Lionel Asbo (2012) – Martin Amis
by Mark Wallace
Martin Amis’s newest novel is subtitled “State of England”, placing it squarely in the tradition of the mid-19th century condition of England novels, Dickens’s Bleak House, Gaskell’s North and South, etc. These novels were concerned witth humanizing the working-classes for their middle-class readers, and instructing these readers in how to manage the working-classes. I have been reading North and South recently. The message of this book is (it seems to me): The poor are well-meaning and docile if treated with the right mixture of kindness and firmness, and here, embodied in Margaret Hale and the post-strike John Thornton, is how to do it. It’s not just a book to entertain; rather it purports to provide a model of dominant-class behaviour to control and placate the working-classes. It’s eminently socially engaged and consciously practical (which is not to commend the actual politics of the novel).
Amis’s addition to this genre is different. The upper-classes are almost invisible, or at least only appear as secondary characters. Lionel Asbo is focalized entirely on the titular character and Desmond Pepperdine, his mixed-race nephew. The former is a demonized depiction of lower-class masculinity, and the latter idealized. Lionel Asbo is addicted to porn and prison: “Porn is like prison. You know where you are” (148). Later, upon coming into a fortune in the National Lottery, he becomes a tabloid celebrity, and is lusted after by DILFs (the d is for divorcee), with several of whom he conducts affairs in which his sexual sadism is given free rein, in a post-50 Shades depiction of sexual relations. Lionel’s sadism is merely a component of the miasma of hate which surrounds him. When he tries to write a letter:
[T]he letter had an atmosphere. Lionel had hated writing it, and the words themselves had hated being written. Even the paper had hated the pen. (87)
But, then again, in Lionel’s home town of Diston, “everything hated everything else” (165). For some reason, Des Pepperdine is immune to this, and he provides a positive focus for the novel. He rises up through the social ranks, gets an education, gets a job, gets a baby with his girlfriend. The manichaean morality of the two main characters sometimes adds humour to their interaction with each other, but doesn’t make this an acute study of class psychology, or an insight into the state of England.
The least successful part of Lionel Asbo is towards the ending. Amis has added a Chekhov’s gun to the plot in the early stages, and it is clear that this is about to go off, with grave consequences for Lionel’s mood, and his attitude towards Des. In line with this, the latter part of the novel is edited like a thriller, with quick intercutting between the characters as the moment of truth approaches. Maybe Amis was already seeing the film version as he wrote. I’m not that familiar with Amis’s work, so I don’t know how much this tactic is characteristic of him, but tension-building kineticism does not seem to me to be his forte, and Asbo‘s tone has not got the reader into the zone of tension creation, so it falls rather flat. The novel works better as a comedy and as a satire dripping with scorn for a shallow, vacant, actively intelligence-hating (“What you doin there with that pen?” (6)) society – not because it provides an accurate picture of any section of that society, but because scorn has a power of its own, when well expressed, and Lionel Asbo has that power, intermittently at least.
In summation, in so far as this is directed at a middle-class audience, it is not saying, like Gaskell, “Here are the working-class and here is how we must engage with them”; rather it is saying, “Here is the working-class, the filthy oiks! Look at them! From a distance!” Yet, there is also Des, as good and kind as one of Dickens’s cardboard heroes. Perhaps he is a symbol of something, and this is the key to the novel, a prophecy of the victory of the Desses over the Lionels. But who or what Des is supposed to be, beyond a cipher and placeholder, is hard to say.