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.