Well, well, well. Lionel Asbo has certainly caused something of a stir amongst the Amazon reviewing community. For what it's worth - and this review will be so far down as to never be seen - I found it to be Shamelessly enjoyable.
Film and tv viewers of such programmes as Shameless are certainly inured to seeing (hmm, how shall I put this?) the underclass (if that would be acceptable?) portrayed on the screen. But in a book, not so much. Martin Amis clearly had fun writing this and why should he not? We all have the right to write what we like these days so I really don't see why he should be decried for doing so. Why the fuss?
Bad luck for Amis, though, that the publication of this book more or less coincided with the government's announcement of a proposal to replace ASBOs with a "criminal behaviour order" (nicknamed "crimbo" in the media). Thus, the moment the book came out, it appeared to be immediately behind the zeitgeist. Timing is everything. But it doesn't really matter whether the book is relevant to our times or whether it tells us anything about the state of the nation. The question is: is it a good read? For my money, the book is a blast.
Others have covered the plot but it bears repeating that the main protagonist, violent, amoral Uncle Li, lacks a single redeeming quality; you have to be prepared for the fact that there are no concessions to likeability here. Then there's his mum who has a penchant for young boys and the Telegraph cryptic crossword. His long-suffering, academically brilliant nephew Des, the moral heart of the book. Plus sundry other unsavoury characters whose names are a hoot (as you'd expect from Amis). And then there are the dogs.
Jokes, when they come, are laugh out loud funny and the writing is glorious. Exuberant, even. The thing about Martin Amis never writing a cliché has, in itself, become a cliché. Oh, the irony.
on 25 June 2012
To write about the Underclass, a writer must surely have some knowledge or experience of it, even if all it amounts to is a week or two hanging out in some low-life pub. I'm not going to give a summary of the plot: there are some excellent ones here already. I'll just say that the plot is an engaging one, and Amis a consummate storyteller. Where he falls down, in my opinion, is that he doesn't make me believe in his characters. It's not clear whether he intends them to be outlandish caricatures of benefits scroungers, thugs and teenage mothers. (David Cameron and George Osborne may have picked up their ideas from the same sources.)"Lionel Asbo" is also full of anachronisms. For example, at what sink comprehensive were boys wearing shorts and purple blazers as recently as 2006? Surely a 15-year-old has a mobile phone, even if s/he has nothing else? (Most of the 8-year-olds I know have them.) The book sometimes reads like a poor, contrived pastiche of Dickens, funny surnames, street names and all. Where Amis excels is in his ability to convey a character's physical features in a small number of words, and his beautiful use of simile and metaphor: the sun, in one passage, is fixed in the sky like a gilt tack. "Lionel Asbo" is an enjoyable read, but that isn't enough. I failed to engage with his characters; they seemed rather pathetic, and in the end I didn't really care what happened to them.
on 20 November 2013
The pretentious (just desperate?) sub-title of Martin Amis's latest novel is State of England; it might more fittingly have been State of Amis. Anyone expecting a Philip Roth of an analysis might consider taking out a private prosecution under the Trades Descriptions Act. What we're given in place of a State of the Nation novel is an unwitting self-accusation, an outing, a sordid strip tease performed by a paranoid narcissist oozing bile, misanthropy and exhaustion. The poverty of imagination and technique is surely terminal: the novel would never have been published had it not flourished the imprimatur of a once gifted writer. Reading this feeble stuff is a sad experience, like listening to the senile hiccupping of that oh so promising student who developed premature Alzheimer's.
Lionel Asbo is grotesque in the way the anti-Semitic fantasies of the Nazis were grotesque: a vicious kind of humour is attempted but not delivered partly because the writer's loathing of his subject matter so cripples his invention and disfigures his prose that we observe with horror not the improbable villainies and mindlessness of Lionel Asbo but the increasingly desperate antics of his worn-out creator. The book is like the transcript of a drunken dinner party where one unaccountably privileged senile grandee after another swaps ludicrous fantasies about the underclass whilst massaging the group's social and political prejudices. How funny is it to create a Wayne Rooney caricature and generate around him a society of thugs and perverts? It makes Swift look comparatively healthy.
