Literary Lout: Martin Amis Once Again Faces the Critics
By Brian FinneySeptember 12, 2012
Lionel Asbo: State of England by Martin Amis
HERE WE GO AGAIN: Amis has made a comeback! “Martin Amis’s funniest and most satisfying novel in years” (David Free); “[. . .] instead of being just clever, Amis has written a book with heart” (Penelope Debelle).
Alternatively Amis is in terminal decline: Lionel Asbo “reads like a pallid variation on ‘Money’” (Michiko Kakutani). “The verbal dazzle exhilaratingly evident in his best book, Money (1984), has by now dimmed into near nonexistence” (Peter Kemp).
Or Amis is praised for his original stylistic flourishes while being lambasted for his narrative content: “serving up blanched stereotypes on the silver platter of his prose” (Ron Charles).
So what are we to make of Amis’s latest (thirteenth) novel? I think back to the sheer originality of his first four novels — his precocious account of a young man’s last five hours before turning 20, The Rachel Papers (1973); his comically savage satire on the ageing hippy generation, Dead Babies (1975); his tautly constructed narrative about the rise of the yobs and fall of the privileged in England, Success (1978); and his innovative Martian narrative of a woman who is suffering from memory loss, Other People: A Mystery Story (1981). By 1980 the magnetic power of his unique style of writing even led one American novelist, Jacob Epstein, to plagiarize The Rachel Papers in his first novel, Wild Oats.
With Money: A Suicide Note (1984) Amis went global, according to Will Self, perhaps Amis’s most clearly identifiable stylistic follower. Alternating chapters set in New York and London, the novel brilliantly and wittily exposes both what Amis called “the boutique squalor of Thatcher’s England” and a similar obsession of Reagan’s America with easy money, which led to the spectacular failure of Savings and Loans Associations in the 1980s. As the narrator and protagonist puts it, “they’ve got an actor, and we’ve got a chick.” Told by the ubiquitous John Self, a consumer who, Amis said, “is consumed by consumerism,” the novel shows London and New York as seen through the blinkered vision of a TV director of commercials brought up on a diet of television and pornography. Yet Amis induces some sympathy for this impoverished human being whose life consists of “fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television, handjobs.” Handjobs, according to Self, have the advantage of being cheap and readily available. Amis wittily follows this with Self’s unwitting comment: “In the end you’ve got to hand it to hand jobs. They’re deeply democratic.” Turning an adjective with negative connotations into a verb with complimentary connotations, Self ends by converting a shamefully secret act into a public political one (now I’m unconsciously echoing his alliteration). It is a brilliant example of how the earlier Amis manipulated language to serve his narrative purposes. In this novel Amis also comes his closest to employing postmodern narrative devices, by introducing a character called Martin Amis into the narrative whose explanations of postmodernism bore Self to death.
Amis is widely seen to be in his prime during the publication of his major trilogy of novels, Money, London Fields (1989) and The Information (1995), though to these I would add his highly original narration of the life of a Nazi doctor told in reverse chronology, Time’s Arrow, Or, The Nature of the Offense (1991). The last two novels of the trilogy give increasing prominence to Amis’s growing moral stance — his conviction that late modernity was a period of radical decline. Since 1945 we have “turned paradise into a toilet,” he announced. He became obsessed with global issues, in particular the threat of nuclear catastrophe and environmental pollution. London Fields, set in the near future (1999), shows London suffering from the combined effects of nuclear fallout and ecological disaster, based, he has said, on his “general unease about the fate of the planet” and the “imminent prospect of planetary death.” The novel is told by an American narrator, Sam, who is dying of radiation poisoning, and who mistakenly thinks he is in control of his narrative. The novel’s three major characters consist of Nicola, who parallels the planet’s self destructive trajectory by suffering from the death of love, upper class Guy, the fall guy who still clings to outdated romantic feelings of love, and Keith, a reincarnation of John Self, whose working class libido is “all tabloid and factoid.” The novel’s failure to be selected for the Booker Prize’s short list due to its alleged sexism helped turn Amis into the rock star of English literature, increasing the sale of his books but leading many of the subsequent English reviews of his work to take the form of judgments about his personality and lifestyle.
