LIONEL ASBO: State of England
Larger than life is what Martin Amis clearly aims at in the comic monster he puts at the center of his new novel. Large, Lionel Asbo certainly is; alive, he is not. Monster, undoubtedly, but about as funny as fingernails scraping a blackboard.
What for a time may seem a kind of witty malice soon degenerates into malice plain.
The subtitle — “State of England” — is a key both to Amis’s intention to parody the rot he sees in his country, and to the parody’s failure through its grotesque overdoing. Satire and farce — the book alternates between them — require one foot on the ground as the other performs its high kicks. Kicking wildly with both feet, Amis’s novel lurches off out of a reader’s sight and patience.
There is a brief glimpse of Britain’s near future: huge fires, traffic jams that last five days, an epidemic of rickets among its schoolchildren. But the main vehicle for Amis’s indictment is Asbo himself. A thug, a sadistically violent debt-collector who employs two pit bulls for the job and feeds them steak and Tabasco, a perpetual jailbird, he wins close to half a billion dollars in the lottery.
And suddenly with his fortune and wild spending, his luxury cars, private planes, a huge country mansion surrounded by a 30-foot steel wall — he names it Wormwood Scrubs after the prison where he repeatedly serves time — he becomes a celebrity in a society where celebrity is the supreme value, eclipsing all the traditional ones. The tabloids feed on him; he responds by beating up three of their reporters, winning yet another of his jail terms; this one served in lavish comfort, thanks to his fortune and fame.
Lionel’s story is told by his nephew, Desmond, who as a boy was briefly entangled in the corruption that extends through the family. At 15, he is seduced by his grandmother, Grace; the affair continues until Lionel gets a report that some schoolboy is having sex with her. Terrified and bent on deflecting Lionel’s fury, Desmond fingers a schoolmate as the culprit. The uncle sends henchmen to abduct, torture, and kill him.
After that, Desmond begins to pull away from Lionel’s solicitous tutoring in evil (Lionel regards it as a kindly lesson in realism). He flourishes at school and college, gets a newspaper job, meets and marries the sweet-natured Dawn, and has a baby whom he adores. And this removed condition allows him to narrate the story of Lionel, whom Amis aims to set up as a picaresque lord of misrule.
Picaresque is a condiment that requires a measure of restraint; Amis, like the Duchess in “Alice in Wonderland,” up-ends the entire pepper pot. When a friend marries a woman whom Lionel had regarded as his own property, he offers to be best man, and delivers an effusive wedding tribute. It concludes with a graphic account of the bride’s alleged obscene public behavior. A protracted riot ensues, with massive arrests and a huge hotel bill for the damage.
What for a time may seem a kind of witty malice soon degenerates into malice plain, and worse. The thread of enjoyment that can attach us, if hesitantly, to a comic monster, snaps. We get the monster plain; he’s no longer funny, but he’s horrifying at least .
After Lionel comes into his fortune he summons his brothers and tells them that their troubles are over. Instead of the expected financial aid, he announces that he is sending their mother to an old age home. (She is only 48; the home, in a freezing part of northern Scotland, is a miserable cut-rate pit.) He experiments with call girls; the first one lasts 20 minutes or so before staggering out in shock. At the end his abuse of a dozen others leads to another prison term and his disappearance, much to their relief, from Desmond and Dawn’s life.
Now all this is too forced, not to mention extreme, to serve Amis’s purpose in charting British decline and decay. Lionel’s image doesn’t cohere even on its own terms; he is simply an unstrung chain of excesses. Frequent quotes from his illiterate written notes — “DES BE AT NORF GATE ON SATDEE JULY 11 TWELVEFIRTY BRING ME DRIVE-IN LISENSE ME BIRF STATIFICAT ME BLAK SELL FONE . . .” — are one more splashy daub in what never amounts to a painting.
Against this is Desmond’s account of his own life. It is a portrayal of happy domesticity when not suffering from the uncle’s eruptions. Amis seems to intend this as a portrait of British decency, outgunned by the corruption that Lionel represents. But apart from the lackluster writing — Amis administers goodness but it bores him — it is too separate from the Lionel fireworks to achieve anything besides a simplistic white and black contrast.