This septic isle
by Martin Amis
About a third of the way through Lionel Asbo, Martin Amis' 13th novel, our titular hero discovers he has won GBP140 million in the National Lottery. Violent, skinheaded, and profoundly criminal, Lionel is in prison for his (central) part in destroying a London hotel.
Later, Lionel (the 'Lotto Lout') exits Wormwood Scrubs prison, pursued by a posse of paparazzi. As the cameras 'flashed and mewed', he bids farewell to the media in his own inimitable fashion. '[He] unleashed a surprisingly cosmopolitan flurry of obscene gestures: the V-sign, the middle finger, the pinkie and the index, the tensed five digits, the thumbnail flicked against the upper teeth; and then he smacked his left hand down on the biceps of his right arm - whose fist shot skywards. Finally, as he bent to enter the car, Lionel reached for his anal cleft and lingeringly freed his underpants.'
It is tempting to read Lionel Asbo as Amis' literary incarnation of Lionel's crude, angry but colourful series of adieux. Rumours are flying that Amis has had it with being English and is relocating to New York. Commentators have already decreed that Lionel Asbo (subtitled State of England) represents Amis waving his anal cleft in the direction of the country that inspired his finest work: The Rachel Papers, Success, Money and London Fields.
The setting is the fictional London borough of Diston, a loveless, dismal place with low life expectancy, and where 'Each thing hostile/To every other thing: at every point/Hot fought cold, moist dry, soft hard, and the weightless/Resisted weight.' The quotation is from Ovid's Metamorphoses, and describes Chaos. In Amis' recasting, this has been made flesh in the body of Lionel, a 24-year-old career criminal who spends more time in jail than in the cramped flat he shares with his young nephew, Des.
Lionel's brushes with the law have metamorphosed him too. He has changed his name from Pepperdine to Asbo. In England, an ASBO is an 'anti-social behavioural order', a piece of legislation intended to address the petty crimes (noise pollution, spitting, vandalism) that often go unnoticed by the criminal justice system.
The joke, or the tragedy, was that an ASBO quickly became a badge of honour for young criminals. Lionel earned his own (or its equivalent) when he was just three. Nurture and environment then conspired with nature to turn him into a self-centred 'great white shape' who menaces everyone he encounters: Des, his youthful mother Grace (a mother five times before she was 20), and his five half-brothers named with absurd tenderness John, Paul, George, Ringo and Stuart (after former Beatle Sutcliffe). Menace is how Lionel trains his pit bull terriers, whom he keeps lean and mean on a diet of strong beer and raw meat marinated in Tabasco sauce.
Apart from dogs, money and violence, Lionel's hobbies include perusing the smut-obsessed local paper, the Morning Lark, obsessing about local stripper Gina, and compulsively using internet porn: 'You don't actually need girls,' he tells Des in a travesty of fatherly advice. 'Girls? They more trouble than they worth if you ask me.'
Amis' portrait verges on base caricature, except that Lionel isn't stupid, exactly. He can meditate with surprising agility on the legal distinction between GBH (grievous bodily harm) and ABH (actual bodily harm). It's just that in Diston, he has no use for intelligence, sensitivity, love, or literature. So he chooses limitation; he chooses stupid.
In this, he is the polar opposite of Des, who provides much-needed light against his uncle's shade. Clever, compassionate and sensitive, Des loves poetry, much to Asbo's disgust: [Des:] 'Poem called The Faerie Queene. [Lionel:] 'The what? ... I despair of you sometimes, Des. Why aren't you out smashing windows? It's not healthy.'
Des wants to go to university, fall in love and engage with life beyond Diston's horizon. But he too is warped by his surroundings and family: as the novel starts, he is 15 years old and embroiled in a tender, but incestuous relationship with his grandmother, Grace.
Like so much in Lionel Asbo, this shock tactic is played uncomfortably as metaphor (introversion) and comedy: when Des writes to a tabloid newspaper's agony aunt asking for help. It is also Amis' major plot device, ratcheting up the tension as the story progresses. Will Lionel find out and take appropriately savage revenge?
These opening exchanges set the tone for Lionel Asbo as a whole. Amis pits the nimble, fizz pop of his high literary style against the low lives of his protagonists: 'Diston, with its burping, magmatic canal, its fizzy low-rise pylons, its buzzing waste. Diston - a world of italics and exclamation marks.'
Amis has played this style versus content game often enough: with John Self in Money, and most memorably Keith Talent in London Fields. But rarely has the brew felt so concentrated, so boiled down with bile. It's as if the two registers are slugging it out in one of Lionel's bare-knuckled bouts for the soul of England. Who will win? The clever or the wilfully thick, the complex or brute simplicity, the global or the parochial? 'You don't want to read the papers, Des,' says Lionel. 'All that's none of your concern.'
For the first half of Lionel Asbo, the culture clash is frequently, startlingly funny. For example, when Des in a moment of almost suicidal recklessness quizzes Lionel about world politics. ' 'Course I know about Iraq,' [Lionel] said ... '9/11, mate. See, Des, on 9/11, these blokes with J-cloths on they heads went and - ' ' Des protests that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. ' 'Des you being very na?ve. See America's top boy. He's the Daddy. And after a f****** liberty like 9/11, well, it's all off, and the Daddy lashes out.' '
As Lionel makes his way from rags to riches - or rather, meshed vest and trainers to riches - the friction wears off and becomes a little enervating. Lionel proves sharp with his money, and pushed into new, broader contexts learns hints of self-consciousness. He takes up with a third-rate, media-savvy glamour model (hilariously named 'Threnody') - not for sex or love, but to create a loveable public image.
Money ought to give Lionel choices, the chance to see the world. But to realise this you need depth, hinterland and ambitions. Lionel has none of these - only a past to repeat, albeit louder, brighter and narrower. Like Faust, he fritters his power away.
Des, by contrast, has the wherewithal to make something of himself: he graduates, falls in love with Dawn, has a child (Cilla) and gets a job as a journalist. But he too is trapped by (and in) Diston, terrified that his dark sexual past will surface like a Lionel-shaped shark's fin. Is this the half-depressing, half-hopeful moral of Amis' novel? You can't run from the violence, booze, tabloids, celebrities, sensation, footballers, scandal, self-attention, smut and stasis (the 'numbness' Lionel calls it), but maybe you can hide, find love, poetry and a real life?
Lionel Asbo will divide readers. On the plus side, Amis' prose is razor-sharp: a sardonic wonder of Anglo-Saxon venom, a cocktail of the vernacular and the literary. It ain't subtle, though, and occasionally Amis' indignation pushes his story dangerously close to tasteless rant.
But, for all the novel's brute savagery, it is driven by the genuine rage of a jilted lover. Amis loves England to distraction. This has inspired his most powerful and memorable novel in an age. What it will do for tourism in 21st-century England is another matter entirely.