Guest post by Lucas Smith
Stories about sudden wealth acquisition too often become morality tales about the inutility of money to enduring happiness. Lionel Asbo, Martin Amis’s fifteenth work of fiction, is a refreshing tale of a man made immensely and permanently happy by his money.
The stupid, vindictive, loutish and possibly murderous anti-hero, Lionel Asbo, holds Britain’s record for youngest person to be issued with an Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO). He was just three when he was detained for trying to burn down a library and in due course changes his surname to reflect the honour. Lionel is the middle-class’s vision of horror, though they fret about their societal complicity. They need not fret for long. Lionel wins nearly 140 million pounds in the state lottery from a stolen ticket, and duly takes his place in the celebrity class.
Meanwhile, Lionel’s fifteen year old nephew and ward Desmond Pepperdine has begun a carnal relationship with his eager and willing grandmother, Lionel’s mother, the thirty-nine year old Grace. ‘I needed gentleness,’ he writes to the ‘Agony Angel’ of the Morning Lark, ‘And when Gran touched me like that…’ Des and Lionel live together in Diston, a fairy-tale enclave of Britain with the life-expectancy of Djibouti and the fertility rate of Malawi, ‘where that sort of thing isnt much frownd upon.’ But Des rightly fears the rage of his uncle – his ‘anti-father’ – should he ever discover the affair, and in particular, how this rage might manifest itself on his newborn daughter.
Neither is bad grammar or pronunciation much frowned upon in Diston. Amis, with his father’s gift for transcribing the variations of human speech, exploits this for all it’s worth (and perhaps a bit more). ‘Labyrinth’ becomes ‘labyrimf’, ‘Lionel’ becomes ‘Loyonoo’, ‘Cynthia’ becomes ‘Cymfia’. However, the heavy-hand of this satire on language is softened by the fact that Des reads the OED hoping to break out of the Diston centrifuge.
Making no gesture towards wisdom, prudence or civic virtue, Lionel spends nine million pounds in his first three days as a rich man—just under one million Australian dollars a day—on hotels, transport, food, drink and clothes, leaving a wake of ruined hotel rooms and broken glass, before a financial advisor volunteers to stop the rot. In one of the novel’s funniest scenes, Lionel takes his five brothers, John, Paul, George, Ringo and Stu (Sutcliffe), all with ‘bad debts and cramped flats…shattered wives, rioting toddlers’, out to dinner at a posh restaurant to announce some changes to the family’s affairs.
‘I spent twelve grand today, on guess what.’
‘Socks. Us against the world, eh lads.’
‘See that’ said Lionel, tapping the label of the Chateau Latour Pauillac. ‘That’s the vintage—the date. And guess what. Give or take a tenner, it’s the same as the price! We’ll have one each. Us against the world, eh lads.’
The five half-brothers endure more torment until Lionel says,
‘You number one headache, from now on completely taken care of. You needn’t give it another thought. Ever. That shadow that never goes away? That nagging concern that wakes you up in the middle of the night? A thing of the past. Over.’ Lionel looked forgivingly from face to face. ‘And what’s the worry? Well. Come on, let’s not be shy. Begins with an em. Say it. Em. Mm. Mmuh…’ Lionel lifted his gaze to the night sky. ‘Mum,’ he said.
And so Grace, the forty year-old ‘bonking biddy’, is sent to live out ‘her declining years’ in an aged care home in Scotland. This takes her out of Des’s orbit but he lives in fear. Lionel often arrives unannounced for visits.
Des, with his weak-kneed love for his wife Dawn, his fervent desire for a daughter and his irritating self-improvement is a weak foil to Lionel’s menacing brutality, made grotesquely potent by good fortune. The impervious Lionel is in many ways the more likeable character. He knows what he wants from life and he takes it.
Lionel Asbo is not a morality tale but it is not amoral. As Adam Mars-Jones wrote recently in the London Review of Books, if Amis is not a humanist, he is ‘anti-anti-humanist.’ Lionel names his new mansion Wormwood Scrubs, after his favourite prison, in an act of reverse snobbery. Lionel relishes the opportunities his wealth gives him to torment waiters, hotel staff, tabloid journalists and his own family, and the perhaps cringing reader joins ever-enthusiastically in the fun. His wealth releases him from the need to commit crime but it does not change his essence in the slightest. And why should it?
Lionel is an inspired comic creation but Lionel Asbo is not a good story qua story. When the style is so overwhelming, plot supports style rather than the other way around. It falls short of his best work. Money takes that title; The Information is the funniest. Amis has always had trouble with his endings and this one is particularly convoluted. The characters, as expertly drawn as they are, don’t evolve. John Self, Money’s main lout, grows self-awareness. Lionel Asbo, self-described ‘local boy made good,’ doesn’t. But it is for his unmatchable style that Amis is read and Asbo has that in abundance.
As in The Information the weakest passages are those that deal with parenthood. When Amis writes seriously he ceases to be serious, that is, his earnestness overrides his talent. Amis, perhaps understandably to those who read his memoir Experience, is incapable of avoiding sentiment on this subject and therefore can provide no comedy. Looking at his dangerously premature daughter in the ward ‘Desmond again deliquesced. He kept saying something, and he didn’t know what it was he was saying, but he kept on saying it, as if convinced that no one could hear.’
Into this domestic despair stomps Lionel with his anti-fatherly advice. ‘Well you made you bed now, son. You got to lie in it.’ I pass over with no comment the many Kingsleyisms Amis puts in Lionel’s mouth. ‘You know where you are with a rogan josh.’, ‘Get your tits fixed.’ Lionel’s casual dismissal of women too echoes Kingsley in his most bitter, twice-divorced phase.
And what of the contentious subtitle, ‘State of England’? The England of Lionel Asbo is a country in thrall to celebrity, cellulite and cash. A small titter has been raised over the Amis family’s move to Brooklyn several months ago. Is Lionel Asbo then a fearsome farewell to an irredeemably fearsome nation? As Amis has repeatedly pointed out, it takes a lot more than spite and hate to write a novel. He’s right about that. Sometimes it takes hate, spite, vitriol, and self-loathing. And maybe, just a dash of love.
Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo is available now through Random House RRP 32.95
— Lucas Smith is a writer living in Melbourne. His work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, the Australian Book Review, and others. He is books editor for The Nose.