In 1995 Amis endured his own annus horribilis — separation from his first wife and children, a break with his British agent, Pat Kavanagh, who was married to Julian Barnes (who broke off his and Amis’s friendship), and acute toothache requiring massive surgery. His apparent preference for things American (another American girlfriend soon to become wife, his selection of a supposedly cut-throat American literary agent, and his resort to an American dental specialist for major reconstruction of his jaw and teeth) unleashed a frenzy of vituperation from a jingoistic and vituperative British press. Amis was undergoing a particularly severe form of mid-life crisis, the subject of the last of his triptych, The Information. That novel centers on two novelists, one middlebrow but highly successful, the other avant-garde and unrecognized. The latter plans to reverse the former’s success, but his plots are all undone by chance happenings, fuelling his mid-life crisis. The majority of British reviewers insisted on interpreting the novel as a roman à clef in which the two novelists were treated as thinly disguised stand-ins for Barnes and Amis. Yet the underlying vision of post-human modernity undermines such autobiographical readings. Both protagonists are placed in a recognizable Amisian universe where the earth is a “dying star,” the sun is in decline, and humans are becoming ever less significant. Both human life and literature are dying out. American reviewers, unlike their British counterparts, largely praised this “protean” novel (Bellow) as “a perfectly pitched expression of our late 20th-century dystopia” (Ward).
After The Information things changed. Amis experimented with a number of fictional genres that didn’t lend themselves so readily to his comic, satiric genius — Night Train (1997), a short American detective novel in which the detective is female and the victim is a suicide; Yellow Dog (2003), a post-9/11 novel more burlesque than comic, with three major strands featuring a writer who suffers a personality change after being beaten over the head, a yellow journalist preyed on by a predatory ex-porn star, and a royal family blackmailed with nude photos of the princess; House of Meetings (2006), a novel which, like Night Train, eschews comedy and concerns two Russian brothers in love with the same woman who spend eight years in a gulag; and The Pregnant Widow (2010), a return to the comic novel about the sexual revolution, set in an Italian castle in 1970, in which life insists on becoming fiction, 20-year-olds turn into literary caricatures, and sexual love into pornography.
All four of these novels were greeted with the same cacophony of responses that have accompanied the publication of Lionel Asbo. To take The Pregnant Widow as an example, on the one hand reviewers accused Amis of succumbing to his penchant for moralizing: “the editorializing mind [. . .] has been allowed to grow up and strangle its author-host” (Geordie Williamson); “comedy slides over into the passenger seat, sociology takes the wheel” (Sam Anderson). On the other hand the novel was greeted as a “return to form” (Edmund White), “close to a masterpiece” (Justin Cartwright), and worthy of winning the Booker prize (Philip Hensher). So the polarity of opinions about Lionel Asbo is nothing new. Reviewers generally seem unable to adopt a middle view when handed another novel by Martin Amis.
Like many of his contemporaries Amis has never considered plot that important, which is hardly surprising for a writer for whom “realism is a footling consideration.” Still for those who haven’t yet read this book, I will attempt a brief synopsis.
Lionel Asbo is a recognizable descendant of Amis’s previous fictional villains whose class origins and education have condemned them to self victimization. A larger-than-life small-time thug, he was served with an ASBO (an Anti-Social Behavior Order, initiated by Tony Blair in 1998) when he had barely turned three. As soon as he turned 18 he changed his last name to Asbo to perversely celebrate having been served with it at an earlier age than anyone else. He lives in a council flat in the fictional London Borough of Diston (a dystopia if ever you met one) “where calamity made its rounds like a postman,” Living with him is his “café crème” nephew, Desmond (Des) whom he took in after Des’s mother died when he was 12. To help him do his job (“the hairiest end of debt collection”) Lionel keeps two pit bulls on the balcony of their 33rd floor apartment whose meat he laces with Tabasco hot sauce and beer to make them additionally vicious. In Diston incest is almost a given. Still, when Des aged 15 is seduced by his 39-year-old grandmother credibility is stretched to the limit. When Lionel hears that his mother has been having sex with a schoolboy he uncharacteristically swears revenge should he discover the boy’s identity. Much of the plot consists in Des’s desperate attempts to keep secret his short-lived incestuous affair. The unlikely dénouement concerns Lionel’s act of revenge when he makes the discovery.
