetheart Dawn.
A summary,of course,cannot do justice to the London borough of Diston vis-a-vis its real counterparts. For,Lionel Asbo is not merely satire. It is caricature driven to such excess that the distortions and departures,while very Amisly funny,make us reconcile ourselves to the realisation that we may be humourless after all,handicapped in the head,or mentally challenged,to quote Amis from his 1984 Observer piece No Laughing Matter (compiled in The War Against Cliché,2001). The trouble is that the challenge wins,every time,hands down. The humourless have no idea what is going on and cant make sense of anything at all. The challenge wins,not because the book is replete with our beloved and despised Amisms,but because it is inexplicably dated Amis alone knows why weakening thereby the purpose of satire. A lottery by post,O Levels (discontinued more than 20 years ago),milk still supplied in bottles,letters to agony aunts sent,again,by post,etc,etc? And the English dont really talk on their cellphones,do they?
But to return to the plot,and Lionel Asbo offers a fully fleshed out one. The reaction of friends,family,society (to say nothing of the media) to Lionels lottery luck is not just the state of the English but an enduring truth about human nature. Lionel can,and does,get ejected from one posh hotel after another till he ends up in one catering to unhinged (Lionel was declared uncontrollable at 18 months and earned his first Asbo at three years) rock stars,criminally inclined footballers and similar near-Asbos. He buys a garish country house,gets a glamorous girlfriend (Threnody),orders champagne in pint glasses and makes a mess eating lobsters. What drives the tension of the plot,however,is Dess original sin: the affair with his grandmother.
Dess mother Cilla was 12 when he was born,Cillas mother (Granny Grace) was 12 when she was born. In Diston,people dont live long and generations tend to overlap. Lionel is 22 in 2006,Beatlemaniac Grace 39,and shadowed by Alzheimers.
Lionel,ever intent on keeping his mother chaste and himself comically anti-carnal except for porn on his Mac,will perhaps kill Des if he finds out. But it is only after Grace is packed off to an old-age home and her recollections resemble the cryptic Daily Telegraph crosswords she was once obsessed with,that the danger comes home: when her memory returns after a bout of dementia,she mostly recalls her sexual adventures. How long will Des hold out?
Londons urban tragicomedy is vintage Amis (every section of the book inverts the cult song Who Let the Dogs Out?). After John Self and Keith Talent,you wont be surprised by Lionel Asbo,the chav. Diston,where everything hated everything else,and everything else,in return,hated everything back,is familiar territory. So is almost everything else. From the beginning,the Amis-ness of Amis is all over the place,celebrating,as Amis must,his wielding of English prose. And yet,Money (1984) and London Fields (1989) will still be cited as his best works. Des,as a moral insertion,inhabits a vacuum where the sights and sounds of the world of young men and women dont enter. Besides,what are the chances of a Diston lad,with Lionel for his guardian,of educating and self-sophisticating himself?
Lionel Asbo is Dickensian (incidentally,Dess school is Sqeers Free),and Amis has been writing about the working classes for four decades. Yet,he continues to be attacked for it,for trying to empathise and imagine where empathy and imagination dont work. In a recent interview to David Wallace-Wells,Amis finds it all so contemptible,and asks if critics and other detractors want to ghettoise the working class as a subject. About the intentions of the literati,one suspects Amis is right. Unfortunately,using Des for poetic justice against historical deprivations grossly exaggerates the power of the written word,even Amiss. Maybe England didnt deserve Amis Jr. He remains,in Brooklyn,Englands finest critic. But his fiction hasnt gone anywhere since 1989,except for the brief and brilliant,but rarely mentioned,meditative crime thriller Night Train (1997).