In Diston- in Diston, everything hated everything else, and everything
else, in return hated everything back.
But in fact this manifesto turns out to be no more than a marginal bleat: we meet very few characters from Diston or anywhere else, and many of them are no more than names with interchangeable biographies, unrealised personalities and voices. Before long, the novel modulates into a modest romance, complete with a tepidly "happy" ending despite the laboured frighteners we've been saddled with for two hundred pages.
Oddly, the last part of the novel has the occasional paragraph of the searching prose we remember from the earlier, accomplished Amis. The sub-literate prose: it's Amis, not his character, who inserts those lame exclamation marks begging you to find something outrageous, side-splitting, worth a second glance. The writing is less distinguished than the tabloidese which it treats to token ridicule. But it's all very low-wattage, half-hearted stuff. In Money, the central character was funny because he found himself ridiculous. In this rant, the author is a figure of fun because he expects us to applaud his limitations.
on 12 April 2014
It would be sacrilege not to give Lionel ASBO 5 stars. Amis is a master of his craft. Lionel ASBO is an inspired creation. The story here is a metaphor for the victory of money (and celebrity) over everything: pecunia rex est. Lionel is a cliche, a stereotype, a criminal who is proud of his criminality. His class is criminal. Jail is nothing to Lionel. He enjoys it. He's a sociopath, a psychopath: selfish, violent, vindictive and he bears a grudge like his celebrity page 3 GF bares her fake boobs - with enthusiasm and pride.
Lionel accidentally wins the lottery and this simply gives him a license to misbehave on a grand scale. It deserves a movie adaptation and it's easy to see Ray Winston or Bob Hoskins (in their youth) in the role of Lionel. These days, Plan B would my first choice.
The anti-hero takes little pleasure from his 140 million + fortune. A jungle predator enjoys the hunt, the battle for survival and Lionel is soon back in his old manor up to his tricks, just for kicks.
There are moment of great humour. When his concubine Threnody (a page 3 porn star with more plastic surgery than Action Man or more appropriately Barbie) is rushed to hospital by air ambulance there is talk of her 'fake arse having exploded!' (Threnody has 'blown more on her arse than her tits' Lionel muses in an earlier chapter).
Nothing is perfect of course and my main criticism is that Amis makes Lionel too likeable. In my experience such people are monsters with little or no redeeming qualities; there is nothing likeable about these nasty misanthropes. Of course writing about violent, nasty psychopaths is very depressing so I guess the author needed to make us sympathise with El ASBO to keep our attention.
Lionel ASBO is like Amis' MONEY. It's a page turner. I read it in 48 hours.
on 18 October 2012
I think this book has been unfairly criticized. Agree that it's not as sharp as Money or London Fields. Likewise, it's not as poignant or expansive as The Pregnant Widow. But it's certainly no turkey, like Yellow Dog was. It's a funny, clever satire that examines celebrity, wealth, class, family, and relationships in 21st-century England. It's a state-of-the-nation novel that contains some dazzling phrases and sentences.
While there are motifs repeated from his other books, he does this so well that it doesn't matter. And he never resorts to cliché.
Is it among his very best? No. Is it worth reading? Yes.
I have always been a fan of Amis with Money: A Suicide Note,London Fields and Time's Arrow his best in my opinion. I've not been that keen on his recent works (although I still read all his fiction books) and found The Pregnant Widow boring and bloated.
Lionel Asbo is a real drop in standards. The plot - such as it is - concerns Lionel Asbo (a thug who wins the lottery) and his dysfunctional family, including Des (his nephew) and Grace (Lionel's mother). The focus of the action is on the inter-relationships between these three main characters, but Grace is only a bit-part player really. Lionel wins £140m on the lottery and the bulk of the book looks at the impact this has on his life and the lives of his family and friends.
