01 August, 2012

REVIEW: Martin Amis - Lionel Asbo

2012 is the Jubilympic year. The Jubilee, the Olympics, shitloads of rain – general national fervor is basically the default setting for the whole country, and Martin Amis (Money, The Rachel Papers, London Fields) has stepped up to mark the occasion with his state-of-the-nation novel, ‘Lionel Asbo’.

Lionel Asbo is a short book; a four-part, seven-year tale of poverty, wealth, fame and family. In the title character’s home borough of Diston, everything that’s wrong with Cameron’s Big Society - everything that ‘broke Britain’ - is included in its pages. Benefit cheats, violent crime, teenage mums and disregard for the elderly. It’s an ambitious and playful claim to have your novel’s subtitle be ‘State of England’. And arguably, Amis fails to live up to his claim, for the simple fact that, like Cameron, he doesn’t know that much about the class he is attempting to ‘solve’.

Lionel Asbo, the book’s title protagonist, is a regular at court and in prison, and it is in prison that he wins £139 million on the lottery. Once his sentence has finished, he enters the world of money, whilst keeping a link – one room of stolen goods in his nephew Desmond’s flat – to his life before. Amis said during his interview at the Hay Festival this year ‘we can’t pretend that something hasn’t gone a bit wrong with English culture in the last fifty or sixty years’ and it is this that he attempts to explore with ‘Asbo’.

Amis also said in the interview that ‘England leads the world in decline’ (it would be fascinating to know what he made of the Olympic opening ceremony) and this would be an interesting topic – if ‘Asbo’ explored this properly in any way. Amis’ book is all very undefined – it’s meant to be a ‘modern fairytale’, but (surprisingly, coming from the creator of ‘Money’ and ‘The Information’) fails to elevate itself above the most conventional of ‘transformation’ novels. It has the trappings of a fairytale, and Amis’ prose has a few more commas than usual, but Amis never quite reaches a relaxed storyteller, childlike tone.  And Amis’ fairytale world never commits – is it our world? Is it completely made-up? Amis mentions wars like Iraq, but names a fictional Prime Minister as behind the invasion.

Whilst Lionel Asbo is purported to be, in Amis’ words, ‘a monster’, his nephew Desmond is supposed (Amis spoke of this at the Hay festival) to be a foil to him; unfortunately Asbo never reaches the height of true monster, as his entire existence is built on a stereotypical and shallow view of his class (more on that later). On the other side, Desmond really doesn’t have much to him – he’s not as clever as he is purported to be, and not really the ‘good person’ Amis has said he was going for. If Amis had focused specifically (even including the lottery-winning plotline) on England in decline, we could have had a great book. If Desmond, even if not perfect, had still going some way towards being a great father/worker/thinker, I could understand the binary between him and his uncle. But we are left with two characters just as mundane as each other, and just as unlikeable but for different reasons. I know you don’t have to like everyone in a book for it to be good – but I think the book is weakened because the two central characters fail to be interesting, or more than a cheap stereotype. Even portraying a cheap stereotype with a framing device or comment on this stereotype is interesting, but Amis does neither.

The US has a better cover.

What saves the book from being truly awful is Amis’ accomplished and experienced prose, which works almost effortlessly through his subject matter, adding some profundity to what is quite a banal plot and otherwise little-realised world. Word groups related to weight and weightlessness pervade the novel – ‘In Diston, all was weightless, and all hated weight’ – exploring the idea of transient wealth and celebrity, and the more concrete of things – cities, the body. Also implicit in the text is the idea of opposites and binaries – upper and lower classes, wealth and poverty, good and evil – but again, unlike Amis’ other work, these binaries are quite simplistic in execution: ‘[t]he anti-dad, the counterfather. Lionel spoke; Des listened, and did otherwise’.

What is most disappointing about ‘Lionel Asbo’ is that it is a Martin Amis book; it should be good – no, it should be great. It’s the class issue rearing its ugly head that gives the novel it’s main weakness – Amis doesn’t really get what he’s writing about. Without sounding like a Guardian Comment-Is-Free writer, there’s a sneering mirth about the attitude to these people’s lives. The dialogue used is also nothing remarkable. Amis could have peppered in some regional dialect, a Trainspotting-style ‘write phonetically’ type of speech, but Lionel Asbo speaks in a kind of Queen’s English with a very slight, almost unnoticeable colloquial difference. Similarly, the prose of the narrator reads like Starkey attempting to be ‘down with youth’. Amis refers to a ‘council-house facelift’ rather than the more common ‘Croydon facelift’ – and Amis’ vision of Diston seems to be just slightly at odds with what is actually on the page.

‘Asbo’ is very much a ‘let’s chuckle at mentions of things we’ve read about in the Mail’ kind of book. It’s not an enlightening, profound or helpful look at the class issues tearing Britain apart or causing last Summer’s riots. It does not instill in its readers a ‘heightened receptivity to life’ as Amis says his books should. Diston, Lionel’s borough, a ‘world of italics and exclamation marks’, fails to live up to its excitement, it’s literary or comic potential, and we’re left with a banal and surface-level novel which only serves to reflect on Amis’ age and geographical distance from UK society. Which is a real shame, because when Amis is great, he’s bloody great. But when he’s not, ‘Lionel Asbo’ happens. 


  1. Putting this on my reading list - might salvage my view of the struggles of the working class after they were patronised so badly in Owen Jones' "Chavs".

  2. Interesting reading, many thanks. My own theory about the book (although I am probably alone in this) is that it is an attack on the media and society that demonises far more than it is an attack on the Lionel Asbos of this world (if indeed they exist). It's a little against the flow, but if you're interested I talke about it a little in my own review: http://www.bibliofreak.net/2012/12/review-lionel-asbo-state-of-england-by.html

    Incidentally, with regards Jenny's comment - I'm not sure this will balance anything out, unless one polarised view balanced against another somehow results in a fair representation ;)