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. 

REVIEW: The Adult - Joe Stretch

‘A middle-class woman born before 1970 can make a mobile phone last many years’. It is comedic gems such as this that pepper Stretch’s third novel ‘The Adult’. Following on from the bizarre and surreal ‘Friction’ and ‘Wildlife’, ‘The Adult’ is a story about family, maturity, and growing up over the last two decades.

Our protagonist Jim Thorne is, the cover reads, a ‘child of the nineties, adult of the noughties, product of his times’. A Manchester boy, the book follows his first-person narration through the nineties, to the noughties and into adulthood. The time period is tracked by references to the current formation of Take That, Katie Price’s career highs and the pervasion of the mobile phone and internet into our lives, as Jim progresses from puberty to adulthood and into the world of the music industry and smoothie stands.

Jim Thorne is, as much as the story concerns his life, an observer into the lives of others. His family, the ‘Albrights’, are a ‘celebrity family’ of sorts, and Thorne’s references, as he writes about his life, and those of his sister Elaine and his Albright aunts, are vague, non-specific and sporadic. Stretch puts forward the case, elegantly and in a fresh way, that we live in quite a transient and fast-moving culture. Towards the end of the book, Stretch includes small snapshots of the opera ‘La Traviata’, intermingled with reality shows and page 3 models. Arguably, this is a suggestion that art has become undone, replaced by cheap stories and vulgar tabloid headlines, in a culture moving too fast to stand still and appreciate.

In the same way that celebrity gossip gives us a cheap thrill, Stretch explores, through Jim, the idea of instant and cheapened sexual gratification in the last two decades. Porn is a theme in the book throughout Jim’s teen years, as is Dilly – I won’t spoil it for you, but this inflatable dolphin says a LOT about sexual pleasure and adolescence today - and the pressures and absences of sex are most notably portrayed through Jim, whilst his sister Elaine seems to display quite the opposite – frequent gratification. The nineties and the noughties, for the West, have been a time of celebrity and cheap sexual pleasure – Thorne demonstrates their effects on us – the insidious destructiveness of the instantaneous, and short-lived, pleasure.

But ‘The Adult’ is not a critique of our culture, nor a misanthropic ‘State of the Nation’ novel – it bursts at the seams with pop culture references – from Snake II to Britney Spears – but also with technological advancement updates, cultural milestones like 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings. It celebrates and marvels in the times we’ve lived in. In including a tiny bit of everything, whether it be plot-embedded like the progression of the internet and blogging, or a throwaway reference, like the progressive nature of Katie Price’s biographies, Stretch allows himself a 360-view of the nineties and noughties, formulating a world around his central plot, and also allowing the reader to re-live some of the hilarity and tragedy of the last twenty years; everyone can find something to recognise and appreciate about their life.

But at turns, the book is surprisingly profound. As with Joe Dunthorne, the comedy and ironic tone of the book often takes a turn towards true clarity. In February 1996, Take That split up and a phone-line is announced, to give fans a chance to grieve. Jim rings for a joke, but soon finds himself ‘all of a sudden feeling silly, barely alive and woebegone.’ In the same way that many of the cultural references in the book are irrelevant, and a sideways view of the time, many hit home with a punch, and at once we are reminded that we can never really be living too far away from the culture in which we exist.

One of the highlights of Stretch’s book, something that’s failed to be portrayed with any sense of clarity in many novels, is the Big P. Puberty. We’ve all done it, it’s pretty awful, and Thorne does not shy away from showing the hilarity and shame of it; Jim’s friend Harry is superior to Jim for a time, possessing one pube before any of their peers. Stretch captures the embarrassment of youth - ‘I wanted to lie face down on my stomach until the 1990s ended’ – along with a profound sense of the importance of adolescence in forming an adult, and the effects of puberty on us – ‘Puberty was fucking shit… it happens at the shittest possible time’.

During some notably uncomfortable sex scenes, the pressures of youth are shown by Stretch to be just as important to the maturity of an adult as anything else.  What’s interesting about the approach to sex in ‘The Adult’, is that, despite the novel’s depiction of the metaphysical, the idol and technology, sexuality is shown to be a very physical and corporeal entity. The book, through Jim’s narration, is concerned with the idea of tracking and capturing a time period, but also checking the state of the corporeal, the human, through these strange, abstract and fast-moving times.

Stretch writes quite naturally with a self-knowing irony about the decades he includes. Like Jim, he was born in 1982, and ‘became an adult’ in a new millennium, and has seen the cultural changes in the book happen to himself. Some of Stretch’s cultural markers aren’t as developed as they could be – they’re often more comedic than deep social commentary, and a bit long-winded or try-hard, such as ‘the central paradoxes of feminism, masculinity and love could all be found in the on/off relationship between A.C. Slater and Jessie Spano in Saved By The Bell’ – but perhaps that is Stretch’s point – we don’t ever really think about the effects of our culture on ourselves.

But by the end of the novel, cultural references are almost overwhelmingly frequent, and Stretch suggests a proliferation of pop culture in contemporary lives that one cannot escape from. The profundity of the final pages of ‘The Adult’ is shocking, moving and blunt.

‘The Adult’ is, similarly to ‘Lionel Asbo’, is definitely a 2012 book. In the same vein as Master’s ‘Noughties’, it’s a book very much about the now, with the comic perceptiveness of Dunthorne and the time setting, themes and outlook of ‘One Day’.  If you’re going to read one novel this year about British pop culture, inflatable dolphins, smoothie stands and Take That’s reformation, this is probably the one to go for. In the middle of the book, when Jim’s friend Harry gets a mobile, Jim asks who he’ll call. His reply? ‘Home. And whoever else gets one, I suppose.’ Isn’t that the way?