Meantime Lionel goes back for a short stint in prison where he learns that he has won £140 million ($220 million) in the lottery. He quickly assembles a team of security experts, PR consultants and financial advisers, buys himself a manor house dubbed “Wormwood Scrubs” after the famous London prison of that name in which he spent time, and acquires a fiancée named “Threnody” (she’s a poet manqué whose name she insists on spelling in quotation marks); she seeks to change his public image from the Lotto Lout to the more benign Lotto Lancelot. Lionel promptly disappears “into the front page” of the tabloids, as Des puts it. Meanwhile Des has fallen in love with Dawn, who is close to his age and whom he marries. She gives birth to a daughter who in the finale is the target of Lionel’s revenge. As is the case in the majority of Amis’s novels, a pretty thin plot replete with improbabilities.
What most reviewers failed to notice is the way the novel employs two very different genres — non-realist comic farce and realist coming of age narrative. Lionel belongs wholly to the former and Des mainly to the latter. One British critic did try to address this dichotomy. Thomas Sutcliffe considers this novel “quite Hogarthian” — “a doubled study of divergent fates rather in the manner of Hogarth’s didactic series Industry and Idleness, which contrast the fate of two different apprentices.” But the analogy ceases to work when one sees that Hogarth uses the same style of engraving for both sets of images. Amis self-consciously alters his language for his two protagonists. Lionel pronounces “myth” miff, “their” they, and his own name “Loyonel, or even Loyonoo.” Meanwhile Des is making sense of the word “University” as the one (Uni) poem (verse). “For him it meant something like the harmony of the cosmos.” Amis’s narrator makes sure we notice. Des teaches himself “the arcana of the colon, the semicolon”; while for Lionel, “full possessive pronouns — your, their, my — still made guest appearances in his English.”
The narrator presents Lionel throughout as a grotesque caricature — “brutally generic,” “anti-dad or counterfather,” “Lotto Lout,” “Lotto Lecher,” and so on. As Amis remarked back in the 1980s, “character is only there to serve [the] fiction,” to be buggered about by the author. Amis has always seen motivation as a fictional invention. In real life he maintains, there need be no motivation. And Lionel has little or no motive for his random acts of violence. Or for his war on education, culture and diction. Amis has said that in preparation for the novel he read the biography of Michael Carroll, a British trash cart worker and minor criminal who in 2002 won £9.7 million (then $15.4 million) on the National Lottery at the age of 19. He went on to lose this fortune on various abusive and extravagant habits, continue to run foul of the law, and end up in 2011 twice attempting suicide. Amis also used, as a model for “Threnody,” Katie Price (aka Jordan), who began her career modeling topless, went on to work in television (including as a contestant in two Celebrity reality series) as a singer and launcher of fashion products, and was the (ghostwritten) author of four volumes of autobiography. Amis attacked her in print as “two bags of silicone.” In April 2012 she was said to have a net worth of £45 million (c. $70m). Like Lionel’s fiancée after he wins the lottery, she is a media personality who lives her life in and through the media. One instance Amis offers of “Thernody”’s poetry is satisfyingly awful:
We hereby cast aside
For you will be mine husband
And I will be thy bride
As Lionel observes, “She wants to be massive all over the world.”
Amis employs an anti-realist mode of narration for these characters and for his overall narrative stance. He frequently gives away future events in the plot, or he opens a new section with: “Turn the clock back.” Three times he begins a new section with: “Nothing really out of the ordinary happened between [. . .]” This works with the comic content. But it works against the realist segments dealing with Des’s coming of age (he’s 15 in 2006 at the beginning and 22 in 2013 at the end), the sections some critics have praised for redeeming the novel, that Booklist described as “the wondrous blossoming of against-all-odds goodness.”
