Chris's Reviews > Lionel Asbo: State of England

Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis
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's review
Aug 14, 12

Read from July 29 to August 13, 2012

I can remember watching an interview with Martin Amis where he said the modern phenomenon of literature today is the 'body outliving the talent' (meaning writers aren't dying when they're supposed to - they're living longer and writing worse). Has Martin Amis reached this nadir with his latest, Lionel Asbo? Not exactly, but one does get the impression that the UK's only real remaining 'celebrity' writer is on the wane.

Firstly the title - Lionel Asbo may have been a humorous title five years ago but with the abolishment of asbos and their lack of presence in the news, makes the title feel out of date. And with the presence of the subtitle of 'State of England', Amis is opening himself up to criticism - one of the literary elite looking down from their ivory tower at the council estates rotting in recession. This is not a good viewpoint for social commentary. The imaginary Diston is used as the backdrop - an estate of high rises framing the 'great world city'.

To be fair, the underclass and their associated surroundings is standard Amis fodder. He's been here before in the decadent wasteland of New York (Money), druggy country houses (Dead Babies) and the seedy world of darts and boozers (London Fields). But what sets these settings apart from Lionel Asbo's Diston is their terrific sense of place and time. I couldn't associate with Diston or believe it could exist. But we do get flashes of Amis' literary flourishes. Diston is described as a 'snowfield of shattered glass' with obstacles such as 'smouldering mattresses'.

And the residents? A late thirties Granny obsessed with The Beatles and cryptic crosswords? Please! Has Amis never head of 'grime' music prominent on the estates he tries to recreate in this novel? Unlikely. Has he lived with the people he's writing about? Probably not.

And the characters? Well there's Lionel Asbo, lazily described as 'Wayne Rooney' (surely he can do better than this?). Des Pepperdine, the sensitive orphaned hero of the novel. Grace the gran. Threnody, the lottery win of the girlfriend. Dawn, the live in girlfriend of Des, her parents...the list goes on. But none of these characters are properly developed. None of them realistic and all lazy caricatures of people we read and see in the tabloids. But the narrative flits so quickly through these characters it's difficult to remember who's who and who's doing who...

And what actually happens? Well, Lionel wins the lottery and we see his already excessive behaviour magnified by the nosy glare of the British tabloids. This appears to be the point of the novel - the elevation of fools into rich heroes (yes, I stole that from Bukowski) and the public's obsession with seeing them fall. This is portrayed in the extended metaphor of the mysterious fish tank in Lionel's flat (life in a fish bowl, get it?). And we see Lionel fall as the novel speeds towards its climax.

This is where Amis' skills truly lay. The tension builds towards the latter half as the novel's refrain of 'Who let the dogs in' comes into play. While Des is minding his daughter (another character added to the endless line of them) Lionel's dogs tease and torment him as they loom on the flat's balcony, locked out but hungry for flesh after being dosed up on Tabasco and Special Brew. Someone does let the dogs in and as a result, Lionel's fall from scummy celebrity to just scummy accelerates more than he would have expected.

While there are many positives in this book, one can't help but feel Amis has just missed the mark on this one. By no means a car crash in a career with many swerves and near misses but nowhere near the dizzy heights of the eighties. Martin Amis still has the talent but he needs to prove it quickly. He still has another perfect novel in there and we'll all be waiting for it.
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