Lionel Asbo: State of England, by Martin Amis, Jonathan Cape £18.99, 276 pages
Martin Amis, the writer Brits mysteriously love to hate, reportedly declared to an interviewer in France last year that his forthcoming novel about Britain’s “moral decrepitude” would be the “final insult” to his country as he quit these shores and decamped to Brooklyn. Amis later disavowed the interview as misattributed and poorly translated (“a mess”, he told The Observer); besides, one is wont to mouth off to journalists in foreign countries with a false sense of security that offhand remarks will never travel back home. Subsequently, Amis has been at pains to clarify that the new novel is no “V-sign” to England and that he has merely shifted to America for “family reasons”.
OK, so this is the usual non-story story of the sort that has dogged this novelist much of his actually-not-especially-outrageous professional life. Nevertheless, any satire that promises to be a “final insult” to a country that has already seen its fair share of slagging off raises one’s hopes rather a lot. So primed, I approached Lionel Asbo: State of England with optimism. Granted, Britain’s inaptly dubbed “working” class is these days more naturally the stuff of tragedy but an appealing alternative to weeping is a good chuckle.
Declared “uncontrollable” when only 18 months old, Amis’s eponymous yob changed his surname to Asbo from Pepperdine by deed poll as a tribute to having been issued an Anti-Social Behaviour Order at the youngest age in the history of this now perversely prestigious designation. Indeed, Lionel was served his first Restraining Directive at the age of three “for smashing car windscreens with paving stones … Had he come along half a generation later, Lionel’s first Restraining Directive would have been called a Basbo, or Baby Asbo”. (Alas, Amis’s title may soon date, since Theresa May is planning to replace Asbos with Criminal Behavior Orders. Maybe “Lionel Crimbo” for the paperback? Has a nice ring.) During the protagonist’s frequent appearances at the Old Bailey, judges are obliged to um-er, “Ah yes. Mr … Asbo’. Mr Asbo, this is not the first time you have … ” As Lionel’s nephew, Des, observes, you could only deliberately invite such encounters “if you gave being stupid a lot of very intelligent thought”.
At 21 Lionel (which he pronounces Loyonel, or even Loyonoo) is not a very successful petty criminal, spending as much time inside as out – obliging Des to feed bottles of Tabasco to his uncle’s twin pit bulls to keep them battle-ready during their owner’s frequent away-days. Yet on one of his all-expenses-paid holidays courtesy of Her Majesty – respites from the relentless toil of lawbreaking that our loveable yob is up front about finding almost pleasant: “You know where you are in prison” – fate bestows Lionel a fortune and Amis a premise. Mr Asbo wins nearly £140m in the National Lottery.
Initial descriptions of Lionel’s stomping ground, the benighted, fictional London borough of Diston, are clever and astute. No one in the area lives beyond the age of 60, meaning Diston has a life expectancy between that of “Benin and Djibouti”. And Lionel’s 17-year-old nephew provides a counterweight to his uncle’s brutal, amoral hell-raising. At first reading only the local freebie paper, he discovers serious journalism in The Sun. In an unearthly feat of bootstrapping, Des gets an education and, however incredibly, finds a job. After conducting an affair with his own grandmother (who, given the neighbourhood’s teen-mother demographics, is only 39), the earnest innocent marries and discovers responsible fatherhood. Whether “Uncle Li” will ever find out about Des’s having “given one” to Lionel’s own mother is the primary source of the novel’s nominal narrative tension.
Amis’s premise has possibilities – but execution is all, innit? This novel’s first third or so is a pleasure. Yet once Lionel the “Lotto Lout” starts frittering his millions, becoming first the butt, then the darling, of the tabloids, the book flatlines. Off the top of one’s head, on what would an uncultured ineducate lavish a sudden and undeserved packet? Hotels, booze and clothes. Models, motors and mansions. And that’s just what Asbo buys. No surprises.
The trouble with this novel is plot. A more difficult form than one might think, satire has to keep ramping up the stakes, further sharpening its wicked blade as the slash-slash progresses. Yet the smiles that Lionel Asbo is likely to prompt – this may not be a LOL book but there’s nothing wrong with stirring the odd half-cocked grin – are frontloaded. I hate to say this, because my hopes were high, but this novel becomes well and truly dull. Amis simply doesn’t do much with the premise beyond what most readers could concoct for themselves. The author seems to be going somewhere with the terrible secret of Des’s affair with his gran but then pulls back. Not much happens. Worst of all, for its whole last half this novel just isn’t funny. Far from being a “final insult”, Lionel Asbo isn’t insulting enough.
Lionel Shriver is author of ‘The New Republic’ (HarperCollins)