Numerous reviewers spotted Amis’s tribute to Dickens in the names he gives to locations in Diston — “Blimber Road,” “Carker Square,” “Cuttle Court” (all characters from Dombey and Son), “Murdstone Road” (from David Copperfield), “Squeers Free” (from Nicholas Nickleby), etc. More pertinently Kathryn Harrison noted in the New York Times, “Like David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and other of the great novelist-qua-social-critic's orphaned and destitute child heroes, Des provides a foil for the low company he keeps. As demonstrated by his earlier novels, Amis is, like Dickens, an insistently moral writer, satire being an edifying genre with a noble cause: the improvement of society [. . .]” So the claim is that Amis is following Dickens in attempting to offset his fictional villain with a foil in the form of an innocent young hero. Whether Dickens avoided sentimentality or not (sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t), Amis’s attempt to inject heart or tenderness into his novel turns sickly sweet when Des’s young wife Dawn and their baby daughter Cilla enter the picture. The realist baby comes off paper-thin, overwhelmed by the presence of larger-than-life Lionel. Here is the midwife telling Des that Dawn has just given birth to a baby daughter:
“Baby all right?”
“They’re both all right. And it’s a girl.”
Her last words bewildered him. It’s a girl: he couldn’t understand why anyone would think that this was something he needed or wanted to know. Not boy, not girl, not boy. Merely baby, baby, baby. . .
“Baby all right?”
“Well she’s little. But she’ll get bigger.”
The reader feels relieved when a few pages later Lionel reappears and warns Des, “No more talk about babies.” One more instance: Watching the intermittent pulse of the lighthouse, Des is reminded of “the most courageous sound he had ever heard: the (amplified) sound of his unborn daughter’s heart.” Rather than reveal Des’s naïveté as a dad, “courageous” sounds gauche and false (every unborn child has a heart beat, for goodness sake), and thus sentimental.
Kathryn Harrison’s observation that Amis is a moral writer brings us to the subtitle: State of England. Amis has already used this as a title for a much praised story he included in Heavy Water and Other Stories (1998). The story belongs to the Victorian condition-of-England genre. Its critique of post-Thatcher English society focuses on another of Amis’s grotesque anti-heroes, Mal, who “sensed he was a cliché — and sensed further that he’d even fucked that up.” It is hilariously funny while making a subtle comment about a country where “class and race and gender were supposedly gone.”
By comparison this latest novel is and is not serious in depicting the contemporary state of England. Amis prevaricated over the claims of the subtitle: On a Radio 4 Today program he explained that it was “not a where-we-are novel.” “It’s more about the atmosphere of the time.” Elsewhere he has said Lionel is a “metaphor” for England’s “moral decrepitude,” or, in the novel itself, “a kind of national symbol of [. . .] peculiarly English intransigence in the face of relentlessly blighted hopes.” As Peter Kemp wrote in his review, to ensure that the reader doesn’t miss Lionel’s symbolic status, “a flag of St. George ‘measuring over two thousand square feet’ billows above the mansion he buys.” Several English reviewers saw the novel as his final V-sign to England (we give the finger instead), noting that he had moved from England to Brooklyn in 2011, but he began writing the first draft of this novel back in 2009.
Like Dickens, Amis in the course of the book comments on a range of moral and social deficiencies in present-day England — education, class, the distribution of wealth, and the baneful effects of a corrupt press. As he told an interviewer, “You can have no talent and no ambition and you’ll be a winner nonetheless.” He describes the rich world of the upper class in the novel as “heavy, rooted to the ground. It had the weight of the past securing it.” Lionel thinks this while attempting to order meat in a fish restaurant (he opts for unshelled lobster with tomato sauce). The only high priced London hotel he likes is South Central, a “heavy metal” hotel where “everything was light” because it catered to wealthy hoodlums who typically trashed the place. In the posh hotels he is amazed to find the rich living well past 80, because in Diston no one lives beyond 60.
Lionel’s lightness is in his latent intelligence, which he makes deliberate efforts to deny: “it was plain as day that he had always fought it, and took pride on being stupid on purpose.” Des’s pursuit of education represents the opposite impulse. Lionel’s cult of stupidity leaves him stranded; winning the Lottery removes any need for him to do anything with his life. Confronted with an infinity of choices (even buying a place on the space shuttle) Lionel realizes that weightlessness is exactly what he is suffering from — “So you don’t — you never [. . .] You just think, What’s the point?” Lionel wins wealth and fame, the goals of a society fixated on both, and finds them empty, weightless. All he can do is to revert to crime and pornography.