Now the book is about money and class. But it just reads as so dumbed down in places it doesn't quality as satire, it just reads badly. Example: when Des gets his degree it is spelled out explicity why a 2:2 is called a Desmond. Why? And there is a fascination with tabloid newspapers that Amis returns to again and again. Why? And although it is interesting to have our attention drawn to glottal stops early on, he keeps reminding us again and again by repeating words as they are sounded out by Lionel "Duck. Duck-cuh." Why can't he just use Irvine Welsh's trick of writing as as it's said?
My other main complaint about this book is that it is nasty and snide. Snide about poor people. Snide about old people. Uncaring about violence, death and early-onset dementia. And I didn't find any redemption in the conclusion.
There are the usual touches of Amis's literary dexterity and wordplay and I guess there is an overarching metaphor about the financial crisis sitting in there somewhere, but to be honest it left such a bad taste in my mouth I couldn't be bothered to think about it in any depth.
I'd have to think carefully before buying his next book and I find that very sad.
on 19 July 2012
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?
on 11 December 2014
I read this book as I was doing a study at the time on English Country Houses as a metaphor for the state of the nation and a book about a man who buys a country pile after winning the lottery entitled "Lionel Asbo: State of the Nation" seemed pertinent. It was useful to the study and shows nicely how the country house as a setting in literature continues to be a convenient box to shove all kinds of themes into, It was also a bit disappointing. I liked Des (what's not to like) mainly because the author intended we like him. I hated Lionel (what is to like?) mainly because the author intends we hate him. I could also see that Lionel was a kind of emblem for a certain aspect of England in our time. However, there was equally something I didn't like about this book as a work of fiction - it read as a bit artificial to me - Lionel was too much, and it was all a bit overkill. I kept waiting and waiting for justice to find Lionel, but it never did. Even when justice did catch up with him and he went to prison, Lionel was glad to be there, because it was a good place to sort his head out ("Prison, said Lionel. Good place to get you head sorted out. You know where you are in prison. Well yeah, thought Des. You're in prison." p. 123. I also kept waiting for the storyline to develop around the character who Lionel organised to be "sold" (his name escapes me, sorry) but it never did. The ending was unsatisfactory (probably because it wasn't neat enough for me). I know some people will say that there's something wrong with expecting a neat ending in a world which is less than satisfactory - but I do like to have that happy ending in fiction - as, even today, I think most people do. This wasn't for me - it was too bleak, too grubby and too messy. Still, it was an interesting spin on country house fiction.
on 27 March 2013
This is a genuine question. My first reaction--clearly shared by many other reviewers--was that he has completely lost the plot. Unlike Amis, I live in central London, and until recently worked with adolescents. The portrayal of characters and social context bear no relationship to reality--or rather, a grossly distorted one. This horror of working class urban life seems to run through Amis's work--perhaps he ought to try living somewhere really tough!
and yet....I didn't throw the book aside in disgust, though I was tempted to after fifty pages or so. His plotting and writing are sufficiently engaging to keep the reader interested. It appears to me that he's attempting a Dickensian approach: social satire by exaggeration and caricature. There are three reasons why this doesn't work:
1) although a lively and inventive writer, he's no genius
2) Dickens did at least know the world he depicted at first hand
3) Although Dickens is marred by sentimentality, this at least suggests some generosity of spirit, which Amis (or his authorial persona) seems mostly lacking in.
That said, it's not a waste of time. Over the past few years, there's been a lot of Amis-baiting, but at least he writes lively and accessible novels that don't play safe.
on 7 September 2012
Bottom line, this is laugh-out-loud fun, a fact strangely missed by many reviews. It is dark and broad, but it is satire and as such is hugely enjoyable. Here is a typical passage-
"First, the wall-wide TV, impressive in itself but almost impossible to watch. You couldn't get far enough away from it, and the colours swam and everyone wore a wraithlike nimbus of white. Whatever was actually showing, Des always felt he was watching a documentary about the Klu Klux Klan"
Still the master of the threat of impending violence which provides the tension running beneath this, Marty is also brilliantly funny.