15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
A course of Amis methadone,
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This review is from: Lionel Asbo: State of England (Hardcover)
Short version: Better than The Pregnant Widow, but not the "return to form" certain reviewers crow about.
I am the sort of hardcore Amis fan who will likely buy every book he produces until death do us part, but there has been a subtle turning of the seasons with Lionel Asbo: I noticed its existence by chance, where previously I would have known months ahead that it was imminent. In a review about Iris Murdoch's "The Philosopher's Pupil" Martin Amis wrote that it is less than the real thing for the waiting Murdoch addicts ("with [ahem!] their telltale Irises") - that the book is, rather, "a long course of methadone". To me this neatly sums up Amis's own writing over the last not so few years - a very long course of methadone. I get a muted high, a bit of a headache, and have a bit of a think about my continuing junkie-hood when I read a new novel of his. If I revisit older books, particularly the non-fiction ones, the dulling is almost painfully obvious, however. People keep saying that his prose is perfect-pitch immaculate, but surely a longitudinal comparison will prove this statement false, unless these older works are somehow "even immaculater".
Shaking my head, I read several reviews praising the plotting in Lionel Asbo. In reality, the plot is remarkably weak, but that is after all an Amis fiction hallmark. Everything is relative, and so, true, compared to the rest of his (fiction) oeuvre the strictures of the Lionel Asbo plotting are highly exacting. If anything, I found this to be detrimental, because knowing where the plot is heading has him occasionally reach for terrible forward-looking devices. The worst, in my opinion, are contained in the pages of hints at impending dual disasters near the end of the book. On more than one occasion I was muttering "Alright, I get it already!" only to turn the page and have another crude pointer leap at me. Even when there was a gotcha! plot-twist to liven things up, that could hardly by itself justify these over-extended setups. As certain other reviewers have noticed, the plotting is also marred by... well by a level of cluelessness I have never before noticed in an Amis book. Reviewing "The Malcontents" by C. P. Snow, Amis expounded on this very topic, arguing that the book would "be noticed quite generously by reviewers as old, or nearly as old, or possibly even older, than Snow himself. But the younger reader is sure to be embarrassed by Snow's cluelessness. This is not invidious. Any teenager who wrote... about an old-people's home that had jukeboxes and pinball machines flanking its aisles would also have to steel himself for a fairly cool press." The for the most part normal teenage protagonist in Lionel Asbo knows squat-all about Internet porn, social media and similar matters. Is this likely? Worse: had the characters been reasonably up to scratch in the field of technology, many aspects of the plot would have tumbled to the ground. I think this an altogether new deficiency in Amis's writing, and a most worrying one.
This is the methadone part. Certain sentences or paragraphs are blindingly beautiful. There is no one quite like Martin Amis to have you re-read pages with true relish and a grin on your face. The things this man can do with (and to) English! His adjectives and adverbs! But the old Amis hand will soon note a lot of stylistic echoes in this book. The sentences where the same thing is said twice or more in rapid-fire succession to hammer it home. The hypercharged pathos when describing a blessed character (likely a baby); the use of some form of sexual quirk or foible as a main plot-driver; the weird names; the odd physiognomy; the hell-bent personalities of the characters.
Amis abhors cliché (other than when used as an intentional device) so much that he has named one of his books (and a good one too) "The war against cliché". As a consequence, you will indeed find it hard to pin any lazy sentences (this is where clichés tend to turn up after all) on him. But what about personal cliché? What about Intra-Amis cliché? I have read so much by and about him that I automatically flag some of his stuff in Lionel Asbo as bland rehashs. Dogs bark a profanity that rhymes with "Tuck off!"? Oh yeah, that's what his father once said he heard a dog bark at him while lying on the roof of a broiling parked car (this incident is in print in two different books). Working class louts talking like Cockney stereotypes with speech impediments? Oh yeah, that was the way the Yellow Dog "face" talked. Oddly named car models ("the Venganza")? Oh yeah, that was great fun in "Money" with its "Fiasco" and the rest of it. The dregs-dirty London with its dank pubs, its instinctive auto-enmity, its utter hopelessness. Oh yeah that's... well most of his books, really. Now, if one is a Martin Amis newbie, this "best-of collection" of stylistic devices that tends to tire the old fan, should be a delight, and I guess that the highly varying ratings and reviews can in part be explained by this fact.
It is usually easy to identify a major theme in an Amis book. In the novel under review, he has helpfully added a thematic marker to the title: "Lionel Asbo. State of England". More particularly, he homes in on the fascination with celebrity for celebrity's sake. This is nothing new: Amis has several times in the past growled at the way true talent (like, say, good novel-writing ability) is gradually being downgraded (as mediocrity is being correspondingly elevated). Lionel Asbo wins money, employs (Amis-loathed) PR types, and is turned into a national treasure without having a shred of natural talent - he is even a second-class bruiser and goon. The counter-protagonist Des who is smarter by many magnitudes and who is additionally a cardboard "good" character (uniquely so in Amis's writing I think) will never have that opportunity.
The second, weaker, theme is how your history and baggage will exert its tug at a fundamental personal level whatever the relative surface success. Lionel keeps a toehold in his old thuggery-'n-squalor past (he won't vacate his old room in the dire old high-rise with its malfunctioning lift and urine-saturated staircases) even as he is romping about with the upper crust. Des has sex with his grandmother (and let me just say that I think that the crudeness of this had less to do with structural necessity than with first-page titilation) because his sordid social context drove him there. This adds a mirage-like quality to Lionel's ascent, and a fundamental futility that clings to all aspiration (unless, possibly, when aspiration is married to truly dazzling talent, but that is not explored here).
This certainly does not amount to the "state of England", but the intertwined themes are still intriguing, and, in my view, constitute the strongest aspect of the novel. Martin Amis managed to have me sit around thinking about "Lionel Asbo" for a long while after I had put it back in the shelf. That is high praise for an otherwise spotty novel.
To read or not to read?
If you are new to Amis and love the brushstrokes of a master, go ahead: you will find much to enjoy. For the rest of us it is... well a long course of methadone. Time to kick the habit?