Review: Lionel Asbo: State of England by Martin Amis

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Lionel Asbo: State of England by Martin Amis book cover
Lionel Asbo: State of England (2012) is Martin Amis's latest novel. The eponymous Asbo (nee Pepperdine) is a proud thug and second-class criminal, who changed his name by deed-poll. Lionel lives in a small council flat with his mixed-race nephew, Desmond (Des), and his two dogs, who he keeps trained for violence. Where Lionel is unrepentantly bad, Des is sickeningly good: moral, intelligent, and secretly sleeping with his Nan, Lionel's mum (ok, not all good then). During one of his regular stays at her majesty's pleasure, Lionel wins the astonishing sum of £139-million on the lottery. Mean-spirited as ever, Lionel refuses to share his win, and instead becomes the ultimate 'lotto lout', buying a country mansion, dating "Threnody" (a second rate glamour model and poet), and becoming perfect fodder for the tabloid press. As Lionel runs riot, Des gets himself an education and a family, but his humble existence is under constant threat from his uncle: Lionel demonstrates early on how he deals with anyone who sleeps with his mum - if Des's secret is exposed he will be looking at the same fate.

Asbo's lottery win is clearly a device to demonstrate the ills of unearned wealth and fame. Though Asbo doesn't change, the world around him loses its head. Amis is clear that those with true talent in society are being consistently devalued, and mediocrity is being elevated by PR tricks and a fatuous media. In his own clear-minded way, Lionel fails to be fully seduced by the new world that surrounds him and it's clear that one's past will always inform one's present (Lionel never shrugs off his previous life, and Des never escapes the secret but short affair with his Nan). Amis has always railed against vulgarity and diminishing standards and, despite his provocative characterisation of these qualities, there is something to be said for the message. As an extension on the theme of decay, there is a fair bit about criminal law too, and how it is interacted with by different sections of society, although predominantly the criminal classes.

While these themes form one level of the book, Lionel and what he represents is not solely the object of the satire, he is the means of the satire itself: it's all a trick, the exaggerations, the unrealistic ages, the spew, it's a reaction against the reactionary press. This is more than an attack on the criminal classes, this is about celebrity culture and how wannabe media fodder reflect back the warped reality which is portrayed by said media. Indeed, there is a sense throughout that the media is a far bigger target than the characters, who are in fact an exaggerated vision of civilisation as presented by various reactionary media outlets. This is a nuanced and important point. Amis's greatest condemnation is reserved for the media which informs the world he draws. Even the novel's subtitle, "State of England", far from continuing in the tradition of state of the nation novels, is an ironic take on the pronouncements of embittered media outlets who, generalising from individuals and the extremes of society, declare the decrepitude of the nation and look fondly back to the days of 'Great' Britain.

Encompassing Amis's attack on the media, this is also a condemnation of the age of exaggeration. The jumbled caricatures and string of peculiar references, whilst alluding to the media's garbled reporting of the news, derides uninformed fear and hate in any form, prejudice which can spread so easily. But even if the characters are caricatures of caricatures portrayed by the media - and do not represent any significant slice of society - there is still a morality encoded into the text - the values that Des represents, of intelligence and integrity, shine out as qualities to aspire to.

As ever Amis's prose is a refreshing break from much of contemporary literature, and yet it doesn't hit the heights of his best, when his language would burst and fizz with an effervescent, hard to define quality. Here certain sentences leap from the page, rising above the rest as truly wonderful examples of Amisian language. However, though the writing has many of Amis's stylistic tropes, for the reader who is familiar with his work these will feel a little comfortable.

Few can capture the poetic and profound in the language of the unthinking in the way that Amis can, and whilst some of the dialogue doesn't ring true for a modern day member of the criminal class, there is still a great deal of value in the writing. However, Amis takes a slightly unusual approach to the dialogue. Having mentioned early on that Asbo's pronunciation is (intentionally) deteriorating and that many of his words end in a glottal stop, Amis chooses regularly to repeat certain words using phonetical spelling to emphasise the pronunciation, e.g. "Duck. Duck-cuh." This is a peculiar technique, which feels condescending to the reader.

There is little real plot, although the ending is foreshadowed relatively early on, and for large parts the Des-Nan plotline feels almost entirely redundant, popping up at the novel's opening as a flashbulb hook and then dropping out of contention, bar cursory reminders, until it enjoys a limp resolution of sorts at the novel's conclusion.

"Threnody" is arguably, after Lionel, the novel's most interesting character. It is a pity then, that so little is seen of her. What is, is amusing satire that takes Amis into new territory. Des, dull as ditchwater, provides a stable moral centre to the novel - an unusual event in an Amis work. In a similar fashion to Dickens, Amis here has a pleasant young couple (Des and his partner, Dawn) rub up against far more exuberantly created villains. It might not be a wonderful conflict, but it's Dickensian to its core.

Late on in the novel Lionel asserts that prison is a break from the fear of going from prison ("You know where you are when you're in prison.") This sense of stability in what might normally be considered a horrifying experience is one of the few genuinely poignant moments, and Lionel's comfort in the routine of life under lock and key, away from the madness of life, and a world that cares little for him, is an indictment of society as a whole, and of the reactionary press and the minds it feeds.

There's something so seemingly blundering and crass about the assault on the criminal class (pseudo-reactionary or not) that makes Lionel Asbo work. It's big, loud, and noisy, and perhaps that's a good thing. Perhaps too the crudity of this is indicative of the lowering standards that Amis perceives - of a society that no longer values the cerebral over the obvious.

This is a light read by Amis's standards and here he seems content to have fun, not focusing too heavily on the details, but rather enjoying the broad brushstrokes and drawing humour from the caricatures. The criminal classes may seem an easy target for Amis's scorching satire, but there is an uncomfortable sense that there is a truth somewhere in this warped vision. Lionel so dominates the book that the more favourable portraits of the (non-/)working class (Desmond being the primary example) are pushed into the background. But as Amis has often argued, the author has no real responsibility to his characters or what they represent - the reader is more than intelligent enough to discern what's true and what's fiction. One has to read Lionel Asbo with this attitude. This is not a work of social realism; Amis transmits his point through humour and portraying a warped reality. Is it offensive? Only if you take it seriously.

This isn't Amis at his best, it's funny throughout but there is a sense that Amis is too far removed from the world he's describing. Enjoyable and provocative.


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Reviews of Lionel Asbo on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Lionel Asbo on Amazon (US)

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