Saturday, September 01, 2012

The Anti-dad

With his furrowed brow and energised prose, Martin Amis ensured that every novel of his became the most anticipated literary event of the year. This has been going on for almost four decades. His latest novel, Lionel Asbo, has been awaited even more, considering its subtitle: “State of England”. The past 18 months have been tumultuous for Britain: a phone-hacking scandal, riots, an uncertain economic future, an underachieving coalition government, the recent floods in London, the Barclays scandal and so on. The roaring success notwithstanding, the Olympics might push the country into a deeper financial hole.

But Lionel Asbo has nothing to do with overarching or newsy themes. The titular character, a dead ringer for Wayne Rooney, is an odious 20-something crank living in a fictional London borough called Diston, where no citizen can spell IQ. He is to take care of his adolescent orphaned nephew, Desmond (or Des) Pepperdine, who is in turn having a sexual relationship with Grace, his grandmother and Asbo’s mother. Des knows the repercussions if his uncle gets a whiff of the sexual shenanigans, but he thinks the act is worth the risk. However, the straw that breaks the camel’s back is the £140-million lottery that Asbo wins.

The plot is fertile territory for Mr Amis to parody everything from celebrity culture to the way London’s nouveau riche conduct themselves — and he does this in his usual effortlessly brilliant manner. Asbo’s indifference to the jackpot sort of sets the urban dystopian tone for the novel, “See that’s what happens when you win a hundred-odd million quid. You go numb. Not happy. Not sad. Numb.” Two thirds of the novel is about Asbo’s way of getting back at his nephew, who eventually outgrows his carnal fondness for his grandmother and is ready to settle down with a proper girlfriend.
Despite its timeliness, Lionel Asbo is nowhere near Mr Amis’ best work. His universe used to be so much more resplendent: it was either drink, drugs and pornography (Money) or environmental disasters and nuclear weapons (London Fields and Einstein’s Monsters) or sexual revolution and male anxiety (The Pregnant Widow and The Information). Topics like incest, anti-social behaviour, misanthropy, flailing male egos are too effete for Mr Amis.
I trudged my way through the book to not find anything half as sublimely outrageous as this paragraph in Money: “...with a chick on the premises you just cannot live the old life. You just cannot live it. I know: I checked. The hungover handjob athwart the unmade bed — you can’t do it. Blowing your nose into a coffee filter — there isn’t the opportunity. Peeing in the basin — they just won’t stand for it. No woman worth the name would let it happen. Women have pretty ways. Without women, life is a pub, a reptile bar at a quarter to three....”

Of course, Lionel Asbo has some of Mr Amis’ penetrating humour, like this deeply comic description of the aimless decay of the town: “Diston, with its gravid primary-schoolers and toothless hoodies, it’s wheezing twenty-year-olds, arthritic thirty-year-olds, crippled forty-year-olds, demented fifty-year-olds and non-existent sixty-year-olds.” The usual criticism levelled against Mr Amis is that he writes exquisitely, sadly about nothing of consequence — Lionel Asbo confirms this. Reams of wonderful passages don’t come together to lend any levity to the flaccid plot.

There are the usual etymological quibbles with which Mr Amis suffuses the book, much to a lexiphile’s pleasure. He is constitutionally incapable of writing a dull sentence. With an eye for detail and rhythm, Mr Amis takes prose to the level of poetry, like this one: “its burping, magmatic canal, its fizzy low-rise pylons, its buzzing waste. Diston — a world of italics and exclamation marks.” The let-down in the book is the quasi-cat-and-mouse game between the principal characters. Asbo never confronts his nephew — that’s the novel’s biggest drawback. To top it, the climax is a cop-out.

More than the main plot, a few side stories elevate the book a little, like the ruckus created by Asbo’s scandalising remarks at his ex-girlfriend’s wedding, the slow-burning descent of Grace, the aw-shucks romance between Desmond and his girlfriend, the reality-television antics of Threnody, Asbo’s post-jackpot squeeze, who is to tabloid journalists what a moth is to a flame. If only Mr Amis let these characters stew in their own neurotic juices, the novel could have been far more readable. Despite the author’s constant denial, one gets the impression that Lionel Asbo is Mr Amis’ disgruntled farewell gift to England as he’s moving house from Camden Town in London to Cobble Hill in Brooklyn.
In his recent piece in The New Republic, Mr Amis made it clear why he has chosen America: because it “remains, definingly, an immigrant society, vast and formless; writers have always occupied an unresented place in it, because everyone subliminally understood that they would play a part in construing its protean immensity”. If dissatisfaction was really what he wanted to express, Mr Amis should have aimed for something higher than a David Foster Wallace trying his hand at Sue Townsend material.

State of England
Martin Amis
Jonathan Cape
276 pages; £14


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