Amis adds “Threnody” to give specific point to the “feeling [. . .] that celebrity is the new religion and if you don't have any it's almost like a deprivation." The tabloid press gets uniformly bad press throughout. Even the American jacket is designed to resemble the garish colors and extra-bold headlines of the gutter press. “Threnody” lives her entire life seeking media acclaim by making herself into an image derived from the media. “Glamour,” she says, “and myself are virtually synonymous.“ So to improve Lionel’s public image and her chances (clearly zero) of winning the T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize she pretends to be in love, then stages a spoof miscarriage to win greater sympathy from readers and viewers. We don’t really need Des to ask, “where’s the truth?” Truth is heavy and “Threnody” is so light she becomes one of those “fantasy girls” who “live in the clouds.”
Amis still retains his ability to startle us with flashes of linguistic inventiveness. Fast food ads are “illustrated edibles,” “each plateful [. . .] in a different stage of garish putrefaction”; hospitals “smelled of school dinners. As if pain, mortality, death, birth, all the great excruciations, subsisted on a diet of boiled carrots and semolina.” At other times his language appears to be straining for a sensation extraneous to the context. He too readily resorts to personification for not just descriptions of the landscape (“a pouting sunset;” the moon “white as death in its executioner’s hood”) but for such generalizations as, ”Death was awake, death was going about its business.” The prose becomes supercharged, straining for a significance it can’t sustain. And then one encounters Amis’s didactic and annoying repetitions. For instance, Lionel takes to bringing his two pit bulls, Jak and Jek, to his old flat where Des, Dawn and Cilla now live: “One Friday it would be Jek. The next Wednesday [. . .]would be Jak. But never Jak and Jek at the same time.” Why virtually repeat this eight lines down? Is Amis wanting to warn us that when Lionel does bring both dogs to the flat near the end of the novel there is something ominous we should anticipate? If so, this is very heavy handed. So too is the refrain acting as epigraph to the first three sections: “Who let the dogs in?”
Little about this book is either new or truly contemporary. The state of England seems as déjà vu as the Dickensian characters, the dark comic treatment and the occasional flare-ups of linguistic originality. As other reviewers have noted, the novel is out of date; teenagers take their “O levels,” an exam abolished in 1988, or sit their 11-plus in Diston where no one would even try to pass it. Characters play the National Lottery by mail and send a tabloid’s agony aunt a handwritten letter rather than an email. Lionel watches porno on his Mac. As Tim Martin observed, “video games and social networks don’t seem to exist.” And in a final irony, the British government announced plans to scrap the ASBO on May 22 2012, two weeks before the novel was published in Britain.
Comparing Lionel Asbo with Money suggests that Amis cannot revisit earlier work and hope to even equal it, let alone outdo it; so his announcement that he intends to revisit the subject of Time’s Arrow (a brilliant tour de force about the Holocaust and Auschwitz) fills me with foreboding. Why invite such a comparison? Amis told an interviewer that, as you age, “your genius shrinks and your talent expands.” By “talent” he means “construction” and “pacing.” But what causes this novel to falter is a failure in talent, an inability to construct a realist coming of age narrative within the overarching anti-realist genre of black comedy. The unsuccessful attempt to incorporate “heart” represents a failure in literary judgment, in talent. The Pregnant Widow demonstrated that Amis is still capable of writing a comic satire that simultaneously comments on the problematical and predatory relationship between life and fiction. He needs to stop challenging his greatest past achievements and write in the present moment. I’m sure he’s capable of it. I will keep on hoping — and reading.
Brian Finney is a professor emeritus in English at California State University, Long Beach. He has published seven books, including a critical biography of Christopher Isherwood that won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for nonfiction. Terrorized: How the War on Terror Affected American Culture and Society, was published in 2011. His latest book published 2019 is Money Matters: A Novel.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!