Here are a few things we learn about Lionel Asbo in the opening pages of Martin Amis’ new novel:
Lionel was there, a great white shape, leaning on the open door with his brow pressed to his raised wrist, panting huskily, and giving off a faint grey steam in his purple singlet (the lift was misbehaving, and the flat was on the thirty-third floor — but then again Lionel could give off steam while dozing in bed on a quiet afternoon). Under his arm he was carrying a consignment of lager. Two dozen, covered in polythene. Brand: Cobra.
2. The narrator, his 15-year-old nephew and flatmate Des, doesn’t know what Lionel’s trade is but he has a fair idea: “Extortion with Menaces and Receiving Stolen Property were what Lionel most often went to prison for.”
3. Lionel has native intelligence but he does his best to deny it, right down to misleading mispronunciation. His sometime girlfriend Cynthia is known to Lionel as Cymfia. He pronounces ‘myth’ miff and full possessive pronouns like ‘your, their, my’ make only ‘guest appearances’ in his language, the preferred form being as in “Now wolves, they not men’s natural enemy. Oh no. You wolf won’t attack a human” (this by way of explaining the lineage of the dogs who are the “menaces” in his Extortion with Menaces business). And he pronounces his own name Loyonel or even Loyonoo.
4. Lionel received his first Restraining Directive (the precursor to the Baby ASBO — “which (as all the kingdom now knew) stood for Anti-Social Behaviour Order” — at age three years and two days, a national record. He celebrated his coming of age by changing his surname from Pepperdine to Asbo by deed poll on the day of his eighteenth birthday.
That gives you a flavor of the title character; let’s add a brief indicator of young Des. As the book opens, we meet him addressing a letter to Jennaveieve, the Agony Angel/Ecstasy Aunt columnist of the Diston Gazette, the community newspaper in the London neighborhood where he and Uncle Li live. He is seeking advice on the legality of an affair he is having with his Granny Grace — not totally as bad as it might seem at first since Grace had her first child at 12, her last of seven (Lionel) at 19 and now is still only 39. An indication of the nature of the Pepperdine family is that Lionel and her first child (Cilla, Des’ mother) are called “the twins” because they are the only two of the seven who have the same father.
Obviously, Martin Amis, known for pushing the envelope in all his fiction, has gone over the top in this one, if you will permit the mixed metaphor. Slogging a “two-four” up 33 flights? A Restraining Order (for smashing car windows with paving stones) at age three? An affair with your Gran? — the serious nature of which is illustrated by Lionel’s violent distaste for the “Grans I’d Like to Fuck” classified advertising feature in his favorite national tabloid, the Morning Lark (which makes the Sun seem seriously upmarket).
All of that occurs in Part One (of four) of the book. Any notion that the novel might settle down to a “normal” approach is dispelled in the opening of Part Two. Lionel, locked up in Stallwort remand prison along with scores of other relatives and friends after a wedding reception dust-up ended up doing six hundred and fifty thousand pounds of damage to the host hotel, is called to the Governor’s office. A month or so earlier, Lionel had passed on to Des a lottery ticket that he’d filched (he regards the Lottery itself as “a fucking mug’s game”). Des had filled it out and sent it in — the Governor informs Lionel that he has won £139,999,999.50 in the Lottery.
So, for the rest of the novel (there’s close to 200 pages to go), we are dealing with one rich Asbo, perhaps better represented as ASBO, but then Amis loves his word play. I’ve given away enough already (and rest assured it merely supplies a taste of what is to come — there as a large cast of equally strange supporting characters I’ve overlooked) but by now you should have a good idea of whether or not this is a novel for you.I’ll admit to approaching Lionel Asbo with much trepidation. I’ve read a fair bit of Amis’ fiction over the years (you can find reviews of Money (1984) and The Pregnant Widow (2010) on this site) and he is one of those authors whose appeal has been steadily sliding. And the reviews that I had read of Lionel Asbo were anything but promising — The Economist’s conclusion was “rather like flicking through Hello magazine or picking your nose, the rewards are limited.”
So it is a delight to report that, for this reader at least, this novel marks a return to the early form that made Martin Amis rightly famous. Every bit of it is truly over the top, but for good reason. The cover of the UK version that I read has a small label at the bottom reading “State of England” — and Amis (who has been living in New York for several years) has loaded up every satirical weapon he has to yet again take aim at his native country. Unlike some of the recent books where that has become predictably tedious, I like to think that he has deliberately overdone the approach in this one as a pointer to the reader that none of this should be taken too literally — but that perhaps it might be directionally correct (that’s the kind of posh phrase to which Lionel, Loyono, Loyonel, whatever, occasionally soars).
The result of all this was a very fun read, with many out-loud chuckles and a lot of smiles of “dead on there” along the way. I’d offer only one small caveat. By their very nature, satires (especially outrageous ones) are difficult to bring to a close — I found in the last few chapters of Lionel Asbo it helped to be thinking more “thanks for the trip that is approaching its end” rather than “I can’t wait to see where this ends up”. The journey itself was rewarding enough.
(EDIT: The first few comments that I received persuaded me that I should include a copy of the North American cover, which I think reflects the different attitude NA readers might take to the story. Head to comments for more discussion.)