"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

September 23, 2012

"Lionel Asbo: State of England" by Martin Amis (Book Review)

Educational levels are dropping in the Western world like a thermometer on a winter night and therefore the terrible ASBOs are among us: "Anti-Social Behavior Order," as they are called in the U.K. ("soccer hooligans" would be another name). And the mirror image of having a large underclass of people, is the flourishing of an underclass of the media, tabloids ("presstitutes") and sitcoms, to keep the ASBOs occupied during the long daytime, for work is foreign to them.

What do you do when something is too terrible to be true? You exorcise it by comedy and satire and that is what Martin Amis has done with both ASBOs and junk media. Lionel Asbo: State of England, Martin Amis' latest novel, is a hyperbolic farce about an underclass thug who revels in his ignorance, in violence and petty crime, and who feeds his pit-bulls steaks with Tabasco sauce to make them as mean as himself. He is a 21-year-old brute, always "one size bigger than expected" when he appears, full of excesses and explosions, working at "the very hairiest end of debt collection.” At a local wedding, Lionel's vulgar toast inflames the 90 guests into £650,000 of damages. Lionel regularly goes to prison on charges of “Extortion With Menaces and Receiving Stolen Property,” but doesn't mind: "When you in prison, you have you peace of mind. Because you not worried about getting arrested." These are not typing errors - the dialect and jargon in this novel are fantastic and real, as is the satire - it is not even a sub-culture that is addressed here, but sadly enough English culture of today as such - and on a wider note, the deplorable state of Western culture.

This novel’s plot concerns Lionel’s relationship with his orphaned nephew Desmond Pepperdine, a bright teen who enjoys school, the total opposite of Lionel, who lives in fear of his "brutally generic" uncle. Des wisely neglects his ward's advice to always carry a knife or watch Internet porn for his development, and the pit-bulls even become the meekest of dogs in his hands. But he has made one mistake: at age 15, he has slept with his grandmother, the mother of Lionel, which will be the death of him if Lionel finds out ("And if you f**k my mum, there's going to be consequences"). "Granny," by the way, is only 39, as she had her first of five kids by different fathers to whom she was of course not married at age 12. But Des soon leaves this patch of incest behind him. He is interested in study and books and after attending university, joins a large paper as crime reporter. He also meets the girl of his dreams, Dawn, whom he marries. They have a wonderful baby girl, Cilla, who is always smiling. His life is like a fairy tale, like a lotus flower rising from the mud to the sun.

But the path to happiness is not without bumps. The "family secret" with granny (who starts suffering from Alzheimer, but has dangerous patches of lucidity) hangs as an ax above his head. Then, while in prison, uncle Lionel wins £140 million in the national lottery (he in fact stole the ticket and Des filled it in for him) and becomes a tabloid celebrity ("Lottery Tout"). He starts a life of conspicuous consumption and discovers an entirely new form of power: money. He also delights in taunting grasping friends and family with his money, never giving them a cent (of course Des is the only one who wants nothing as he is proud to earn his own bread). Lionel buys the world's most obnoxious SUV, an ugly million-dollar wardrobe, a country home that he calls "Wormwood Scrubs" after the prison he was in when he won the lottery and slobbers champagne like water. He also acquires a trophy girlfriend, a plastic glamour model calling herself "Threnody." (And indeed, this novel is a threnody on the loss of culture). Their celebrity life together as the high priest and priestess of Chav plays out in the tabloids that turn the lout Lionel into a star (as they continually do in the real world). But Lionel has also a loyal streak and despite his savagery retains some sense of humanity in the midst of the media madhouse. He is even strangely likable...

Of course, becoming a superstar has not transformed Lionel into a cultivated person. He has an epic battle with a lobster in a refined restaurant and on a hot day he cools himself by pouring fine champagne down his pants. And when he orders filet mignon: "Cooked? Just take the horns off, wipe its arse, and sling it on the plate. And bring all your jams and pickles and mustards..." And so on.

But disaster lies in wait - we have been warned by the unrelenting questions at the start of each volume of "Who let the dogs in?" The dogs are two new pitbulls Lionel has parked on Des' balcony, while baby Cilla sleeps nearby... But in a wonderful twist, she escapes disaster to offer hope for a "new dawn" and this brutal story ends on an uplifting note.

A hilariously savage and highly enjoyable satire, in wonderfully electric prose.