Ron Charles on Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis
THE WASHINGTON POST
MARTIN AMIS recently abandoned London for Brooklyn, and now he’s published a satire of Britain’s moral decrepitude subtitled “State of England.” Just a coincidence, Amis claims, but naturally the Brits are feeling a bit stung by this one-two punch. And if Lionel Asbo is the sort of ham-fisted novel we get in the bargain, maybe we should send him back.
Amis’s previous offering, The Pregnant Widow, was a flawed book laced with one brilliant, witty sentence after another. Unfortunately, Lionel Asbo is a far more meager meal. The story opens with a bloom of grotesque comedy: A 15-year-old orphan named Des Pepperdine is in a relationship with an older woman. “The sex is fantastic and I think I’m in love,” Des writes to a newspaper advice columnist. “But ther’es one very serious complication and i’ts this; shes’ my Gran!” As he readily admits, “It’s not an ideal situation,” but incest and statutory rape are only minor concerns; Des’s real problem is that if his uncle Lionel Asbo finds out, he’ll kill him.
Welcome to the fictional borough of London called Diston, “where calamity made its rounds like a postman.” The schoolchildren — “all morbidly obese” — suffer from diseases not seen elsewhere in years. This is a place famous for its “auto-repair yards, sawmills, and tanneries, and for its lawless traffic . . . its burping, magmatic canal, its fizzy low-rise pylons, its buzzing waste.”
The most outrageous character in this hellhole is Des’s guardian, Lionel Asbo, a Dickensian contraption of implacable muscle. “Des saw his uncle every day,” Amis writes, “and Lionel was always one size bigger than expected.” The teeth in his giant bald skull are broadly spaced, like “a cut-out pumpkin on Halloween.” British readers will hear Lionel’s last name as an acronym for Anti-Social Behavior Order, a kind of restraining order introduced by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair to combat everything from swearing to arson. Lionel set a national record when he was arrested at age 3. Since then, he’s grown into a shocking thug, “a subsistence criminal” who crashes through life accompanied — during brief respites from prison — by two psychotic pit bulls that he keeps hyped up on liquor and Tabasco sauce. “They not pets,” Lionel reminds his nephew. “They tools of me trade.”
The first section jangles along with some broad comedy and even offers a little suspense as Des tries — with deadly repercussions — to keep Uncle Asbo from discovering his tryst with Gran. There’s something sweet about this bright young man and his “anti-dad,” his “counterfather.” Asbo doesn’t understand his bookish nephew — “Do something useful,” he tells him. “Steal a car” — but he watches out for the boy and allows him to grow up under the protection of his citywide terror.
The novel quickly falls apart, though, when Lionel wins 140 million pounds in the lottery and becomes a national media sensation. “It’s like a fairy tale,” Des tells his uncle, but it’s actually like a wheezing burlesque show about the crude desires of an ignorant, violent man and London’s appetite for reading about him. Rowdy reporters and paparazzi follow the “Lotto Lout” from brothel to brawl as he storms around in his “shahtoosh dinner jacket (woven from the wool of the chiru, an endangered Tibetan antelope).” His grasping brothers slither in to get their share, but Lionel won’t give them a pence as he enjoys a lunch that costs thousands of pounds, orders a Bentley and moves into a 30-room Gothic mansion built during the 14th century. His crass new girlfriend is a half-silicone creature named “Threnody,” who publishes saccharine poetry and hawks a line of “intimate garmenture.” “Glamour and myself are virtually synonymous,” she tells the Daily Mail.
Don’t low-bred people say the darndest things!? I haven’t laughed so hard since my butler got his head stuck in a bucket.
Even Lionel’s accent is over-mined for comic effect, as though Amis were Henry Higgins shaking his head over Eliza Doolittle’s dialect: “Truck: pronounced truc-kuh (with a glottal stop on the terminal plosive.). . . . ‘Labyrinth’, for instance came out as labyrinf, rather than the expected labyrimf.” A little of this goes a long way (pronounced “a looong way”).
As Amis’s class mockery curdles, we’re left with a misanthropic vision of human suffering compounded by venality and lust. The novel’s meandering middle section has the grating tone of an episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies” sketched on the back of an envelope by England’s finest stylist. If only Amis watched more TV, he’d know from “Roseanne” just how badly things go when a crass lower-class family wins the lottery:
1. Describe an outrageous purchase.
2. Describe a hilarious misunderstanding.
3. Repeat until ratings crash.
The problem is really one of initiative, even effort. In “Super Sad True Love Story,” you could smell Gary Shteyngart sweat as he labored to keep his outrageous satire one step ahead of dismal current events. Here, Amis seems unwilling to exert more effort than it would take to change the channel from “Jersey Shore” to “Half Pint Brawlers.” He’s ambling years behind The Situation and the Kardashians, serving up blanched stereotypes on the silver platter of his prose as though it contained enough spice to entertain or even shock. “You go numb,” Lionel tells his nephew. “Not happy. Not sad. Numb.” Halfway through, persistent readers will feel the same way.
Does any other truly great writer make us wonder whether his brilliant parts are worth the wearisome whole? Almost every page in Lionel Asbo contains an example of Amis’s marvelous style, from “the muscular violence that lies in coiled clouds” to “the unlooked-for prettiness of young wasps” to Lionel dressed as the “supervillain in a risque cartoon.” Hearing the details of his uncle’s sex life, Des “felt that a damp cobweb was being dragged across his face.” And at the end, Amis offers a surprisingly tender portrayal of a new father’s love — a section that echoes the author’s recent statements about the delights of parenthood that he’s rediscovered late in life.
But enduring this frayed satire for these moments of pleasure is a deal only the most devoted Amis fans should accept.